By Anthony Sampson
I HAD FIRST KNOWN ABOUT DAVID ASTOR when I was in Johannesburg, editing the black magazine Drum which had attracted his interest as a champion of African rights. When I came back to London in 1955 David asked me to lunch at his house, overlooking Lord’s cricket ground, with a Henry Moore in the garden. At 43, he still looked boyish, with his questioning eyes, a thatch of hair and diffident mumbles. I was a gauche 29-year-old, but he was immediately disarming: he questioned me about Drum as if the pop mag was as important as his newspaper, and asked me how to improve The Observer . Halfway through lunch he murmured that he needed some kind of organiser, and perhaps I could join the paper as an ‘assistant to the editor’. I said yes before he could find out how little I really knew.
The Observer was then at the peak of its influence as a highbrow political and cultural organ, respected almost equally from the right and left. Its 16 pages every Sunday seemed to be at the centre of all serious debates, discussed at dinner-parties and setting agendas for politicians. It was original and unpredictable, linked to neither major political party, and defying conventional wisdom. Coming from South Africa I felt I had joined a topsy-turvy world where black was white, and left was right.
Arriving at the quaint Observer building behind Fleet Street, tucked behind the Daily Mail, I was amazed by its apparent casualness: it seemed more like a family charity or an eccentric college than a commercial newspaper. The manager, Tristan Jones, was an ex-communist who was David’s childhood friend, whose real interest was collecting antiques. The front office was run by a jovial Cockney, Charles Vidler, who had been the butler at the Astors’ country house, Cliveden, until he was fired for being found in Lord Astor’s bed. The manager of both circulation and advertising, Norman Berridge, was a nervous man whose father had been general manager. David himself, as he explained, preferred not to know about circulation figures yet they went up and up without apparent effort.
I had a ringside view of the strange workings of the paper. I was put in an office just opposite David’s open door, watching visitors coming and going like a concierge. I saw David almost every day over two years, and often in the evenings or at lunch. I was fascinated by my improbable boss, who came from such a different background, and would always be surprised and amazed to enjoy his friendship over the next 45 years.
The Astors at that time were regarded almost like royalty. David’s father, the second Viscount Astor, had been one of the richest men in the world, inheriting a fortune made in fur-trading and multiplied by investments in Manhattan real estate. His mother, Nancy, was the first woman MP, the dominating hostess of Cliveden. And David was part of an extended cousinhood who moved in the heart of the transatlantic power-world.
David was much influenced by his father, Waldorf, whose photograph sat on his desk, and often talked about him (he favoured the Waldorf Hotel for office lunches, he explained, because it reminded him of his father and the Astor home village in Bavaria). But he had rebelled against his formidable mother while he was at Eton; he had a breakdown while at Oxford and never took a degree (though he later showed every sign of an alpha mind). He was psycho-analysed by Anna Freud, with unusual success – though he some times went to sleep, he told me, during sessions. He discovered himself through artists, intellectuals and Labour politicians, not through Tories or aristocrats. At grand social occasions he was visibly shy: ‘David doesn’t even know how to get out of a room,’ complained one of his Tory cousins. But on his home ground he was relaxed and completely unstuffy, using schoolboy phrases like hols, chums or ‘okey-dokey’. His perfect manners were based not on etiquette but on sensitivity to others. Once when I asked for a beer at his house he disappeared for an age before returning with a glass: I was convinced that he had gone round to a pub rather than say he had none.
He had taken over The Observer in 1948, when he was only 29, after only a year’s training on the Yorkshire Post . But he had been brought up in Cliveden and London against a background of Cabinet Ministers, diplomats and intellectuals constantly arguing and explaining events: as other children played nursery games, he overheard statesmen and politicians, playing the world’s game of high diplomacy. He remained surrounded by talkers and fascinated by ideas, all the more because he had failed at Oxford: he saw his Observer , he explained later, as ‘the Balliol I never had’. To me, having also wasted my Oxford years, the paper also gave a second chance, providing the intellectual stimulus and camaraderie that I had never felt at Christ Church, and much more fun. Was I being paid, for this?
