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News for nerds

The life of Naim Attallah, who has died aged 89, might have come from the pages of Balzac: he went from currency dealer to company director, racehorse-owner, film and theatre impresario, publisher, magazine proprietor, parfumier, chocolate-maker and – perhaps most importantly and controversially – author.

In the early 1970s, he fell in with John Asprey, heir to the luxury goods group, and under his patronage became joint managing director and eventually group chief executive, expanding the company greatly. On the way up Attallah acquired, independently, Quartet Books (1976), The Women’s Press (1977) and several magazines, including the Wire, the Oldie and the Literary Review, the last of which lost him, over time, an estimated £2.5m.

Attallah identified with those slightly older European immigrants – George Weidenfeld, André Deutsch and Paul Hamlyn – who so influenced postwar literature. But lacking their erudition and gravitas, he tried to glamorise and electrify what he saw as the staid world of publishing. With his unique brand of baroque splendour – jewelled fingers, feet clad in lizard skin, vivid odd socks and iridescent silk linings in his jackets – he exuded charm and self-confidence.

He hosted lavish parties, and cultivated in equal measure both the literati and glitterati, while insisting, endearingly, that it was he who was being cultivated. Gradually he built a small empire, the imperial ethos never one of commercial success, rather of name and fame: to this end it sizzled during the 1980s and 90s with well-born young women. Attallah knew the value of a beguiling or well-connected name, and had a weakness for the double-barrel and even the odd triple, addressing all of them as “Beloved”.

In 1959 Attallah married Maria Nykolyn. “She cuts me lots of slack,” he once said. His love of women was well known, and favoured ones were pampered with perfume and orchids. In time a cult of personality developed around him: everyone loved to please Attallah and he loved to be pleased. Private Eye called him Naim Utterly-Disgusting and the Seedy Parfumier, but, craving attention, he did not mind.

Quartet Books, like its proprietor, was sui generis. It was radical and risk-taking, unafraid of litigation. “Let them sue!” cried the publisher, riding into battle. The list was eclectic, embracing politics, jazz and photography books – including work by Helmut Newton, John Swannell and Bob Carlos Clarke – and gay-lit.

Frivolous books featuring naked celebrities sat alongside translations of recherché European and Middle Eastern literature in the acclaimed Quartet Encounters series. While Quartet’s mainstay for many years was The Joy of Sex, first published in 1972 before Attallah took over, the house continued to innovate and established itself as a dynamic force; a controversial one, too, in publications such as Tony Clifton’s God Cried (1983), with Catherine Leroy’s searing pictures of Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon in 1982.

In 1987, under his own name, Attallah published Women, a book of biblical dimensions, weighing in at 1.5kg (3.5lb) with interviews with 319 famous women on the eternal subjects of life and love. It marked the start of my own role as Attallah’s amanuensis, resulting in nine volumes of interviews with the great and good. I did the research, wrote the questions and edited the transcripts, but it was Attallah’s singular charm and disarming intensity that drew the gems and the sometimes eye-wateringly frank confessions.

Over 15 years (recalled in my 2004 memoir Ghosting), I wrote book reviews, newspaper columns, hundreds of letters (including love letters) and two novels. I ghosted beliefs that he did not hold, feelings that he did not feel. I even invented parts of his life story that he took as his own and was later moved by. But my real job was to protect his self-delusions, and he could never admit – even to himself – that he, the author, was not the writer. There was pity in this. Many people with whom he came into contact knew the truth, which did not lessen their affection for him.

He was invariably described as a self-made man, a rags-to-riches luminary who rose from a series of blue-collar jobs to become CEO of Asprey. The truth was more layered. Attallah was born in Haifa, which was at that time then in Palestine. His parents, Ibrahim and Genevieve, anxious about the political situation, sent him to Britain in 1949 to study engineering at Battersea Polytechnic in London. His time there was cut short because of financial restrictions imposed by the Israeli government in 1951. However, he was not cut out for engineering and aspired to greater heights.

As a young man in London, he received gold sovereigns from his father, a banker, to finance a trip home as well as a luxurious European tour. But a question mark always hung over the source of Attallah’s fortune. In 1996 The Man from Nowhere, a book by an investigative journalist, Frank Dobson, tried to unravel the mystery. In the face of adversity Attallah usually either sued, or treated his foe to an expensive lunch. This time he did both; first he started legal proceedings against the publisher, who eventually agreed to relinquish the rights, then he lunched the furious author into submission with a large payoff. The book was never published.

When it came to contradictions, Attallah could spin on a sixpence: he courted the establishment but also despised it; he was both guileful and naive, gentle and aggressive; he could be heart-movingly open to new – often common – knowledge, the next moment condescendingly disdainful of the ignorant masses.

He had an unassailable idea of himself, yet his large ego could make him vulnerable and paranoid. He would ferret out betrayal where there was none. He prized absolute loyalty; all manner of wild, anarchic and even immoral behaviour was tolerated, providing that the sinner was loyal to him.

In 1995 he was eased out of Asprey, and in his 2007 book Fulfilment and Betrayal, which ran to 800 pages, he portrayed the Aspreys as hapless amateurs who profited from his business acumen and repaid him with treachery.

Attallah was a complex man but there is no doubt he had a huge and positive impact on the lives of many people, and an ability to make things happen. His obsessive personality could infuriate those around him, yet his faults were tangled up with his virtues, and he lived as people rarely do, unconventionally and passionately.

In 2017 he was appointed CBE for services to literature and the arts.

Maria died in 2016. Attallah is survived by their son, Ramsay.