After he started out as an office boy for Victor Gollancz in 1933, Pick's 66-year career in publishing saw him discover, nurture and publish some of the biggest names in 20th-century literature, including JD Salinger, Graham Greene and Dahl. With a roster including Catherine Cookson, Wilbur Smith, Anita Desai and John Le Carré, Pick had an unerring eye for what the public wanted and formed close relationships with many of his authors.
Early in his career, however, his keen eye did not always serve him so well. The young publisher tells of how he went into a Hampstead shop and tried to persuade the bookseller to stock a new title. "I know you don't stock a lot of new books," Pick said, "but there's a marvellous new book coming next month called Burmese Days by George Orwell." It turned out the bookseller was George Orwell himself, working under his real name Eric Blair, before 1984 and Animal Farm had made him famous. It seems as if Orwell took the misunderstanding in his stride. "I think he made some remark like: 'Very interesting'", recalled Pick in an interview taped for the British Library.
Pick's as-yet-unpublished memoirs, donated in a large collection of letters, interviews and press cuttings to the University of East Anglia by his son Martin Pick, show how he signed Roald Dahl after a chance meeting. Pick had bought a copy of Dahl's early short story collection Kiss Kiss in the US, and sailing back to the UK on the Queen Mary he began to read it. When he discovered that Dahl himself was on the ship, "much to the purser's annoyance" he insisted on finding him, Pick writes. "The seas were very rough, but armed with a copy of his book, Kiss Kiss, I found the cabin. Inside, his two children were being sick, the nursemaid having been sick lay prostrate on a bunk, Patricia Neal was looking for a £2,000 diamond which she had lost and Roald Dahl was pacing up and down saying, 'I hope you don't find it, I never did like it.'"
Pick invited Dahl for a drink and they went on to dinner, but Dahl told Pick not to make him a book offer as he had five already from English publishers and was travelling to meet them in the UK. Dahl was happy for Pick to send in his own bid to his literary agent, however, and disembarking the ship at Southampton, Pick "saw Roald Dahl waving a piece of paper and shouting to me: 'It's all yours! It's all yours!'" His agent had told him to snap up Pick's offer before the publisher changed his mind.
Pick also worked with Salinger, signing up Franny and Zooey after realising it wasn't money the reclusive author was after but accuracy. Salinger's agent told Pick: "Money doesn't mean anything to Salinger. He's got so much and he's a recluse, but he is paranoic about how his books are produced."
Steinbeck was another of Pick's American authors, and he travelled to Stockholm for his Nobel prize ceremony. "Steinbeck, who was a very heavy drinker, had, for three weeks before coming to Stockholm, given up all hard liquor and was just drinking beer," Pick recalled. "He had such self-discipline."
Pick also encouraged Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, to pen her first book. The pair met at a dinner party, where she had him "spellbound" with her stories, Pick writes. He said: "Look, if you could write a book as well as you can tell these stories I believe you could write a bestseller." "I hope you aren't fooling me," she replied. "My secret dream is to write. Nobody in my family writes and nobody knows that it is my ambition." Pick took her to see his boss at Michael Joseph and Dickens was given a contract, going on to write the bestselling One Pair of Hands.
Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa (under the pen name Isak Dinesen), was an easier signing, the memoirs reveal. Pick received a phone call from the author herself in 1958, asking if he would be interested in reading and possibly publishing her new book. When he said he would indeed be interested, "'Splendid,' was the reply. 'I will ask the president of SAS to bring it to you tomorrow.'"
The author, a celebrity in her native Denmark, appeared a demanding customer once signed, however. Eating at the Connaught, at a table she insisted be surrounded by screens, she would only order one thing at a time, and "after two or three teaspoonfuls of the consommé she nibbled a corner of the melba toast and said 'Now I am satisfied'." Later, waiting to fly home to New York, she demanded that Pick find her champagne and oysters for the journey. After managing to track them down, he was told by plane staff that they couldn't open the oysters, but found a sharp knife on a nearby book stall and opened them himself.
"My father was very deferential to authors. That's why I think he got on so well with such a wide variety – he never pushed himself," says Martin Pick, who is hoping to publish his father's memoirs. "He was very aggressive in the way he dealt with marketing, for example, but they wouldn't have seen that."
Pick Sr also arranged what he believed was the first celebrity author signing – for Noël Coward, attended by 360 fans – and met Wallis Simpson in Paris to discuss her memoirs. On meeting Pick, the Duchess of Windsor immediately demanded to know who Marilyn Monroe's publicity agent was. Simpson was distressed about Monroe's dominance of the newspaper front pages, but "I explained that I wasn't in any way able to help her in displacing Marilyn Monroe in her favour", said Pick, who "certainly did not find [Simpson] witty, endearing in any way, but a rather brittle, hard and vain person".
The publisher also had little affection for Dorothy L Sayers: meeting the author just after publication of her new book The Nine Tailors, Pick congratulated her on her knowledge of campanology. But Sayers "turned around and said: 'Young man, twenty minutes with the Encyclopaedia Britannica.' That … that was a moment of great disillusion," said Pick in his British Library interview.
It was Wilbur Smith, though, who was Pick's longest-standing author. Smith's first novel was acquired by Pick in 1962, and the pair worked together until the publisher's death in 2000. Although Pick retired from his final position as chairman of the Heinemann group in 1984, he remained as literary consultant to the bestselling South African writer until he died.
"He was (and still is) extremely good looking and the younger members of the staff would use any reason to come into my office just to catch a glimpse of him," writes Pick of Smith in his memoirs. "It was even suggested that one girl actually swooned on the staircase, but I think that is probably an apocryphal story."
Thanks to the Guardian for this one!