Born: May 1, 1931;

Died: February 2, 2021.

THE journalist Auberon Waugh’s first impression of publisher Naim Attallah, who has died aged 89, was that of “a bubbling pixie, full of strange and wild enthusiasms.”

Waugh added: “Articulate and outgoing, he seldom wastes a sentence, although he speaks a lot. His favourite word is ‘wonderful’. On the few occasions when things are not wonderful, he scowls and goes into an angry speech until the matter is cleared up, and then he finds something new which is wonderful to laugh about.”

Waugh met Attallah through his daughter, Sophie, who, by her own account, was a member of the fabled “Naim’s harem”. Others included Nigella Lawson, Emma Soames, Anna Pasternak and Rebecca Fraser. The “beloved”, as they were invariably addressed, were well-connected, strikingly beautiful and smart young women for whom partying was a way of life.

Paid a pittance to work in what Muriel Spark lampooned as “the world of books”, they were to be seen once the sun was over the yardarm in places where celebrities congregate. Attallah, who dropped names as some do their inhibitions when drunk, was never happier than when in such company.

Bald-headed, big-eared, dressed in lizard-skinned shoes, his fingers jewel-encrusted, he was a chandelier in a profession increasingly illuminated by strip lights. Nothing dimmed his desire to draw attention to himself. Private Eye mocked him mercilessly, calling him “Naim Attallah-Disgusting”, but it was all water off a duck’s back. For him, there was no such thing as bad publicity.

He arrived in Britain in 1949 and had numerous menial jobs. Much mystery surrounded the source of his wealth. A Christian Palestinian from Haifa, it is believed he made his first fortune by playing the currency rates after which he diversified into property.

Thereafter, he rose to run Asprey’s, the luxury goods and jewellery business, in which capacity, in 1991, he acquired Mappin and Webb. After twenty-one years, he and Asprey’s parted company, an episode Attallah detailed with considerable bitterness in his book, Fulfilment and Betrayal, 1975-1995.

Publishing offered him a suitably glamorous alternative to the gem trade. He founded Quartet Books, where he built a list that was as quixotic as it was exotic. For every upscale title by a Julian Barnes or a Rysard Kapuściński there were others less high-minded: Jungle Fever (photographs featuring Grace Jones in sado-masochistic mode), Chastity in Focus (a “celebration of Janet Reger”) and, most successfully, Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex.

More than a few of the soft-porn titles published by Attallah riled feminists but even they were impressed (and dumbfounded) when he launched The Women’s Press, whose logo, an iron, symbolised the oppression of women down the ages. Overtly political, as opposed to the more literary Virago Press, The Women’s Press also championed black and Third World women’s writing.

In 1983, it scored a coup with the British edition of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Four years later, however, Attallah tested his new-found admirers by publishing Naked London, in which titled women wore only their blushes.

By then, Attallah had become owner of the monthly Literary Review. Founded in 1979 by the Edinburgh academic and novelist Anne Smith, its aim was to write about books free of university gobbledygook.

Auberon Waugh became its fourth editor in 1986, remaining there for fourteen years. Though it lost Attallah an estimated £2.5 million over the course of his stewardship, the Review offered untold networking opportunities. Though often irreverent in tone – among Waugh’s innovations was the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award – it was not without its serious side, including a section tagged “Oppression”, which highlighted abuses around the world.

Among his many other business ventures, Attallah founded The Oldie, edited by Richard Ingrams, which sought to counteract the obsession with youth culture.

Attallah was eager himself to enter the ranks of authorship. In 1987, he produced Women, a subject close to his heart. Running to well in excess of 1,000 pages, it comprised interviews with over 300 famous women whom he quizzed at length on life, lust and love.

While Attallah did the interviews, much of the leg-work for the opus was done by Jennie Erdal, one of his protégés. Based in Scotland, she had been in charge of Quartet’s Russian list and became his literary collaborator. Over more than a decade and a half, as she recalled in her 2004 memoir, Ghosting, she wrote book reviews, newspaper columns, innumerable letters – including love letters – and two novels all in Attallah’s name.

In addition, as she confessed, she “ghosted beliefs that he did not hold, feelings that he did not feel, I even invented parts of his life story that he took as his own and was later moved by. But my real job was to protect his self-delusions, and he could never admit – even to himself – that he, the author, was not the writer.”

Erdal’s betrayal wounded Attallah, who referred to their collaboration as an “unholy alliance”. For him, loyalty was all. In his last book, Memories: The Charms and Follies of a Lifetime’s Publishing (2020), numerous former harem members testified in his favour and wrote warmly of his eccentricity and generosity.

He was married in 1957 to Maria Nykolyn, an interior decorator, with whom he had a son, Ramsay. Nykolyn died in 2016. In 2017, Attallah was appointed CBE for services to literature and the arts.