Tom Maschler obituary

Liz Thomson
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Sutton Hibbert/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Sutton Hibbert/Rex/Shutterstock

Tom Maschler, publisher and managing director of Jonathan Cape and the architect of the Booker prize for fiction, has died aged 87. A glamorous, perma-tanned figure with aquiline features and unruly hair, who dressed in brightly coloured shirts and sweaters at a time when publishing was stylistically and metaphorically tweedy, he presided for much of his life from a grand, chandeliered room at the most celebrated address in Bloomsbury, 30 Bedford Square. He joined the fusty but esteemed publishing house in 1960 as editorial director, his first buy Catch-22, for which he paid £250.

“Authors felt they’d been touched,” suggested Philippa Harrison, who started her career in publishing as a Cape reader. Her report on First Love, Last Rites (1975) ensured that Maschler read the manuscript for the short story collection that marked Ian McEwan’s debut. Harrison believed that Maschler was in his day “the very best literary publisher in London”. His authors included Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, Martin Amis and Bruce Chatwin, plus Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, who put Latin American fiction on the English-speaking map.

Conversely, Maschler’s rejection of An Unsuitable Attachment condemned Barbara Pym to 14 years in the wilderness, following six novels with Cape.

Colleagues remembered Maschler as “very stimulating … a galvanising publisher” of “enormous energy, imagination and drive. He could carry people with him. But it was all about him, and what he was doing, and he spoiled his reputation by being mean,” even with authors, who were rarely offered a proper lunch. In the mid-70s, he favoured a transport cafe off Gower Street, in later years sandwiches in the office.

During Maschler’s four decades at Cape, the publishing house experienced some tectonic shifts. The so-called “Hanseatic alliance” that began in 1969 with Chatto & Windus soon embraced Bodley Head and, from 1982, Virago, which its founder, Carmen Callil, insisted was the price for her becoming managing director of Chatto.

CVBC, as the group became known, allowed each house to retain its identity while sharing back-office functions. There were strong personalities involved, and the chairman, Graham C Greene, a nephew of the novelist, was “diplomatic, benign, courteous, kind” – but reluctant to interfere. Maschler was a law unto himself, with CVBC seemingly run for the benefit of Cape. Tensions mounted along with financial anxieties.

The problem was resolved in spring 1987 when Random House acquired CVBC, the first purchase of a British publishing group by a US company. The move enriched both men by several million apiece. The largesse was not shared with fellow directors, even though some believe it was Callil who made the whole thing happen.

Bill Hopkins, John Wain, Lindsay Anderson, Tom Maschler, Doris Lessing and Kenneth Tynan at a party
Tom Maschler, third from right, at a party in 1957 to celebrate the publishing of the essay collection Declaration, which featured Doris Lessing, second from right. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Two years later, Random House UK acquired Century Hutchinson, Gail Rebuck soon presiding over the enlarged empire. The era of conglomerate publishing, all big chequebooks and flash cash, had begun.

Like so many publishers of his generation, Tom was an émigré, born in Berlin to Austrian parents who in 1938 fled to Vienna before coming to Britain. His father, Kurt Maschler, was a publisher’s rep in Germany whose success enabled the acquisition of two publishing houses – his star author was Erich Kästner, whose Emil and the Detectives series Cape published in 1931.

The Maschlers would shortly separate. Rita (nee Lechner) secured a housekeeping job in a large country house near Henley-on-Thames, mother and son accommodated in the coach house. Tom attended the village school, he and his gang scrumping apples to sell to the locals.

He won a scholarship to Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading. Before taking up his place, he was despatched by Rita to Roscoff, in Brittany, to learn French – billeted with the mayor’s family, he returned “reasonably fluent”. He went on to win the school’s travel scholarship and spent a summer on a kibbutz, working his passage from Marseille to Haifa on a ship of the Israel-Kedmah line thanks to the intercession of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to whom he had written.