David had personally picked most of the Observer journalists who seemed to reflect each stage of his development: ‘We are all part of the litter of his past,’ said Patrick O’Donovan, the ex-Guards officer whom David recruited at the end of the war. Nigel Gosling, the features editor, had been his friend at Eton. Philip Toynbee, the chief reviewer, was the son of his father’s friend Arnold Toynbee. Terence Kilmartin, the literary editor, had helped to rescue him in France during the war. Sebastian Haffner and Richard Lowenthal, the international pundits, had been recruited by David to join his wartime brains-trust. Colin Legum, the Africa correspondent, had been picked when David became passionately concerned with South Africa – to which I too owed my job.
From my strategic desk I watched the week slowly maturing. David would start work on Tuesday morning, but many journalists did not turn up until Wednesday and the paper only began to take shape on Thursday. On Friday contributors would arrive, bringing their handwritten copy and staying for drinks at ‘Auntie’s’, the Observer pub. Then the managing editor Kenneth Obank, a masterly, and long-suffering, professional from Yorkshire began to transform the messy paragraphs and wild ideas into a proper newspaper, which a team of sub-editors from other papers finally knocked into shape on Saturday. It was a weekly miracle to watch the hot air distilled into cold print.
David edited the paper through talk which was transmuted into journalism. He held interminable conferences, about editorials, features and special projects, nearly all of which I attended as his assistant. ‘Mao invented the permanent revolution,’ complained John Pringle, later the deputy editor, ‘but David invented the permanent confer ence.’ I listened, bewildered by the passions and debates ranging across the whole world. The chief pundit, Rix Lowenthal, with one eye rotating round the room, worried about outposts like Quemoy or Yemen as if they were his own big toe. William Clark, the diplomatic correspondent, brought titbits from embassy dinners, high tables or episcopal gatherings. Nora Beloff argued with Bob Stephens about Israelis and Arabs across the table as if it were the river Jordan itself, while David – who had both Jewish and Arab friends – wrestled with an editorial that could be fair to both sides.
General elections generated still more conferences. David was determined to maintain the paper’s independence: he published views from all sides, and wrote contorted editorials that sat precariously on the fence. He was pro-Labour over issuesthat concerned him most passionately, including Africa, hanging, censorship and human rights and he was a friend of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader. But he was closer to the Conservatives about taxation, trades unions or nationalisation. To many people, David appeared as a socialist millionaire, a contradiction in terms: why should an Astor want to get rid of his fortune? But he was never a socialist, and his combination of views was more in keeping with American Democrats.
David’s range of interests seemed limitless; but his eyes glazed over at the mention of economics and industry, which he delegated to successive economics editors – Susan Strange, Andrew Shonfield, and later Sam Brittan. Most of the other pundits, I noticed, hardly seemed worried by Britain’s industrial decline: they seemed too preoccupied with Britain’s responsibilities in the world to notice that she could not afford much of a role. It was the discussions about traffic, I noticed, that revealed the paper’s real lack of understanding of industry. Why didn’t they ban lorries from the new motorways, asked Philip Toynbee.
The stately masthead of the paper with its royal crest, and the dignified by-lines, concealed some very undignified goings-on which seemed to come straight out of Evelyn Waugh. Admiring readers would turn up at the office expecting to meet a solemn pundit, to find a dishevelled shape slumped in a pub. Many famous contributors, such as Philip Toynbee, Alastair Buchan or Patrick O’Donovan, were heavy drinkers who seemed to be escaping from themselves or dominating fathers.
Few of The Observer ‘s writers seemed altogether stable, behind their confident pronouncements. I joined the paper expecting to be one of its most neurotic employees, but soon found myself outbid. Among such wobbly talents, David appeared more like a Renaissance patron than an editor: ‘We are all Astoroids,’ said John Silverlight. Many of us doubted who else would employ us, and for myself I could never work out what he saw in me.
We were always talking and speculating about David, his latest craze, theory or guru. He had a touch of the impresario: the last great actor-manager, we called him. ‘Showbiz made him who he is,’ said John Heilpern. He had always loved the theatre: he had briefly run a troupe of performers touring seaside resorts in Yorkshire, and he brought his own kind of showmanship to Fleet Street: he seemed to regard his journalists as temperamental actors, to be humoured, reassured and given their cues, sometimes their lines. He was a constant father figure, always prepared to discuss emotional problems, or to intervene in a crisis.
