Tom Maschler

Born: August 16, 1933;

Died: October 15, 2020.

BARABBAS, so the old saw goes, was a publisher. It is certainly a conclusion one might have reached on reading the violent reaction to Tom Maschler’s 2005 memoir, Publisher. In it the author was unstinting in his praise of himself whom he unblushingly described as “Britain’s greatest post-war publisher”.

In a profession in which hyperbole is the lingua franca, Maschler, who has died of heart failure aged 88, was one of its most fluent speakers.

Endowed with an ego the size of the Empire State building, he assembled, as Literature Director of Jonathan Cape, a catalogue of many of the best and most popular writers in the world. Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Patrick White, Edna O’Brien, Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Roald Dahl all appeared under the imprint which was Maschler’s fiefdom.

Over the course of his three-decade long reign at Cape, he published fifteen Nobel literature laureates and was responsible for launching and resuscitating the careers of many others, including Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Anita Brookner, all of whom went on to win the Booker Prize.

The opening sentence of Publisher – “I was 27 when Hemingway killed himself, and had just joined Cape” – proved irresistible to reviewers who felt that Maschler was too keen to take credit for successes that he may have had little hand in.

A cartoon in The Independent depicted him as a leering parasite, while it was pointed out elsewhere that his hospitality extended only to greasy spoons. Not for him – or his scribes starving in garrets– swanky lunches at the Ivy. Nor was he any more generous when offering advances against royalties. Such gripes, however, are hardly unusual in an industry that often operates by the seat of its pants.

When Maschler joined the venerable firm of Cape in 1960 it was in the doldrums and he set about restoring its fortunes with a zealot’s passion. Crucial to its reinvention was Joseph Heller’s debut novel, Catch-22. First published in the United States in 1961, it was not – contrary to general assumption – initially a bestseller. Moreover, as Heller recalled: “There were reviews that were good, a good many that were mixed, and there were reviews that were bad, very bad, almost venomously spiteful.”

But, thanks in no small part to Maschler’s powers of persuasion and promotion, Catch-22 had a much warmer reception on this side of the Atlantic and it was soon sitting atop the bestseller list.

Many more triumphs followed. One such was the posthumous publication of Hemingway’s memoir of Paris in the 1920s, which appeared in 1964. Maschler was one of its main editors and has been blamed for misrepresenting his hero’s intentions.

Another success was John Fowles’ cult classic, The Magus (1966). Non-fiction titles included John Lennon’s In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965), inspired by the Beatle’s love of Spike Milligan, Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967) and Kit Williams’ Masquerade (1979), which required readers to to find a jewelled golden hare which was hidden somewhere in Britain.

Towards the end of the 1960s, concerned with declining sales of literary fiction, Maschler was instrumental in the foundation of the Booker Prize. Though its eponymous sponsor, Booker-McConnell, was principally involved in the sugar trade, it also owned the copyright to the works of Agatha Christie, Denis Wheatley and Ian Fleming, the last-mentioned being a Cape author.

The impact and global influence of the prize was one of Maschler’s proudest achievements.

Thomas Michael Maschler was born on August 16, 1933, in Berlin. Five years later, his father, who owned two publishing firms, removed his Jewish family to Vienna. As the Nazis tightened the noose, the Maschlers abandoned Austria; had they remained they would most likely would have perished in the Holocaust, which was the fate of three of Tom’s grandparents.

When in the 1940s his parents separated, he lived with his mother. It was her idea to send him to Brittany and learn French, where she found a family willing to look after him.

Returning to England, he attended a Quaker boarding school and could have gone to Oxford University but he declined when he learned that the authorities were more interested his athletic ability than his academic promise.

After spending a few years abroad, partly earning a living as a tour guide, he found his métier in publishing, initially at André Deutsch, MacGibbon & Kee and Penguin Books. He stayed at Cape even after it and its sister imprints – Chatto & Windus, Bodley Head and Virago – were bought in 1987 by Random House. The deal made Maschler rich but he continued working, taking a special interest in children’s books.

In 1970 he married Fay Coventry who, as Fay Maschler, became one of the most admired restaurant critics in London. After having three children – Ben, Hannah and Alice – the couple divorced in 1987.

In 1998, he married Regina Kulinicz, a publicist for the Cannes film festival. She survives him, along with his children. Late in life he was diagnosed with manic depression. It explained a lot, not least to Maschler himself who told one interviewer: “It means I can be up and down but I’m flying a bit all the time. There have been periods when it has been no fun at all, but you could also say that my way of flying, which in reality means I am wildly enthusiastic about things, has helped me succeed.”