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Obituary: Lord Weidenfeld

A life of power and seduction

    With Barenboim and the conductor’s wife, Elena Bashkirova, Beirut 1991
    With Barenboim and the conductor’s wife, Elena Bashkirova, Beirut 1991

    Formidable thinker, supreme networker, astute businessman and much-married great seducer: Lord Weidenfeld who died on Wednesday aged 96 was a multi-dimensional character whose charm and intellectual curiosity helped him become a force in publishing and a friend of the great and the good.

    Even after he became a favourite with - and part of - the British establishment, he revelled in the freedom that being an outsider gave him.

    He never let ideology - or religion, for that matter - shackle him: a firm believer in bridge-building, he was friends with both Labour and Conservatives. And although proud of his Jewish roots and a committed Zionist, he still managed to be close to Pope John Paul II.

    Arthur George Weidenfeld was born in Vienna, the only child of well-to-do parents. He read law at the University of Vienna and at the same time attended the Consular Academy, a sort of diplomatic college where he learnt four or five foreign languages, which would turn out to be a lifeline.

    In 1938, with the Nazis in power and his father in jail, he left for Britain with the grand sum of 16 shillings and sixpence in postal orders.

    His luck changed dramatically after his prowess with languages got him a job with the BBC as a monitor.

    The last three years of the war saw him in the role of roving diplomatic correspondent for Europe, reporting on the freedom movements of occupied Europe.

    One of these movements was the Zionist Organisation, which is how he got to befriend Chaim Weizmann and became his chief of cabinet.

    Weidenfeld was very young, didn't speak any Hebrew and had no political experience but, as would happen again and again in his career, being an outsider worked for him.

    There was a problem, though: a year earlier, in 1948, Weidenfeld had started, together with Harold Nicolson's son, Nigel, a publishing company, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. So he promised to return after a year in Israel.

    Weidenfeld helped the fledgling state of Israel establish itself. His wartime experience at the BBC came in useful when he mounted a propaganda campaign, Operation Jerusalem, to persuade the United Nations that the city should remain in Israeli hands.

    Back in London and in charge of W&N, he decided to play to his strengths - his European languages and contacts, which were instrumental in procuring General de Gaulle's memoirs but also Albert Speer's book, Inside the Third Reich.

    What was perceived as a fascination with Nazi Germany - he also published the autobiography of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss - led to criticism.

    His answer to that was that these books were "important historical documents providing irrefutable evidence of the Nazi regime".

    His intellectual curiosity never waned, even well into his 90s.

    He said: "The older I am, the more I think of the future. I can't afford to sit back because I won't be there."

    And sit back he never did: although he sold W&N to the Orion Publishing Group in 1991, he remained chairman. He founded the Institute for Strategic Dialogue to broker meetings between political and cultural leaders. He also wrote regular columns for German and US newspapers.

    Weidenfeld was chairman of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, governor of Tel Aviv University, governor of the Weizmann Institute, vice-chairman of the EU-Israel Forum, and Trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

    He was knighted in 1969 and created a life peer in 1976, taking the title Baron Weidenfeld of Chelsea.

    Recently, feeling that not enough was being done to help Syrian Christians fleeing violence in the Middle East, he set up a scheme, the Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, to support them.

    He was married to Jane Sieff, Barbara Skelton and Sandra Peyson. He is survived by his fourth wife, Annabelle Whitestone and daughter Laura.

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