The Extraordinary Life and Times

of Literary Impresario Rupert Hart-Davis

By Philip Ziegler

Carroll & Graf. 332 pp. $27.95

Philip Ziegler's previous books have inspected such figures as King Edward VIII; Lord Louis Mountbatten, India's last viceroy; and Sir Osbert Sitwell, the scion of one of Britain's leading literary families. In Man of Letters, Ziegler considers an equally regal subject: Rupert Hart-Davis, a publisher of highbrow literary fare from the 1930s until well into the '60s. While his name appears often in accounts of authors' gossip of the period, he occupies a shadowy niche in the history of their works.

Hart-Davis's mother, Sibyl, supplied the biography's title. Though he was an invalid as a boy (like many another bookworm, he may have discovered his zest for the printed page while convalescing), he treated her with obsessive care. Sibyl had several lovers and could not vouch for the identity of Rupert's father. With typical impetuousness, she revealed her son's vocation during a cab ride: " 'I know,' she suddenly announced. 'You'd better be a man of letters.' "

His path to that end first involved a detour or, rather, a cul-de-sac. After Eton and Oxford, Hart-Davis took a turn on the stage, understudying roles at the Old Vic and meeting the actress (later Dame) Peggy Ashcroft, who became the first of his four wives. During this period, Hart-Davis, ever the talent scout, envisioned his friend Paul Robeson as Othello -- a prophecy soon to be fulfilled by the black performer.

After divorcing Ashcroft, Hart-Davis went into publishing, first at Heinemann's, then at Jonathan Cape, where his tact was appreciated no less than his fastidiousness. One of Cape's "notoriously tetchy" authors, Robert Graves, protested the abridgement of one of his poems, yet Hart-Davis's charm seems to have mollified the poet. "An abject enough apology will be welcome," Graves wrote in a letter to the young editor, "particularly one passing on the blame to someone else in a credible way."

Had World War II not intervened, Hart-Davis would probably have climbed to the top of Cape. Instead, he responded to global and domestic upheaval by launching his own firm. Rupert Hart-Davis, Ltd. quickly became "a last resort" for books "more commercial publishers would baulk at." The catalogue included Leon Edel's monumental biography of Henry James, travel writings by Peter Fleming (brother of 007-creator Ian), the poetry of R.S. Thomas and Charles Causley, and Shakespearean studies by Leslie Hotson and the publisher's uncle, Duff Cooper. In a more accessible vein, the firm printed early books by Ray Bradbury and Patrick O'Brian.

Hart-Davis also personally culled and edited the correspondence of Oscar Wilde. (He was responsible, we learn, for "the first correct rendering" of Wilde's most famous letter, the long, heart-wrenching "De Profundis," written while the playwright served a two-year prison sentence for sodomy charges.) With equal, if not superior, zeal he produced belles lettres for rival presses: the definitive biography of Hugh Walpole, a trendy novelist of the 1930s who is now largely forgotten; The Lyttleton Hart-Davis Letters, missives to and from a literary mentor; and a four-part autobiography, each volume appearing under a different imprint.

Immersed in his own scholarly projects, Hart-Davis declared, "I now regard all else, particularly publishing, as an intolerable intrusion." On this evidence, Ziegler concludes, Hart-Davis "was not a dedicated publisher." Yes and no: As this biography shows, he brought an exacting and uncompromising approach to each manuscript he handled, each room he worked and each author he guided to publication.

His perfectionism clashed with commercialism and the need of his firm to produce bestsellers. He was also over-extended: Besides running the venture and writing his own books, he served as literary executor for numerous friends. His devotion to dead authors may have embalmed his publishing career. By 1963, Hart-Davis was "merely a name at the top of a piece of writing paper," estranged from his business, which now belonged to the multimedia conglomerate Granada. For three decades until his death at 91, he walled himself off from professional demands. Formerly an inveterate fundraiser, committee chairman and after-dinner speaker, he now refused to do anything that threatened to be dull. An inevitable degree of crotchetiness set in. ("The airport bore the same relation to the aeroplane," he once remarked, "as the tumbril to the guillotine.")

Man of Letters movingly describes Hart-Davis's transition to a life in retirement where even books slowly lost their appeal and personal losses accumulated. Ziegler reports that one of his own previous works received proofreading attention from an elderly Hart-Davis. A comparable level of care might have kept the phrase "enormously bulky" out of this volume, curtailed the use of the term "cheese-paring" (three times, by my count) and persuaded Ziegler to swap the word "enthused" for "infused" in one particular context.

The book would also have benefited from notes on frequently cited personages, many of whom are obscure to readers today. In this connection, Ziegler's reticence mirrors his subject's aristocratic stance. "High standards but a common touch" is Ziegler's verdict on his "literary impresario." One is hard-pressed to find a successor to Hart-Davis among contemporary book publishers, who would do well to adopt his mission of trying to improve public taste. Then again, by doing so, they could risk suffering the fate of Hart-Davis, Ltd.: low profit margins and, ultimately, extinction. *

Sunil Iyengar, a writer and editor in Baltimore, is a staff contributor to the online Contemporary Poetry Review.

Rupert Hart-Davis