David seemed to welcome the challenge of impossible people: like Brendan Behan, the alcoholic playwright whom he tried unsuccessfully to stop drinking himself to death. He appeared to understand his staff better than they understood themselves, as Michael Davie complained. He regarded much illness as psychosomatic and explained most difficult behaviour in psychological terms: Kenneth Harris blustered because he was insecure, Katharine Whitehorn suffered from penis envy, Lord Hailsham was ‘running away from love’. He remained a convinced Freudian after his own analysis: ‘I don’t believe in God,’ he told Susan Strange, ‘but I do believe in Freud.’ It was wiser not to mention heretics like Jung, or to criticise Dr Spock, whose book Baby and Childcare was serialised in The Observer .
He depicted aggression – whether by people or nations – in nursery terms, and he was always telling people to be ‘adult’. He was always adult in arguing with his colleagues, disarming them with quiet reasoning and a diffident style, but he was, as Sir Anthony Kenny observed, ‘most dangerous when most diffident’. Sometimes he tried to use me as a troubleshooter to sort out office problems and he would give me advice about handling awkward members of the staff. He hoped I could persuade Mechtild Nawiasky, the fiery picture editor who had once been a lion-tamer, to use news photographs as well as the moody, soft-focus pictures she favoured on the front page. ‘Handle Mechtild carefully and straightforwardly,’ he advised in a note, ‘and I think you’ll find she will try to co-operate. (We none of us are responsible for our temperaments – only for our efforts to master them.)’
With all his tolerance, David was stubborn about pursuing policies he really believed in, and defied anyone who crossed him on questions like nuclear disarmament, African independence or Freudian interpretations. Terry Kilmartin, who had known him in the war, would warn: ‘David’s as tough as old boots.’ Behind all its variety the paper always reflected David’s own personality and interests: it was as lovable or hateable as a single human being. David resisted market research to find out what readers really wanted: when a survey was conducted it depressingly recorded how readers lost interest in editorials or book reviews with each new paragraph, but he refused to show it to the journalists. When he complained to Cecil King, the chairman of the Daily Mirror about how the Mirror distorted the news, King replied that he had to keep worrying about the sales: David had replied: ‘I edit The Observer for myself and my friends.’ He was always prepared to take risks with his readers. When Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin, David was persuaded by Ken Obank to devote most of the newspaper to printing the whole 26,000 words, leaving out advertisements and much topical news. But the readers agreed: the whole issue sold out and had to be reprinted.
‘It’s a great life if you don’t weaken,’ David liked to say, and I did not see him weaken. Despite his unhappy adolescence, he never seemed insecure or un-adult. One day when he was irritable, he explained that he had been arguing with his first wife; but his home life with his second wife, Bridget, seemed entirely tranquil. Yet he was never sure about how much he had achieved independently of his rich inheritance: when much later he tried to write his autobiography he gave up because he could not face the word ‘I’.
It was an awesome inheritance. Every summer The Observer staff had its annual outing at Cliveden on the Thames, where his brother Bill, Lord Astor, uneasily welcomed the odd mixture of printers, secretaries and journalists. Wives and children wandered along the lawns, listened to the band of the Grenadier Guards and swam in the pool which was soon to become notorious. It was at Cliveden that I first met David’s mother, Nancy Astor, who had dominated Cliveden in the Thirties, and who was still intimidating in her seventies. ‘So you work for my son David,’ she said, ‘with all those niggers and Communists?’ Her influence was still felt: The Observer refused to accept alcoholic advertisements because she was a Christian Scientist.
But David had long ago rejected most of his mother’s fierce beliefs, beginning with Christian Science: one evening at dinner I heard him mocking its founder, Mary Eddy, with Patrick Duncan and Mary Benson, who also had Christian Science parents, and speculating how such a dotty religion had produced the Christian Science Monitor : ‘How amazing that a crazy woman should help to found one of the world’s great newspapers,’ he said. ‘It’s hard enough to do when you’re sane.’ He reacted strongly against Nancy’s racial attitudes, but he always defended his mother. He rejected the view of American Southerners as racists: his aunt Nancy Lancaster had explained that the style and dress-sense of the Virginians was really derived from the black servants who had brought them up. Above all, David was was infuriated by left-wing attacks on his mother as a pro-Nazi anti-Semite, because she was often fiercely critical of the Nazis, and her husband had protested to Hitler about his treatment of the Jews: David would never forgive Claud Cockburn and his newssheet The Week for spreading lies about the ‘Cliveden Set’. His own record as a critic of Hitler was clear: ‘The only member of the Cliveden Set whose opinion was never sought,’ wrote his brother Michael, ‘who was right about Germany as well as Russia, was my brother David.’ David was deeply hurt by stories about the Astors encouraging appeasement, and then by the scandal surrounding Jack Profumo, the Tory Minister who had an affair with Christine Keeler which began at the Cliveden swimming-pool. ‘All that people remember today of the Astors is the “Cliveden set” and the “Profumo set”,’ he wrote later. ‘Both stories were inventions, but it appears that they’ll be with us for ever.’
