Latest News > Peter Owen, 1927-2016
Peter Owen, OBE, died peacefully on Tuesday morning, 31 May, surrounded by friends and family at the Whittington Hospital, London, after a short illness. Peter had celebrated his 89th birthday in February. He will be sadly missed by his family and friends, and remembered by his admirers around the world as the publisher who brought a host of brilliant writers, including Hermann Hesse, Shusaku Endo, Jean Cocteau, Yukio Mishima and Tarjei Vesaas, into the English language.
Born Peter Offenstadt, Peter Lothar Owen began his life in 1927, the only child of an Anglo-German Jewish couple in Nuremburg, Bavaria. His memories of the rise of Nazism and the Second World War are vivid and chilling. Forced to emigrate to Britain in 1933, Peter recalls a lonely childhood, his loneliness assuaged by reading books from his eccentric Uncle Rudi’s extensive library – a selection that included Robert Graves’s ‘Claudius’ novels, Tolstoy, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens and Thackeray.
This early taste for classic English novels and quality world literature was to prove a formative experience, influencing the choices Peter later made as proprietor of his own publishing house. Throughout his career he remained determined to publish high-quality literature, while being unafraid to innovate; his publishing house pioneered books on gay rights, was an early champion of women’s issues and writing, and produced books on politics, social issues, drug culture and ecology many years before specialist publishers in these areas came into existence. Many of the modern classics Peter premiered fifty or more years ago are still in print and selling steadily today.
Aged twenty-one, with Neville Armstrong and investor Malcolm Kirk, he founded his first publishing venture, Peter Nevill [sic], in 1948. Peter is quoted as saying, ‘In those days paper was strictly rationed, so I chatted up a girl in the Board of Trade. She felt sorry for me and allotted me a quota of six tons – enough to publish twelve books. With that, and £20 demob pay, I was launched into publishing.’
In March 1951 Peter resigned co-directorship of Peter Nevill, Armstrong buying out Peter for £875. With this Peter founded Peter Owen Publishers in April 1951. Novelists Muriel Spark – whom Peter described as ‘extremely efficient and pleasant until she became a grande dame and dumped all her old friends’ – and Elizabeth Berridge were his first and second editors. Peter did much of the packing, sales and distribution himself, recalling, ‘You have to be willing to work like a dog for at least five years to make a go of it as an independent publisher. An amateur must not touch it. Only someone who knows the trade stands a chance.’
Peter’s great skill in backing authors of enduring appeal underlies much of the company’s success. He was a pioneer of quality world literature in translation, counter-cultural writing and specialist non-fiction. Throughout his life he made many enduring friendships – and occasional enmities – with the authors he published, and had a wealth of colourful anecdotes about his encounters with them and many other notable people he met along the way.
He struck up a cordial friendship with neighbour and drinking companion Francis Bacon, who proclaimed him ‘the only publisher in England who produces anything interesting’. Peter thrice visited the Spanish home of Salvador Dalí to gain the English language rights, illustrations and signatures for the arch-surrealist’s only novel, Hidden Faces. As well as Cocteau and Endo, he met and published Yoko Ono (her book Grapefruit also featured illustrations by John Lennon), Anaïs Nin, Anna Kavan, Paul Bowles, William Donaldson (Henry Root) and many other literary luminaries.
In 1953 he married Wendy Demoulins, who became a talented and successful novelist under the name Wendy Owen; they had two daughters and remained on good terms after divorcing in 1976. He was awarded an OBE in 2014 for services to literature.
His legacy is the still proudly independent publishing house that bears his name and is undergoing something of a renaissance, having last month announced an exciting new merger with Istros Books. The mantle of Publisher passes to his elder daughter, Antonia. He also leaves a younger daughter, Georgina, and a son, Benedict.
For more information please contact Nick Kent at Peter Owen Publishers on 020 8350 1775 or 07952 976 091. This obituary was written by James Nye, Peter’s colleague and friend.