Tom Maschler obituary | Books
Tom Maschler, Jonathan Cape’s editor and managing director and architect of the Booker Prize for Fiction, has died at the age of 87.When publishing was stylistically and metaphorically tweedy, he presided over much of his life in a large room with chandeliers at the most famous address in Bloomsbury, 30 Bedford Square. He joined the insane but well-respected publisher as chief editor in 1960, his first purchase of Catch-22 for which he paid £ 250.
“The writers felt touched,” suggested Philippa Harrison, who began her career in publishing as a Cape reader. Her report on First Love, Last Rites (1975) ensured Maschler read the manuscript for the short story collection that marked Ian McEwan’s debut. Harrison believed Maschler was “the best literary publisher in London” in his day. Its authors included Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Martin Amis and Bruce Chatwin, as well as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who put Latin American fiction on the English language map.
Conversely, Maschler’s rejection of an unsuitable bond condemned Barbara Pym to 14 years in the wild after six novels with Cape.
The colleagues remembered Maschler as “very stimulating … an enchanting publisher” with “enormous energy, imagination and drive. He could take people with him. But it was all about him and what he did, and he spoiled his reputation by being mean, “even with writers who were seldom offered proper lunch. In the mid-1970s he preferred a transport café on Gower Street, and in later years sandwiches in the office.
During Maschler’s four decades in the Cape, the publishing house experienced some tectonic changes. The so-called “Hanseatic Alliance”, which began in 1969 with Chatto & Windus, soon included Bodley Head and from 1982 Virago, whose founder Carmen Callil insisted, was awarded the prize for becoming CEO of Chatto.
CVBC, as the group came to be known, enabled each house to maintain its identity while sharing back office functions. There were strong personalities involved, and the chairman, Graham C. Greene, a nephew of the writer, was “diplomatic, kind, polite, kind” – but hesitant to interfere. Maschler was a law of its own, and CVBC appeared to be running in Cape’s favor. Tensions increased along with financial fears.
The problem was resolved in the spring of 1987 when Random House acquired CVBC, the first acquisition of a British publishing group by a US company. The move enriched both men by several million each. The size was not shared with other directors, although some believe it was Callil who made it all happen.
Tom Maschler, third from right, at a party in 1957 to celebrate the publication of the Essay Collection Declaration, which featured Doris Lessing, second from right. Photo: Mirrorpix / Getty Images
Random House UK acquired Century Hutchinson two years later and Gail Rebuck soon presided over the enlarged empire. The era of conglomerate publishing, all the big checkbooks and flash cash had begun.
Like so many publishers of his generation, Tom was an émigré who was born in Berlin to Austrian parents and fled to Vienna in 1938 before coming to Great Britain. His father Kurt Maschler was a publishing house representative in Germany, whose success enabled the acquisition of two publishers – his main author was Erich Kästner, whose Emil and the Detectives series Cape were published in 1931.
The Maschlers would split up shortly. Rita (née Lechner) secured a cleaning job in a large country house near Henley-on-Thames. Mother and son stayed in the coach house. Tom attended the village school, he and his gang scratched apples to sell to the locals.
He won a scholarship to Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading. Before he took his place, Rita sent him to Roscoff, Brittany, to learn French – he returned “reasonably fluent” with the mayor’s family. He won the school’s travel grant and spent a summer in a kibbutz where, thanks to the intercession of the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, of whom he was a member, he went from Marseille to Haifa on a ship on the Israel-Kedmah line.
St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, found his grades not good enough for English, but given his skill in tennis, offered a place in philosophy, politics, and economics. Affected, Maschler refused and decided to travel for three years. He sneaked around the US, making money wherever he could (a tuna canning factory in Los Angeles, construction work in Chicago) and selling items “on the road” to both the Los Angeles and New York Times.
Back home, a tour guide job was lucrative enough to pay for two properties in Primrose Hill, north London. Then came the community service: he opted for the Russian Corps, but three months of square bashing proved unbearable and he went on a hunger strike. When he was taken to a so-called insane asylum, he protested that he was not insane, and his release did not appear to mention any insanity.
Maschler, who had thwarted his ambition to become a film director, overcame his resistance to the publishing industry and in 1955 secured a job with André Deutsch as a production assistant. The next stop was MacGibbon & Kee (1956-58), where he conceived and published Declaration (1957), a collection of essays by leading writers of the time. Among the participants, Lessing gave the young would-be some advice: It would be “good” to read a few books and “try to read a newspaper every day”. The anthology was a success, although Maschler’s self-promoting interviews resulted in a reprimand.
Fortunately, Allen Lane was looking for young blood for Penguin and offered him the post of fiction assistant. Reprint publications were not his dream of fame and he soon proposed a series: New English Dramatists. Another success, but Lane refused to promote it.
Then came an offer to take over the management of Jonathan Cape after the death of its founder of the same name. It was a blue-chip list, and Maschler was asked to continue making annual trips to New York. One of his first assignments was to work with Mary Hemingway on the suitcase full of papers Ernest had left behind. it would be released as A Moveable Feast in 1964.
The episode provided Maschler with the opening line for Publisher (2005): “I was 27 when Hemingway killed himself, and I had just come to Cape.” It set the tone for a much parodied essay in which his motto “when in doubt To claim credit ”seemed to be. What he did for books and authors he had little or nothing to do with: Midnight Children, for example, even though Salman Rushdie had followed his editor, Liz Calder, from Gollancz. Calder was also responsible for acquiring the debuts of Julian Barnes (and his alter ego Dan Kavanagh) and Anita Brookner. In the London Review of Books, John Sutherland stated that the publisher was “dead on arrival,” but acknowledged Maschler’s effectiveness and the loyalty of his authors for him, as well as more general reservations.
Maschler presided over Cape like a colossus. The list was an appeal to some of the great names of the 20th century in fiction, award-winning heavyweights whose British and Commonwealth contenders would routinely wear down the Booker Prize, which he created in 1969 to rival the Prix Goncourt. In addition to literary fiction and non-fiction, Maschler was also a good expert on trade – for example Desmond Morris ‘The Naked Ape (1967), Kit Williams’ Masquerade Treasure Hunt (1979) and Jonathan Miller’s pop-up The Human Body (1983). From John Lennon’s “scribbles” brought to him by journalist Michael Braun, he created two books, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965).
In later years Maschler dealt with the sale of Lennon’s manuscripts as well as with collections of letters and signed first editions of numerous famous authors. He traveled between homes in London and the Black Mountains in Wales, France and Mexico.
A later diagnosis of manic depression may explain his selfish style and what Calder called his “great enthusiasm for weird things.” Nevertheless, Maschler was more admired than liked. Publisher Patrick Janson-Smith, who acquired paperback rights to many Cape titles, viewed him as a “depraved genius with the gift of being a stranger to self-doubt – much like Jeffrey Archer whom he published”.
Maschler was also enthusiastic about children’s books, including Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. He resigned as director of Cape in 1997 and in 2006 a trip to Zambia gave him the idea of taking books for children there on the book bus. He worked with local teachers and volunteers to improve literacy and get children to read.
By 2020 there were six sponsored buses – including Charlie and Matilda, named after Dahl characters – adorned with Blake’s artwork. The operation was expanded to Malawi and Ecuador.
In 1970 he married Fay Coventry and they had three children, Ben, Hannah and Alice. After her divorce in 1987, she continued to work as a restaurant critic for the Evening Standard as Fay Maschler. In 1998 he married Regina Kulinicz, who survived him, together with his children.
• • Thomas Michael Maschler, publisher, born on August 16, 1933; died on October 15, 2020