THE term role model had not reached this blasted heath when publisher Stephanie Wolfe Murray was in her prime, but she had no need of a label. To one fresh out of university, she was the epitome of a successful woman: effortlessly glamorous, unself-conscious, full of energy and spark. It would have been impossible to emulate her, of course, because her brilliance and charisma came from being entirely original. Co-founder of Canongate Books, she was as gifted an editor, shepherding Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and other classics into print, as she was a driver, steering a car while drinking tea from a cup and saucer.

There will never be anyone remotely like her, and her death, at the age of 76, robs us of a most talented, graceful and remarkable individual. As obituaries have recorded, she was an inventive businesswoman, skilful negotiator and incorrigible optimist. To those like me who knew her only a little, she was also unchangeable: always interested in other people, discussing ideas and projects, profoundly kind, generous, and shrewd.

My husband has never forgotten a supper in her Edinburgh house. Conversation was flowing when the window to her first-floor kitchen was thrown up and Angus, her then-estranged husband, climbed into the room. He greeted the company, helped himself to a whisky, and departed the way he came. “Would anybody like dessert?” Stephanie asked. Once, when she was cooking for a large group, I watched in dismay as the saddle of lamb proved too big for the oven. She tied the handle with string, but still there was a gap, which she propped shut – near enough – with a log. Dinner was now a very distant and perhaps lethal prospect.

Such anecdotes about Stephanie abound. They serve not to show her foibles but to highlight why she was such an inspirational figure: unpretentious, spontaneous, her mind filled with the things that mattered. There could hardly be a more impressive figure in the literary world, yet her achievements were matched by her modesty. To meet her – stylishly bohemian, broad-minded, and vigorously uncorporate – was to recognise that there are many ways to the top.

You can safely assume that the route she blazed in creating the most exciting Scottish publishing house of the later 20th century was accidental. Archaeologists could never have unearthed a spreadsheet or cash-flow projection in her ramshackle office, even though finances dominated every decision. Instead, Stephanie made a name by always being true to herself, grasping opportunities the minute they came into sight, and working as many hours as the week offered. All this, while raising four sons.

Even now, it is hard to think of many who have made such an impact, and left such an abundance of rosy memories and friends. From 1973 to 1992, when she was at Canongate’s helm, the publishing industry – indeed most of the world – was still largely run by men. One suspects that by never trying to emulate the way they work, she found a way that suited her. It takes confidence, steel and resilience to become as influential as she did. To achieve that, without losing an iota of charm or warmth, is rare. One reason, perhaps, why there were so few notable role models for my generation was that the demeanour of women who reached the upper echelons, be it in the arts or science or politics, was not very appealing. To an extent that remains the case.

Until recently, women have not been taught that they can aspire to do anything they wish. One of the hidden assets of that lamentable outlook is that those who made their own way regardless of low expectations were not drilled in the conventional, predictable, dreary rules of the working world. For boys and young men, age-old wisdom has been both a short-cut and a straitjacket. The tried and tested methods of climbing the ladder – which university to go to, how to dress, which clubs to join – have eased the passage for privileged millions. For some, however, this narrow ascent has been purgatory, stifling creativity, ability and flair.

It would be dreadful if the same were true for young women today. In this era of proud individualism, there is surely no need for rigid conformism. As more women find themselves in eminent positions, it would be to their – and everyone’s – advantage if they looked to those like Stephanie for inspiration. Her unintentional, occasionally erratic and glittering career is a lesson in thinking things out for yourself, approaching problems with imagination, and bringing a fresh, humane and dogged perspective to an old trade.

In essence, personality and intelligence are the key. These, Stephanie had in abundance. Unlike some who excel, she did so at no-one’s expense, but to the great and lasting benefit of us all.