The Astors were less prominent in the postwar years, but they were still very rich. They still inhabited a separate Astorland, in stately homes with butlers and chefs, apparently invulnerable to high taxation and death duties: even distant relatives, ex-wives or in-laws, seemed still irrigated by underground streams of money. David was discreet about his wealth, and lived more modestly than his three brothers who all had country mansions: his London houses got smaller as he got older, and he ended up in a narrow terrace-house in St John’s Wood. But he often seemed to forget that journalists had a different standard of living: one evening he suggested we had dinner at ‘a little place I know’ which turned out to be the Connaught, then the only really grand restaurant in London: he handed me the extravagant wine menu and asked: ‘do you play the grape game?’ The Observer journalists, who were not overpaid, were puzzled by his attitudes to money: we envied his security and opportunities, but he seemed to envy middle-class intellectuals and never quite understood the problems of ordinary life: he was fascinated to hear from his chauffeur about mortgages, of which he then became a keen advocate and he complained that we did not realise how bored most rich people were. ‘They’ve got nothing to do but change their houses.’
David had escaped on a silken ladder from this world of bored luxury. He had found an absorbing occupation, engrossed in ideas and causes, peopled by intellectuals and writers from other backgrounds. He used his money in much more interesting and creative ways than most rich men: not just through The Observer but through a network of benefactions and charities. He became expert in setting up small committees and lobbies – in a few of which I became involved – to press discreetly for reforms and set up new institutions. He had learnt the art of lobbying from his father, and developed it to nudge ideas towards execution. He would put together a small group under a convincing chairman; then he would retreat into the background, prompt letters to Ministers or the Times , arrange meetings at Chatham House (which his father had helped to found), or set up lunches or dinners at one of his five clubs; then he would retreat into the background, leaving the chairman to take over. Many institutions that appeared to have emerged autonomously, such Index on Censorship, the Butler Trust for prison warders, or the Minority Rights Group, were the fruits of David’s seed.
David’s priviliged background put a special premium on political courage. He needed to prove himself; and the real test of both his editorship and fortitude was the Suez crisis of 1956. When President Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal The Observer found itself in the eye of a political storm: for the crisis brought to a head the issues about which David felt strongest – Africa, nationalism, anti-colonialism and the American alliance. He had some friends in the Tory government of Sir Anthony Eden, and William Clark had recently left The Observer to become Eden’s press secretary. William gave some warnings that Eden was becoming over-excited, while Rab Butler, then Lord Privy Seal in the Cabinet, told the political correspondent Hugh Massingham that he sometimes felt ‘surrounded by madmen’. But David, like the other journalists, never thought Eden would go to war. He was appalled when British troops invaded the Suez Canal, on the pretext of peacemaking between Israel and Egypt, and rightly guessed that Eden had secretly colluded with Israel. He thought the war would set back all the peaceful decolonising of Africa, and cause a rift with Washington. His friend Dingle Foot drafted an editorial that David then sharpened up, inserting phrases that summed up his outlook: ‘We had not realised that our government was capable of such folly and crookedness…It is no longer possible to bomb countries because you fear that your trading interests will be harmed…this new feeling for the sanctity of human life is the best element in the modern world.’
From my next-door office I watched David taking the strain. The Observer ‘s leader appeared just when British troops were landing in Suez, and aroused furious accusations of treachery from conservative readers. Three of the seven trustees resigned in protest: if another had gone, David told me, he would have had to resign; and he always felt grateful to the smooth chairman of the trustees, Sir Ifor Evans, for standing firm. David remained undeterred: when he wrote an unrepentant second leader he headed it ‘The Government’s war’, and explained with relish: ‘That’s a mutinous headline.’ Many advertisers were upset: J. Walter Thompson, which handled The Observer ‘s own advertising, gave warnings which I passed on to David but he was unimpressed. Some advertisers withdrew, including Jewish tycoons who resented the criticism of Israel – which saddened David who had always supported the Zionists. But David’s brothers, influenced by their American connections, remained supportive
For weeks the Suez Canal seemed to overflow through The Observer ‘s offices, as it flowed through Eden’s drawing-room: only two of the staff supported the government’s policy. In the end the British government was compelled to withdraw by American pressure, and faced huge economic losses, and David’s suspicions about collusion with Israel were vindicated.
