Notebook

Cristina Odone: The dazzling Jewish peer who loved popes

Lord Weidenfeld receives the GBE from Prince Charles (PA)

Please forgive the name-dropping, but when I met Angela Merkel she was not the German chancellor, but an unassuming politician with a degree in chemistry. She was guest of honour at a dinner of the great and good – when no one understood why they were paying homage to this softly spoken German lady.

The fact that captains of industry, cabinet ministers and best-selling authors were queuing to pay homage to the virtual unknown spoke volumes for our host. Lord Weidenfeld’s astuteness was legendary and lay in spotting the book to publish (he discovered Lolita), the painter to invest in (Lord Weidenfeld started collecting Francis Bacon in the 1950s), the budding talent to promote (from Antonia Fraser to Simon Sebag Montefiore, some of our best-known writers found success thanks to George Weidenfeld’s patronage).

But George Weidenfeld was not just an enabler, he was a doer. He co-founded one of Britain’s most prestigious publishing houses, Weidenfeld and Nicolson. He contributed to an extraordinary range of programmes to promote Israel, Europe, the relationship between Catholics and Jews, and democracy. Most recently he launched an initiative to rescue 20,000 Syrian Christians. The Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, which he launched last year, aged 95, was George’s way of repaying his debt of gratitude to the Christians who had helped him, an Austrian Jew, escape Nazism.

Christians, especially Catholics, intrigued him. When I was editor of the Catholic Herald, George summoned me to dinner. Held in his book-lined, wood-panelled apartment on the Chelsea Embankment, under the piercing gaze of a succession of portraits of popes (including a Francis Bacon he later sold for several million pounds), George’s dinners had long drawn legendary names: Vladimir Nabokov, Noël Coward, Cecil Beaton, Lord and Lady Longford, Antonia Fraser, all had endured George’s indifferent catering and relished his incomparable guest list.

My dinner included Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat owner; Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel; and Roy Jenkins. I was dazzled – and delighted when George settled his not inconsiderable bulk beside me on the sofa and told me about his stay at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. He, John Paul II and others had shared their vision of a new era. With communism vanquished, here was a golden opportunity to spread Judaeo-Christian values, he said, to countries that had been forced to repudiate them under totalitarian regimes.

He and I often mourned the way that these values were being erased from public life. I wish I had been in time to show him the agenda of my latest project: a Centre for Character and Values, at the Legatum Institute. Our think tank will be looking at projects such as his Safe Havens Fund, which make an undisputed contribution to the public good, and see what values inspire them. I hope so much that George would have approved – and even, perhaps, joined the board of advisers. An ally like him turns even the most modest venture into a surefire success.

George had his critics, naturally. They claimed that power often trumped principles in his eyes.  When Margaret Thatcher was in power, George, the SDP supporter, suddenly sounded more Tory than the Tories; when Tony Blair won a landslide in 1997, George swerved back to the Left.

He never did learn to drive, or to drink alcohol. Charming, suave and a brilliant conversationalist, he was a ladies’ man who married four times. George’s widow, the lovely Annabel Whitestone, was the aunt of one of the Catholic Herald’s journalists. I remember remarking upon the happiness Annabel clearly found with her much older husband. ‘‘George is incapable of being boring’’ was how the journalist explained the May-November union.

George had a logical mind. I don’t. But I soon will. Damian Thompson, editorial director of the Herald, teased me so mercilessly about my illogical cast of mind that I am now taking logic lessons from the great LSE professor Eileen Barker, who runs Inform, the charity that teaches about cults. I sweated through my first lesson this week over logical fallacies. Here was a typically confounding one: some popular beliefs are false, for popular beliefs are never subtle and some true beliefs are subtle. Dear reader, can you point to the fallacy in this statement?

Cristina Odone is director of the Centre for Character and Values at the Legatum Institute (li.com)