Ground-breaking publisher, co-founder of the Traverse and leading figure at the Edinburgh festival

Born: January 25, 1927;

Died: August 13, 2018

JOHN Calder, who has died aged 91, was an intrepid international publisher who worked in London, Edinburgh and Paris. He formed a particularly close friendship with Samuel Beckett whose prose-texts he published in Britain after the success of Beckett’s defining play Waiting for Godot in 1965.

Calder was also the first publisher in the UK of William S Burroughs, the author of the Beat Generation. Calder had the knack of choosing innovative authors such as Marguerite Duras and Hubert Selby Jr, whose ground-breaking Last Exit to Brooklyn caused a sensation. Calder was invariably courageous in his choice of authors and delighted in being the scourge of the literary establishment.

In Scotland he is best remembered for co-founding the Traverse theatre and the Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh Festival of 1962. For the latter he gathered an array of some of the great literary figures of the era. Burroughs, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller came from America while Muriel Spark, Hugh MacDiarmid, Rebecca West and Lawrence Durrell represented Britain.

The conference filled the McEwan Hall for five days and the subjects varied – there was a lengthy debate on censorship – Calder making it clear there were no restrictions on subject matter, however controversial. It caused quite a stir and Calder told The Herald on the last day that, “The conference was an experience in adult education. We succeeded because there is a great hunger for education and for an understanding of the world we inhabit."

It was such a success that Kenneth Tynan and Calder organised a Drama Conference the following year. Again a cast of eminent people of the theatre (Lilian Helmann, Arnold Wesker, Peter Brook etc) was assembled and healthy debate ensued. Alas, on the last day a nude model was wheeled across the organ gallery on a trolley. Lord Provost Weatherstone called it a squalid little incident. Outrage ensued and there were no more such conferences.

During the second conference Calder inherited Ledlanet, a mansion in Perthshire. He decided to develop the venue as an arts centre and mounted in 1963 the Ledlanet Nights festival. Such stars as Geraint Evans and Josephine Barstow gave recitals along with Calder's second wife, the soprano Bettina Jonic. Exhibitions were held and although the hall only sat 200, the festival became, for a decade, a welcome fixture in the Scottish arts calendar.

Indeed, the artist Richard Demarco can remember visiting Ledlanet often and exhibited some of his works there. “I knew John well from the early days of the Traverse. We were both founding directors and he was hugely influential in those early years,” he told The Herald. “John was a great patron of the arts in Scotland and brought a definite intellectual rigour to all the arts. I used to take my summer school students to Ledlanet and John would passionately discuss the arts with them. To be in his company was, quite simply, invigorating.”

John Mackenzie Calder was the first son of James Calder who was a member of a prominent Alloa brewing family. Calder was evacuated to Canada at the outbreak of the Second World War and was educated by tutors. After his father’s death in 1944 he studied economics at Zurich University. While waiting to take his finals he met a Hollywood starlet named Christya Myling and they began a passionate affair. They were married in London in 1954 but were divorced in 1961.

By 1953 Calder had become a publisher of opera books and, briefly, the popular film magazine Sight and Sound. He also formed a close business friendship with Maurice Girodias, the Paris-based publisher, who introduced Calder to Samuel Beckett in 1955. At their first meeting, Calder recalled, “we talked about life, its pointlessness, the cruelty of man to man" and Calder subsequently published Beckett’s early novel Murphy, Malloy and Malone Dies. Their friendship endured until Beckett's death in 1989.

Calder throughout his publishing career displayed foresight and courage. For example, he published Miller's graphic sexual novel Tropic of Cancer, which every other UK publishing house had turned down. He also published Alexander Trocchi's controversial Cain's Book, an account of heroin addiction, and Burroughs's drug-fuelled beatnik trilogy The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded.

Calder was often summoned to court. He lost obscenity trials over Cain’s Book and Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn but on the latter Calder was vindicated on appeal.

In the 1970s his reputation as a publisher was tarnished when his partner in the business, Marion Boyars, became disenchanted over their professional relationship and there followed a protracted dispute over royalties from their clients. At the same time Calder’s second marriage was heading for the divorce court which ended in a costly settlement. Later, a US distributor confiscated Calder's stock and some authors joined other publishers. In 1979 he had to sell his beloved Ledlanet.

John Calder was a publisher like few others in Britain today. The website for Calder Publications boasts, "Publishers of the most significant literature of the 20th century". Over the course of 50 years he made and lost fortunes, supported some firebrand authors and championed such greats as Beckett, Miller and Burroughs with total commitment and enthusiasm.

Calder’s first two marriages were dissolved. He married Sheila Colvin, the genial former associate director of the Edinburgh Festival, in 2011. She and a daughter from each of his previous marriages survive him.