- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005


By Philip Ziegler

Carroll & Graf, $26, 340 pages, illus.


A busy English publisher encounters a beloved old schoolmaster at a London dinner party in the mid-1950s. When the old man bemoans the fact that no one writes letters anymore, particularly to him, the publisher, Rupert Hart-Davis, accepts the challenge, shoulders the duty, and then makes of it for the next seven years one of the most delightful of correspondences.

The old Eton schoolmaster, George Lyttleton, now retired to the countryside, is the more ruminative of the two, often drawing on books for fodder as he pens the weekly epistle. Hart-Davis is more concerned with the contemporary books he is or is not publishing and has a busy and not uncomplicated life with a wife and two children and a serious mistress (whom he will later marry) integral to his professional personal life in London. But it is not only the fact that his life is the more interesting of the two that makes his side of “The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters” more compelling. Rather it is the voice — authoritative, thoughtful, sensible but always sensitive, amazingly articulate — that speaks so engagingly to the reader, much as it did to the old gent in his cottage as he opened the much-awaited weekly envelope.

Not the least virtue of Philip Ziegler’s intelligent, elegant biography of Sir Rupert Hart-Davis (he was knighted in 1967 for services to publishing) is that it clues us in to the history, nature and character of the man who could so gracefully take on a chore as an act of kindness and then transform it into a valuable intellectual and literary enterprise. Sir Rupert was born to an aristocratic, promiscuous mother whom he adored and who dominated him until her premature death when he was barely out of his teens.

He did not know who his biological father was but was convinced (with some, if not total, reason) that it could not have been his mother’s husband. Although this situation is often thought to be fertile ground for the breeding of homosexuals, Hart-Davis was a lifelong heterosexual, even in the adolescent hothouse atmosphere of an English public school. Mr. Ziegler is adept at negotiating the psychological and social minefields in his subjects’ lives and begins this biography with admirable panache combined with a skeptical wisdom which will stand him in good stead throughout the book: “Rupert Hart-Davis hated his father and was in love with his mother; circumstances no doubt reassuringly familiar to the psychologist but calculated to inspire caution in even the most intrepid of biographers.”

ButIntrepid is certainly an adjective one can apply to this most excellent and punctilious of biographers. Philip Ziegler has crammed several careers into the seven and a half decades of his life so far: After serving as a British diplomat in a fascinating quartet of world capitals — Paris, Vientiane, Bogota and Pretoria — he headed a large London publishing company. But nowhere has his achievement been greater than in the field of biography. Whether he is carrying out an official commission to chronicle the mega-famous, such as Edward VIII or Lord Mountbatten, or exploring the lives of more minor figures like Osbert Sitwell or Lady Diana Cooper, Mr. Ziegler is never less than masterly. He manages to be equally at ease in the corridors of power and the boudoir, at the desk and on the battlefield. Always knowledgeable but never didactic, understanding but never condescending, he is in fact the model biographer.

In the case of Rupert Hart-Davis, Mr. Ziegler has found a particularly palatable subject. As one who has worn many hats himself, he can appreciate Hart-Davis’ juggling act that permitted him to find time to be executor and biographer (of Hugh Walpole) and a sympathetic editor of Siegfried Sassoon’s diaries and Oscar Wilde’s letters. Obviously fond of his onetime colleague in the world of publishing but not an intimate friend, Mr. Ziegler combines inside knowledge of his subject’s world with just the right degree of disinterest: He has no axes to grind.

So when it comes to Sir Rupert’s four wives, this biographer can see the faults of each just as he can see what made their husband fall in (and on the first two occasions at least, out) of love with them. And Mr. Ziegler is sharply insightful about his relationship with his mother, able to choose a few words from each to encapsulate this formative connection: “Only when Rupert was home for the holidays did she find country life tolerable. She bewailed her condition in letters to her son: ‘I do wish I could get myself into better spirits. This sort of heavy depression is so dreadful and I can’t shake it off much.’ ‘You are beautiful and brilliant,’ Rupert stoutly reassured her, ‘and you are certainly adored by all and sundry. Your health will soon be right as right, when I take charge of you… . I do love you so.’”

Mr. Ziegler is as sympathetic and understanding about Hart-Davis’ youthful involvement with the theatrical world as he is about his own field of publishing. (It was while Rupert was a young actor that he became engaged first to the actress Celia Johnson and then to her colleague Peggy Ashcroft, who briefly became his first wife.) But it is certainly true that when the biographer chronicles the singular story of this most independent and original of publishers, his intimate knowledge of the ins and outs, the personalities and problems, of publishing make his analysis unusually informed and valuable.

Even in a time when publishing seemed to be a more gentlemanly and less crass profession than it is now, Rupert Hart-Davis stood out. Blithe about money almost to the point of irresponsibility, consistently under-capitalized, and resolute in his determination to be guided by his own — mostly good — taste alone, he insisted on doing things his way. Indeed, such compromises as he was prepared to undertake — for instance, his association with the American publisher William Jovanovich — were generally entered into solely in order to allow him to continue pursuing his independent course. Mr. Ziegler demonstrates brilliantly both the glories and limitations of this policy: what he was able to achieve because of it and what he was not, the latter largely because of his inability to pay out the large sums in advances necessary to land such large literary prizes as Norman Mailer.

Are there any warts to Mr. Ziegler’s portrait? Well, yes; any honest picture must have them. But apart from a strain of impractibility and a measure of personal selfishness, the only one that stands out is a frivolous but nonetheless unattractive streak of anti-Americanism. But all in all, “Man of Letters” is an admirable portrait of an admirable man.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic living in Pasadena, Calif.

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