George Weidenfeld, an Austrian-born British publisher whose well-connected life brought him into the inner circle of world leaders, popes, scholars and artists, and who led many efforts to bridge divisions among the world’s faiths, died Jan. 20 in London. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the publishing company he founded in 1949 and continued to run until his death. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Weidenfeld arrived penniless in London in 1938 after fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in his native Vienna, and through charm, determination and tireless networking he became the best-known publisher in Britain.
He published many landmark literary works, including the first British edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” and books by world leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson, Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, French president Charles de Gaulle and, after years of persuasion, Pope John Paul II.
Mr. Weidenfeld embodied so many contradictory notions that a British journalist once suggested he could almost be seen as a fictional character: He was a central European Jew who became an authority on the papacy and a member of the British House of Lords. He was a teetotaler who was renowned for giving glittering parties that flowed with fine liquor and wine. Short and chronically overweight, he once fought a duel and was considered one of Europe’s most dashing ladies’ men, with four marriages and a long list of romantic liaisons.
His party-going advice was to sidle up to the most interesting person in the room and listen. By that standard, it came as no surprise that Mr. Weidenfeld found himself surrounded by others at his frequent gatherings.
“What I do in this seemingly endless networking is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” he told the British newspaper the Independent in 1994. “For me, conviviality in the widest sense, being with people, having intellectual discourse, is what for other people is sport and entertainment.”
At Mr. Weidenfeld’s parties, novelist Martin Amis might brush elbows with Henry Kissinger and Bianca Jagger might be chatting with opera star Plácido Domingo. Mr. Weidenfeld was constantly traveling and often joined John Paul II at Castel Gondolfo, a papal retreat near Rome.
Earlier in his life, Mr. Weidenfeld was close to many of the founders of Israel and served as chief of staff to Chaim Weizmann, the country’s first president, in 1949 and 1950.
“The essential cause of my life is the survival of the Jews,” Mr. Weidenfeld said in 1994. “For me, the existence of Israel is the most important event of the 20th century.”
Yet he also published the memoirs of several high-ranking Nazi figures, including Albert Speer, the chief architect and minister of armaments in Hitler’s Germany.
“You develop the attitude of an anthropologist towards a tribe,” Mr. Weidenfeld said. “You want to know how it really happened.”
Artur Georg Weidenfeld was born Sept. 13, 1919, in Vienna. His father was in the insurance business, but the family had a scholarly bent, and Mr. Weidenfeld studied law and diplomacy at the University of Vienna.
In 1937, he challenged a Nazi sympathizer to a duel, fought with sabers. It was ruled a draw.
After World War II, Mr. Weidenfeld said in a 2009 interview with Britain’s Jewish Chronicle, “I looked him up in the phone directory and we shared a salami sandwich. He had been terribly injured on the Russian front.”
Soon after his father was jailed in 1938, Mr. Weidenfeld left Vienna for good. (His father was later released.)
With the help of Christian groups, he reached London and found work with the BBC. He also wrote newspaper columns and launched his first publishing efforts in the mid-1940s.
In 1949, he and writer Nigel Nicolson founded Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which had its first great success in 1953 with “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” by Oxford don Isaiah Berlin.
Mr. Weidenfeld was a longtime friend of Nabokov, the Russian-born writer whose novel “Lolita,” about an older man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl, was published in Paris in 1955 and in the United States three years later.
Defying the threat of legal action, Mr. Weidenfeld circulated a few copies of the book among influential critics, who pronounced “Lolita” a masterpiece. He invited Nabokov to a literary gathering in 1959, Mr. Weidenfeld later recalled to a German newspaper. Nabokov recited the names of Tolstoy, Chekhov and other Russian writers, then asked, “But who still remembers the name of a single police chief or censor from St. Petersburg?”
“The next day,” Mr. Weidenfeld said, “the government permitted publication.”
Mr. Weidenfeld was knighted in 1969 and was named a British life peer in 1976.
Over the years, he published books by many leading international figures, including John Paul II, who agreed to write a book of reflections after 15 years of cajoling by Mr. Weidenfeld. The pope’s “Memory and Identity” was published in 2005.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson merged with the Orion Publishing Group in 1992, but it remained an independent publishing house under Mr. Weidenfeld’s control until his death. (Nicolson died in 2004.)
Mr. Weidenfeld’s marriages to Jane Sieff, Barbara Skelton and Sandra Payson Meyer ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Annabelle Whitestone; a daughter from his first marriage; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Recalling his youth in a 1990 interview with the BBC, Mr. Weidenfeld said, “I feel very grateful to Christians who saved my life when I had to leave Nazi Austria as a 19-year-old.”
Last year, he launched the Safe Havens Fund, an effort to resettle Christians under siege by the Islamic State in Syria and other embattled regions.
“We owe a debt of gratitude,” he said.