St Edmund’s College, Oxford, thought his marks not good enough for English but, considering his prowess at tennis, offered a place for philosophy, politics and economics. Affronted, Maschler declined, opting to spend three years travelling. He thumbed his way around the US, earning money where he could (a tuna cannery in Los Angeles, construction in Chicago) and selling “on the road” pieces to both the Los Angeles and New York Times.

Back home, a job as a tour guide was lucrative enough to pay for two properties in Primrose Hill, north London. Then came national service: he chose the Russian Corps but three months of square-bashing proved intolerable and he went on hunger strike. Shipped off to what was then called a lunatic asylum, he protested that he was not mad, and his discharge apparently made no mention of insanity.

Thwarted in his ambition to be a film director, Maschler overcame his resistance to publishing and in 1955 secured a job at André Deutsch as a production assistant. Next stop was MacGibbon & Kee (1956-58), where he conceived and published Declaration (1957), a collection of essays from leading writers of the day. Among the contributors, Lessing offered some advice to the young wannabe: it would be “a good thing” to read some books, and to “try to read a newspaper a day”. The anthology was a success, though Maschler’s self-promoting interviews led to a reprimand.

Happily, Allen Lane was seeking young blood for Penguin and offered him the post of assistant fiction editor. Reprint publishing was not his dream of glory and he soon suggested a series: New English Dramatists. Another success, but Lane refused to promote him.

Then came an offer to take over the reins of Jonathan Cape after the death of its eponymous founder. It was a blue-chip list and Maschler was told to continue the annual trips to New York. One of his first assignments was to work with Mary Hemingway on the trunkful of papers that Ernest had left behind; it would be published in 1964 as A Moveable Feast.

The episode provided Maschler with the opening line for Publisher (2005): “I was 27 when Hemingway killed himself, and I had just joined Cape.” It set the tone for a much-parodied memoir, in which his guiding mantra appeared to be “when in doubt claim credit”. Which he did, for books and authors with which he had little or nothing to do: Midnight’s 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 declared that Publisher was “dead on arrival”, but acknowledged Maschler’s effectiveness and the loyalty his authors had for him, as well as more widely held reservations.

Maschler presided over Cape like a colossus, the list a roll-call of some of the 20th century’s great names in fiction, prize-winning heavyweights whose British and Commonwealth contenders would routinely carry off the Booker prize he had created in 1969 to rival the Prix Goncourt. But, in addition to literary fiction and nonfiction, Maschler was a dab hand at commerce – for example Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), Kit Williams’s Masquerade treasure hunt (1969) and Jonathan Miller’s pop-up The Human Body (1983). From John Lennon’s “doodles”, brought to him by the journalist Michael Braun, he created two books, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965).

In later years Maschler was occupied with sales of Lennon’s manuscripts, along with collections of letters and signed first editions by scores of illustrious authors. He travelled between homes in London and the Black Mountains in Wales, France and Mexico.

A late-life diagnosis of manic depression perhaps accounts for his egomaniacal style, and what Calder called his “terrific enthusiasms for strange things”. Still, Maschler was more admired than liked. The publisher Patrick Janson-Smith, who acquired paperback rights to many Cape titles, regarded him as “a tainted genius with the gift of being a stranger to self doubt – rather like Jeffrey Archer, whom he published”.

Maschler was also passionate about children’s books, Cape’s list including Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, among others. He stepped down as a director of Cape in 1997, and in 2006 a trip to Zambia gave him the idea for the Book Bus to bring books to children there, working with local teachers and volunteers to increase literacy and get children reading.

By 2020, there were six sponsored buses – including Charlie and Matilda, named after Dahl characters – adorned with Blake’s artwork, the operation having expanded to Malawi and Ecuador.

In 1970 he married Fay Coventry, and they had three children, Ben, Hannah and Alice. Following their divorce in 1987, she continued as restaurant critic for the Evening Standard, as Fay Maschler. In 1998, he married Regina Kulinicz, who survives him, along with his children.

• Thomas Michael Maschler, publisher, born 16 August 1933; died 15 October 2020