Hilary Rubinstein: A compelling enthusiasm
Nick Marston offers a personal tribute to the agent Hilary Rubinstein, who died earlier this month.Hilary was an agent at AP Watt, the longest established literary agency in the world, from 1965 to 1992, and was Managing Director and Chairman from 1985.
When I joined the firm in 1987, I was immediately made to feel part of his family. My parents were friends of his at Oxford and, according to Hilary, my grandmother "very, very nearly" married his father.
He occupied a beautiful office on the first floor overlooking John Street and Doughty Street. Wherever you sat in the building you could hear his beguiling laughter. The noise levels reached a climax just before lunch when he would skip down the stairs and pull an author from reception back to his office. Hilary's energy always made others open up. I remember loud conversations in foreign languages on the staircase - Frederic Raphael in French, Jan Morris in Welsh, to which Hilary's response was always "Really?!"
It was a compelling enthusiasm, which appeared to will major books into life. There was a look of absolute contentment when a significant manuscript landed on Hilary's desk. And even in the period I was there, they seemed to arrive every week - Martin Gilbert's Life of Churchill, Michael Holroyd's Life of Shaw, Bevis Hillier's Betjeman, Brenda Maddox's Norah Joyce, Robbie Landon's books on composers and collected recordings of Mozart, a flow of Quentin Blake illustrations, Frank Muir's Oxford Book of Humorous Prose, Anthony Holden's biographies, novels by Nadine Gordimer, Alison Lurie and Brian Aldiss, travel books and memoirs by Jan Morris, and so many more. Big books always handled with the lightest of touches.
Hilary's touch never deserted him, and his projects are still blooming. He was instrumental, for example, in Eric Lomax's extraordinary memoir The Railway Man, which was published in 1995 and is just now being made as a feature film starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.
All aspects of Hilary's life worked together seamlessly, and he was always on the hunt for the new. "What's the most exciting thing going on in your life?" he once asked me as we shared a cab on a Tube strike day. He loved the story of how his spirits sank when a hotel owner told him on a visit for the Good Hotel Guide that his daughter Lucy had written a book about her year abroad. "A beautiful blonde walked out of the kitchen," he said. "I read the book that night, and it was called Castaway."
Hilary's letters to prospective clients were like perfectly weighted bait on a hook, and he would reel them in with gusto. A comforting letter to Edwina Currie after a salmonella incident, for example, kick-started a relationship that seemed to defy party allegiances. Edwina had a new career, and Hilary had a new client.
The love of the book was matched by his love of the business. Hilary was tireless in his pursuit of the best for his authors. However, as others have remarked, it didn't seem to be about the figures, more about the spirit of the enterprise. He wanted to turn every book into an event, a celebration. He was entrepreneurial and constantly fashioned inventive deals, but he made sure that everyone emerged with smiles on their faces. His son in law Roland Philipps was once heard expressing gratitude that Hilary had given him the opportunity to make a final bid on a book he was offering. "Yes, final bid," Hilary said with delight when he heard. "And the only bid."
Hilary nurtured his colleagues with the same care and pride with which he nurtured authors. There was a group of remarkable women, including Clarissa Rushdie, Pamela Todd and Norah Child-Villiers, who were very much Hilary's Girls. Some started as his assistants and became agents in their own right. They talked of no one else. And when they spoke of him, their foreheads were sometimes creased in exasperation, but you could see in their eyes that they were utterly devoted.
In a leaving speech for one of his Girls, Hilary said the world was divided into "drains and radiators". To everyone in the room, this seemed to sum up not just his philosophy on life, but his very essence. He was an absolute radiator, and whatever the difficulties and challenges, he demanded that we all share in the good fortune of life. I feel very privileged to have enjoyed his warmth.
Nick Marston is Chairman of the Theatre, Film and Television department at Curtis Brown. This is a version of an address he gave at Hilary Rubinstein's funeral.