The Observer achieved notoriety and attracted many young readers, many of whom were first politicised by the Suez war. At the beginning of the crisis, it had just overtaken the Sunday Times in circulation, to the dismay of its owner Lord Kemsley, many of whose journalists felt deeply envious of their rival’s courage. But The Observer also lost many conservative readers and advertisers, and ended up with more impecunious readers who were less attractive to advertisers. The manager, Tristan Jones, was gloomy, but David was undeterred. ‘Don’t let Tristan get you scared,’ he wrote to me. ‘The one way to get into real trouble is if we lose our self-confidence. After all, we’ve been right over this crisis and will be proved so. We only need not to get alarmed, and should of course avoid saying “I told you so”. All will be well if we keep our heads.’ David reckoned later that his attacks had been too emotive, going beyond reasonable argument, though he was unrepentant. ‘I think I would do it again,’ he said 30 years later. ‘You couldn’t keep quiet.’
It was not primarily Suez that damaged The Observer in the coming newspaper war, it seemed to me, so much as the lack of commercial drive. David was mainly interested in political influence, and despised the commercialism of Kemsley, whose Sunday Times was conservative and printed reverential editorials about the royal family in italics. ‘Kemsley orders his politics from Central Office as if it were a commodity like newsprint,’ he said; and when he showed me a stuffy letter from Kemsley he commented: ‘There are generations of capitalism behind that style’ (there were generations behind David’s own style, with a different outcome). But just after Suez, The Observer faced much fiercer commercial competition when newsprint rationing was lifted allowing newspapers to carry as much advertising as they could get. The Observer was caught napping while the Sunday Times rapidly increased both advertising and circulation, which it boosted with extracts from war memoirs that captured the mood of military nostalgia; the competition was intensified when the Daily Telegraph launched its Sunday paper in 1961. The battle for advertising changed the whole character of newspapers, demanding features about consumers, lifestyles and fashion to encourage spending.
David remained aloof from commercial pressures. When we we were given a lavish lunch by J. Walter Thompson, one executive gave a long account of the economic situation, and David whispered to me: ‘What should I say – Yes or No?’. He had always distrusted advertising: when in 1953 the Tory government planned to establish commercial TV to break the BBC’s monopoly, David strongly supported the lobby to protect it, led by his friend Lady Violet Bonham Carter: when several of the first commercial TV syndicates invited The Observer to join their consortia to give them respectability David turned them down – thus missing a potential windfall that could have transformed the paper’s financial fortunes. But he enjoyed the first commercial programmes and quickly admitted his mistake. ‘That’s one more case where The Observer has been totally wrong,’ he said to me. ‘Not only has commercial TV been a success, but the commercials are the best part.’
He remained relaxed and lofty towards newspaper competition even after Roy Thomson, the ebullient Canadian newspaper tycoon, bought the Sunday Times in 1966. Thomson swiftly raised the stakes with more investment and commercial drive; but David welcomed the arrival of this genial newcomer with pebble glasses who was prepared to give his editors independence: and he was furious when the paper published a critical profile of Thomson while he was on holiday. David gave a grand dinner for Thomson at the Savoy to meet some of his journalists: he helped to persuade him about the need for ‘salaried eccentrics’, as Thomson called his cultural columnists, and Thomson picked up some ideas from us: he was particularly interested, he explained, in the Mammon business column. But within a few months The Observer was feeling the full force of competition, when Thomson started up the Sunday Times magazine which challenged even the Astors.
The two newspaper owners represented opposite views of the power of the press. David Astor saw his paper primarily as the means to disseminate his own ideas and policies; Roy Thomson was uninterested in politics and saw his papers as moneymakers – which would become part of an empire including television, holiday tours and competition for the Yellow Pages.
In commercial terms Thomson won decisively, while Astor’s Observer looked more like the end of the line of old ‘journals of influence’, financed by rich families to pursue political goals. But money-power was more ephemeral than political influence. Thomson left little behind him after he died: his empire disintegrated, while his newspapers were later sold to Rupert Murdoch and became part of a much more ruthless contest between global media empires. Astor’s ideas had helped to shape the character of Britain in the late twentieth century in both politics and culture.