Tom Maschler, buccaneering publisher who revived Cape and secured a string of top authors – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·8 min read
Maschler (2004): became a mentor to young authors including Martin Amis - David Sandison/The Independent/Shutterstock
Maschler (2004): became a mentor to young authors including Martin Amis - David Sandison/The Independent/Shutterstock

Tom Maschler, the former chairman of Jonathan Cape, who has died aged 87, was for some 20 years Britain’s most successful literary publisher, with a client list that read like a Who’s Who of contemporary literature.   

From the 1960s to the late 1980s he re-established Jonathan Cape as the leading literary imprint, publishing a string of Nobel Prize-winning authors, and was instrumental in founding the Booker Prize in 1968.

The first book he bought for Cape was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, for which he paid £250; other early successes included Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He launched the careers of John Fowles and Gabriel García Márquez, looked after Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut and Doris Lessing, and became a mentor to Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.

Maschler was equally adept at commissioning inspired non-fiction works such as The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris’s zoological account of human behaviour. He was also proud of publishing The Human Body pop-up book (with a text by Jonathan Miller), and was the marketing genius behind the treasure-hunt book, Masquerade by Kit Williams, which set half the country off in search of a bejewelled hare.

Maschler was adept at securing non-fiction bestsellers such as The Naked Ape (1967)
Maschler was adept at securing non-fiction bestsellers such as The Naked Ape (1967)

But Maschler’s high-octane “buccaneering style”, as Nicholas Wroe described it in a Guardian profile, made him a controversial figure in the industry and he was sometimes criticised for having little interest in books for their own sake. “He’s not the man to go to for a third re-reading of Don Quixote,” as one observer remarked. Yet his instinct for what would sell and his flair for promotion were unrivalled. At book fairs buyers would take whatever he had because they knew that it would sell.

Ironically, though, Maschler only ended up in publishing after having done all he could to avoid it.

Thomas Michael Maschler was born in Berlin on August 16 1933. His father, Kurt, was a Left-wing Jewish book salesman who had gone on to buy two publishing houses. In 1938, just before the Anschluss, the family moved to Vienna where, one evening, the Nazis arrived to arrest Kurt Maschler.

Fortunately he was away on a trip, but they confiscated the house, along with his collection of first editions and correspondence from, among others, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse.

Tom and his mother Rita immediately left Austria for America but, having failed to secure a passage from Sweden, they went to Britain; Kurt would join them later. Rita took a job as a housekeeper in a grand house in Berkshire while Kurt, always travelling on business, only visited on rare weekends.

Tom attended the local state primary school and then went on to Leighton Park, a Quaker school near Reading. For two years he stayed with six different families because his parents could not afford the boarding fees. His childhood experiences toughened him, and his toughness would prove to be both a blessing and curse.

During his time at school, where he was a champion tennis, squash and fives player, he travelled in Europe most summers and spent little time with his parents. It came as little surprise to him when they separated.

Maschler's 2005 memoirs
Maschler's 2005 memoirs

He was offered a place at Oxford to read PPE, but when he asked to change to English he was told his marks were not good enough. Suspecting he was being offered a place on the basis of his sporting prowess, he decided against university.

This caused great disappointment to Kurt Maschler, who had been anxious for his son to follow him into publishing. Instead, aged 17, Tom hitched around America, spent time on a kibbutz and hung around in Paris, eavesdropping on Sartre and de Beauvoir at Les Deux Magots.

Back in Britain he joined up for National Service in the RAF, hoping to learn Russian, but was appalled to find himself doing drill with the other recruits and decided to go on hunger strike. He was sent to a lunatic asylum for three weeks, then discharged as unfit.

Back in London he set up a tour-guide business and made a lot of money, but stopped when he got fed up with “being at the beck and call of ignorant Americans who didn’t even know what country they were in”.

