Tom Maschler

Magical thinking of “reluctant” publisher who founded the Booker Prize


British publisher and writer Tom Maschler (1933 - 2020), UK, 20th May 1966. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

He had a penchant for self-promotion and could never have been accused of modesty but Tom Maschler, who has died aged 87, had plenty of reasons to feel pleased with himself.

A reluctant publisher, he originally set his heart on a career in the film industry but when that didn’t work out he went into book publishing as his father had done before him.

From the beginning his approach was unconventional, showing a flair for tapping into the zeitgeist of the time: one of the first books he published, Declaration, a collection of essays by young writers, was famously inspired by John Osborne’s ground-breaking play, Look Back in Anger.

Maschler’s intention was to give readers an insight into the minds of emerging talent “who may determine our society tomorrow”. His ability for sniffing out a potential bestseller became legendary: he did it with John Lennon, convincing him to do a book of drawings. In His Own Write and its successor, A Spaniard in the Works, were both hugely successful.

Sometimes the inspiration came from a throwaway comment. When he overheard zoologist Desmond Morris talk about “the naked ape” at a party he commissioned him to write what would become an iconic book. Another of his gimmicks that became a huge success was painter Kit Williams’ Masquerade, a picture book that hid clues to find a jewelled rabbit.

Thomas Michael Maschler was the son of Rita Lechner and Kurt Maschler, a publisher’s representative who would later become a publisher himself. In 1938 the Maschlers escaped their native Berlin for safety in Vienna but the rest of the family weren’t so lucky: three of Tom’s grandparents perished in the Holocaust.

The idea of Vienna as a safe haven proved a chimera. The Nazis didn’t let go of Kurt – who besides being Jewish was also a Socialist – and soon caught up with him.

Luckily when they went to arrest him he was away on business but his valuables were confiscated. Tom, who was five at the time, would later claim that the episode didn’t affect him at all.

Austria was clearly not the refuge the Maschlers had hoped for and they made plans to escape to America via Sweden. When that failed, they opted for the UK, where Rita had found a job as a housekeeper on a country estate in Oxfordshire.

Shortly after, she and Kurt divorced and Tom won a scholarship to a Quaker school. When subsequently he was awarded a summer scholarship to a kibbutz in Israel, he managed to secure a passage on a ship sailing from Marseille to Haifa by writing to David Ben Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, who said yes.

It was an early example of the cheekiness and out-of-the-box thinking that would become a hallmark of Maschler the publisher.

However, it didn’t always go Maschler’s way as when, after applying to Oxford, he was offered a place to study philosophy, politics and economics (rather than his choice, English) on the strength of his tennis ability. Offended, he turned it down, choosing instead to travel across America recording his picaresque adventures in a series of travel articles for the New York Times.

Back in Britain, he had a brief but profitable stint as a tour guide before starting his publishing career as a production assistant at André Deutsch in 1955, subsequently moving to MacGibbon & Kee where the success of Declaration brought him to the attention of Allen Lane.

There he almost immediately set out to do his own thing and the series Penguin New Dramatists was the result. The first volume, featuring plays by Arnold Wesker, Doris Lessing and Bernard Kops was a big success selling more than 200, 000 copies. Denied the promotion he felt he deserved, Maschler left for a post as editorial director at Jonathan Cape, barely a month after the death of its founder.

As before, he refused to go with the flow and instead started scouting around for exciting new writers. He got his first best-seller when he convinced his editorial board to publish Catch-22, which had already been dismissed by one of Cape’s readers as “too American”. It cost Cape a bargain £250.

Next Maschler decamped to Idaho to work with the newly widowed Mary Hemingway on the novelist’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. The roll-call of his successes – some of them his own discoveries, others clever acquisitions – reads like a who’s who of contemporary literature: Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Nadine Gordimer, Ian McEwan, to name just a few.

His willingness to take chances paid off handsomely when he acquired five books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude would introduce the English-speaking world to the magic realism of Latin American literature.

But it was his role in establishing the Booker Prize that he was most proud of. In 1969 Maschler convinced food group Booker-McConnell to fund the British equivalent of the French Prix Goncourt literary prize. “The Booker may be the most important thing I’ve ever done,” he would say later.

Maschler who was diagnosed with manic depression later in life, was maddening, according to one of his collaborators, but also stimulating and inspiring. As one of his authors, Ian McEwan, wrote, he “had instinctive good taste and also understood commerce. Over the years, millions of people have read good books in which Maschler had a hand, a big, generous hand at that.”

In 1970 Maschler married Fay Coventry (who, as Fay Maschler, has been the London Evening Standard’s restaurant critic for over 30 years). They divorced in 1987. In 1998 he married Regina Kulinicz. She survives him, as does Fay, together with their three children, Ben, Hannah and Alice.



Thomas Michael Maschler: born August 16, 1933. Died October 15, 2020.

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