Desmond Elliott, from Dublin orphanage to the toast of literary London
As three Irish writers are longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, we profile the colourful Irish publisher it is named after, who discovered Leslie Thomas and Jilly Cooper
As his authors grew rich, so, too, did Desmond, who quickly learned to enjoy his success. He drank only champagne and bought his groceries at Fortnum & Mason, “the local corner shop”. When he flew to New York, it was always on Concorde and, once there, he exchanged his Mayfair bachelor pad (complete with kitchen trapeze) for a Park Avenue apartment
To Dame Edith Sitwell, Desmond Elliott was “a most impertinent person”. Penny Vincenzi thought him “an absolute gentleman”. Leo Cooper – an old friend whose wife, the novelist Jilly Cooper, owes her career to Elliott – believed him to have been “a consummate showman and a clever literary agent”. To Candida Lycett Green, he was simply “magic”. And to Ernest Hecht, another fiercely independent publisher and a man with whom Elliott occasionally crossed swords, he was “a one-off”.
Elliott was, indeed, all those things and it’s easy to imagine how, at 19, and probably looking much younger, Sitwell – as grande a dame as ever there was – thought him “impertinent” for suggesting that books by her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell be promoted on the back of one of her own. (She also objected to his use of a quote by F R Leavis, whom she thought “not important enough” to enjoy such prominence.) Desmond probably took her intended insult as approbation, and the anecdote – one of his many party pieces – only gained in the retelling.
Desmond Elliott was ageless and, when he died, in August 2003, it seemed impossible that he could be 73. “A dapper little elf”, he was five-foot-nothing, always stylishly dressed in Brooks Brothers’ boyswear and with a mischievous twinkle in his faded denim-blue eyes. Waspish, witty, an uncanny mimic and a sometimes outrageous raconteur, he told endless stories against himself but wasn’t above bitching about some of his peers. And he always enjoyed a good feud: “I believe it is really important to have one or two really influential enemies. They tend to talk about one to all the right people.” As an agent, he believed it was necessary to be “Machiavelli and Elizabeth Arden rolled into one”.
His education at the Royal Masonic Orphanage in Dublin was another rich source of anecdote. As his client Leslie Thomas was to put it, it was the only orphanage in Ireland to host a parents’ day and, indeed, Desmond was not an orphan. Rather, his father having died, his mother had insufficient means to support both her sons on a housekeeper’s wage. A bright boy, he benefited from the school’s good education and, aged 17, was told by the headmaster that he’d won a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin. “How long will it take to complete?” he asked. On learning that it would be four years, he replied that “I couldn’t possibly wait that long.”
In fact, Elliott had decided for no reason that he could ever fathom that he wanted to be a publisher and, via Masonic connections, secured a job interview in London with Macmillan. At 16, he boarded a ferry with just £2 in his pocket and was hired as an office boy. It was, as he liked to recall, “below stairs” and he was paid £2 10s a week. “If I hadn’t gone into publishing I would have worked in perfumes,” he later explained. Macmillan was “awesome. Like working for the Holy Ghost.” Discovered one morning reading the directors’ mail in an effort to determine what publishing was all about, he was obliged to leave, joining what was then another family firm, Hutchinson, where he helped with advertising.
Presumably spotting a bright young talent, Michael Joseph enticed him to join his eponymous firm as publicity manager. That didn’t work out (“I was a snotty little brat in those days”), and Elliott returned to Hutchinson before moving again, this time to the Bodley Head. There he clashed with Max Reinhardt, the rather grand chairman, over the allocation of the publicity budget: “I think we’ll call it a day,” an exasperated Reinhardt snapped. “But it’s only a quarter to four,” Elliott pointed out. “No – I mean you’re fired.” It was 1960 and, scarcely had he exited when Sidney Bernstein offered him a position at Granada, a new outpost of his media empire. But he changed his mind and sent Elliott a cheque for £1,000 as compensation.
“I thus became – pioneering as always – the first redundant publisher,” Elliott reflected years later. Arlington Books, operating out of one room in Duke Street, Mayfair, made its debut with The Pocket Calorie Guide to Safe Slimming, which went through some 40 reprints and was for years “an overlooked bestseller”. Then, in 1963, “an interesting little chap named Leslie Thomas”, at that time chief reporter of the Evening News, asked Elliott, “rather absent-mindedly, if I would become his business manager”. This Time Next Week, his memoir of life as a Barnardo’s Boy, was a bestseller, and three years later, so too was his first novel,The Virgin Soldiers. Elliott was now an agent as well as a publisher.
It was Elliott who spotted the potential of Jilly Cooper, a journalist on the Sunday Times women’s pages who also turned out short stories for women’s magazines. These had caught the agent-publisher’s eye and he suggested that she write some “permissive romances”, offering her a six-book contract. In no time at all, Cooper had written a series of so-called news-stand romances (Emily, Bella,Octavia et al)that were to become a template for many authors to follow. Then, in 1984, came Riders, the first of her bonk-busting bestsellers and another Arlington success story. The roll-call of authors whom Elliott agented or published also includes Sam Llewellyn, Penny Vincenzi, Linda Lee-Potter, Derek Lambert, Richard Doyle, Candida Lycett Green and Claire Rayner. He also introduced Tim Rice to Andrew Lloyd-Webber, representing them during the early years of their careers.
As his authors grew rich, so, too, did Desmond, who quickly learned to enjoy his success. He drank only champagne and bought his groceries at Fortnum & Mason, “the local corner shop”, where he had a charge account and treated its St James’s Restaurant like the office canteen. Lunch guests were often taken downstairs to the perfume department, where he chose gifts with great care, all the while bantering with the staff. The Connaught and the Ritz were also favoured venues, but “travelling west of Marble Arch gives me a nose bleed”. When he flew to New York, it was always on Concorde and, once there, he exchanged his Mayfair bachelor pad (complete with kitchen trapeze) for a Park Avenue apartment. Vacations were taken on Fire Island and Key West, and he brought with him box after Fortnum’s box of essential supplies, including real angelica for trifle-making, an art – along with champagne cocktails – that he shared with countless friends. Always there were parties – intimate dinners at which Elliott would hold centre-stage (his imitation of Queen Mary was a favourite turn) or larger, altogether grander affairs, such as the two parties atop the World Trade Center to mark his fiftieth birthday.
For many years he was the lynchpin of the annual Young Publishers’ Revue. At one such event, he appeared on stage in a children’s pedal car playing the role of Little Shoddy and sending up a well-known and wealthy children’s author. At another, he played Christopher Robin, which necessitated a trip to Daniel Neal to buy a suitable hat. Standing in front of the mirror trying on titfers, he noticed an elegant woman reflected in the glass beside him. “You should buy that – it suits you,” the familiar-sounding voice encouraged. He turned round to find himself face to face with Jackie Kennedy.
Perhaps even Desmond Elliott was lost for words, though it would have been a rare, even unique, occurrence.