After an abortive attempt to gain entry to the Italian film industry, in 1955 Maschler admitted defeat and joined the publishing house of Andre Deutsch as a production assistant. It was not a happy relationship, but even then it was clear that he was in his element. Among other successes he talent-spotted the unpublished Alan Sillitoe when he was busy writing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Bill Hopkins, John Wain, Lindsay Anderson, Tom Maschler, Doris Lessing and Kenneth Tynan in 1957 - Warner/Mirrorpix/Getty
Bill Hopkins, John Wain, Lindsay Anderson, Tom Maschler, Doris Lessing and Kenneth Tynan in 1957 - Warner/Mirrorpix/Getty

In 1957 he moved to MacGibbon & Kee where, in 1957, he edited an anthology of essays called Declaration. The book, with contributions from John Osborne, Lindsay Anderson and Colin Wilson, was seen as the manifesto of the “Angry Young Men”. Next he moved to Penguin, where, finding the business of publishing established authors in paperback “fairly tedious” he persuaded the house to publish a series of original works by new playwrights.

In 1960 he joined Jonathan Cape as editorial director and, as he recalled in his memoir, Publisher (2005), one of his first assignments was to visit the Idaho home of the recently deceased Ernest Hemingway to help his widow assemble Hemingway’s final, unfinished manuscript, which eventually became A Moveable Feast.

Although Cape still had a high reputation, the house had fallen on hard times and was failing to find new writers. “I thought here was an imprint I had always admired and it would be relatively easy to change and improve things,” Maschler recalled.

The early coup of buying Catch-22 immediately created a buzz of interest, on which Maschler capitalised with Thomas Pynchon’s V and John Lennon’s In His Own Write. By 1966 he had become managing director and in 1970 he was appointed chairman.

Maschler, left, with John Lennon, right, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis
Maschler, left, with John Lennon, right, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis

In the late 1960s Maschler had the bright idea of suggesting to Booker Brothers, which had made a fortune from buying up the copyrights of authors such as Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie, that it should fund a “British Prix Goncourt”.

The result was the annual Booker Prize, which has played a central role in promoting new literary talent since it was first awarded in 1969.

Maschler was no literary snob and his client list included, among others, the popular novelist Jeffrey Archer (whom Maschler considered “real rubbish” compared to his other clients). In his memoirs Maschler recalled a meeting at which the novelist had asked whether there was any chance, if he worked hard enough, that he might one day be in with a chance of winning (Maschler held his breath; surely Archer was not about to say the Booker?) the Nobel Prize for Literature!

By the late 1980s, however, Cape was losing money and Maschler, who by now had a significant equity stake, reluctantly entered into negotiations to sell the company to Si Newhouse’s Random House. He stepped down as chairman in 1991, though he remained “loosely attached” to the company.

The writer John Walsh recalled spotting Maschler at a book fair: “He was the most intensely tanned Caucasian I’d ever seen. Between unruly, flyaway wings of hair, his shiny forehead was as darkly burnished as a conker. His intense, brown eyes regarded you with amusement, while his voice soared to girlish shrieks of remonstration. He seemed to be in a chronic state of aggrieved hilarity. He was as camp as a sequinned bivouac, despite his prodigious reputation as a ladies’ man.”

Maschler stirred warm affection among many who knew him and had a knack of making his staff want to do their best for him. He also had a spiritual side, and could recite from memory a mantra that Allen Ginsberg taught him. At the same time, though, his quick temper led to a number of fallings out over the years, including with Arnold Wesker, who was best man at his first wedding, and Desmond Morris.

Thomas Pynchon's V., first published in England by Jonathan Cape in 1963
Thomas Pynchon's V., first published in England by Jonathan Cape in 1963

Shortly after the Random House deal, Maschler was diagnosed with manic depression and advised to take a three-month sabbatical; though he later recovered, he continued to suffer bouts of low mood.

For someone who was so good at spotting literary talent, as a writer Maschler could be ponderous. Of his 2005 memoir, Publisher, John Carey noted: “The only surprise is that, with so many friends in the literary world, none of them persuaded him not to publish this book” – a sentiment echoed by most of the reviewers.

Tom Maschler married, first in 1970, Fay Coventry (subsequently the Evening Standard restaurant critic), with whom he had a son, Ben, and two daughters, Hannah and Alice. The marriage was dissolved in 1987, and the following year he married, secondly, Regina Kulinicz, who had been a publicist for the Cannes film festival. After his second marriage Maschler spent part of his time in Provence, where he and his wife had a house, and in Mexico.

Tom Maschler, born August 16 1933, died October 16 2020