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'One disaster after another': working with André Deutsch

Diana Athill - Writer

[Q] Can you say a bit more about him? You know, his personality and character and what first drew you to him. And also, I wonder… I mean, was it important that you started off by being lovers, or what? I mean, you were…

No, that was a very minor thing, really. I mean, just… we got to know each other that way, and we became quite good friends, and he sort of obviously spotted that I would be quite interested in… I mean, I was very interested in books. I had read a lot. I'd read English at Oxford, for what that was worth, but I'd read a lot. And I had really quite good judgement of books. But it was guesswork… actually he was very bad, actually, at choosing people. I mean, the moves he made… because he was always… if he wanted a very forceful salesman, the next man who he met, was that, because he wanted it.

If he wanted a sensitive editor, the next person he met was a sensitive editor. Well, I was, in fact, quite a sensitive editor, but it was bloody lucky for him I was, because I easily might not have been. But what he wanted, he instantly thought he'd got. And it would be no good at all… he was pig-headed. You would say to him, 'But look, darling, there's no… this man's never been anywhere near producing books before. He hasn't got a clue.' 'Oh, he's wonderful, he's got a flair, he's got intelligence, he's got this'… disaster after disaster, we had. But we always survived them. I mean, a good percentage of people were alright. But, I mean, we had a wonderful man once who… he brought him all the way from Australia to be our sales manager. We didn't have a sales manager to begin with. I mean, André… when André was being the sales manager, he did it very well. But then he decided we must now… we'd reached the point where we could have a sales manager. And he'd been to Australia on a trip. He realised quickly… he had a great sense of publishing… that we'd got to go to America, we'd got to go to Australia, we'd got to sort of get a feel of international publishing. And he met this chap in Australia and he imported him, and he arrived, and he did seem a bit, sort of, peculiar. Very peculiar, really. And after about a month, he didn't appear in the office for about three days. And we knew he'd been living in a hotel, so André and I drove around to the hotel to find out what had happened to him. And we asked after him, and the receptionist said in respectful tones, 'Oh, the Colonel has left for Berlin'. We said, 'The Colonel'? The Colonel had left for Berlin. We never knew. Was he really a colonel who'd been pretending to be a publisher, or was he a publisher who thought he was a colonel? Had he really gone to Berlin? He vanished. We never saw him after that.

[Q] Can you tell me about Louise? I think, as an example of the sort of people that…

Yes, well, she, bless her heart… of course she wasn't called that, and I won't reveal her name. He'd met her in New York, and what she'd been doing in New York, she'd been working in Tiffany's as a public relations person. And he came back and he said he'd found this lovely girl and she was going to be organising all… not just organising publicity, but she was going to be organising the sort of method. She was going to make an… we're not… we weren't going to be, sort of, hand-to-mouth anymore, there was going to be a system. She was going to organise a system.

He said, 'And you've all got to obey her. I'm going to obey her.' And then this figure appeared. I must say, she was very pretty, very elegant. And very New York. She was… sort of, could… whatever she put on looked extremely expensive and smart. And so I thought, 'Well, I better obey her'. We were all looking at her with great hostility, as you can imagine. But she looked very charming, so I thought, 'Well, I better do my stuff, so I'll ask to take her out to lunch'. Took her out to lunch, and we hadn't got halfway through lunch before the dear thing told me the reason why she'd accepted this job: she was in love with Ken Tynan, who she'd met in New York. Did I think that perhaps she'd made a mistake following him over or not? Well, I thought she was pretty well bound to have made a very bad mistake indeed, but I couldn't quite tell her that. But she had, of course, made a terrible mistake, so she was all heartbroken. But she was completely and utterly useless, but she had a… she came on with incredible confidence. You could meet her at a dinner party, and you would instantly think she could cope with anything. But when she was actually working, and we only discovered after she left, when she was, for instance, after a meeting about how we were going to promote a book, and we said, 'Well Louise was going to send out copies to X, Y and Z for preliminary quotations', she put all the copies down behind the radiator. She hadn't sent them out at all. She… meanwhile, of course, she was having a completely broken heart, and I was having to try and cope with her. She came and stayed with me for a bit. Floods of tears. Of course, awful Ken, I think, had no interest in her at all, really, and been very unkind. And I've always remembered. She said, 'Oh, Diana, you've been through this. How long does it… how long does it last?' Meaning heartbreak. And I thought, well, I could tell her, it's cheering up, really, that you really only felt very, very bad for about two years. 'Two years!', she said, and fell on the bed, because she was only 26, so two years seemed to her forever. Poor, poor girl. And she then took her… pulled herself together, and she then had a sort of cheering up affair with someone. And she instantly got pregnant. I mean, she was a disaster, a disaster area.

[Q] At some point, I suppose, you had to get rid of people.

Well, we… you see, André never could, but we were frightfully lucky, yeah. Tom Maschler met her at a dinner party, and she presented herself as she always did, as so effective, and Tom rang up André, and said, 'André, I've got a terrible confession to make. I've poached your lovely girl.' And André said, 'I hope I didn't sound too thrilled'. And she went. And all these awful disasters about getting pregnant and having to be sent back to New York and everything, happened after that. I mean, I was still looking after her, because she'd sort of fallen into my lap, as it were. But she was not working for us anymore after that. I saw her since, in New York, and she always was going from strength to strength, and then always some terrible disaster. But she always came out of her disasters.

[Q] When you said she came to stay with you for a while, was that here?

No, that was… no. Yes it was, the second time. It was here. There was a… I moved… it was just before I was moving here. She actually came to stay here for a bit.

[Q] The reason I ask is because I mean this flat has seen perhaps more than its fair share of...of…

Drama. Yes. She was a wonderful girl. I hope she's alright now. She'd be quite an old woman by now.

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