ROBIN ALASTAIR DENNISTON
CLERGYMAN, PUBLISHER, WRITER
25-12-1926 6-4- 2012
ROBIN Denniston, an influential publisher who launched the careers of writers such as Erich Segal, John le Carre and Anthony Sampson only to give it all up in 1995 to become a country priest, has died. He was 85.
Denniston initially demonstrated his flair at Collins, when he spotted the potential of Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings stories. In 1960, he was recruited by Hodder and Stoughton, where he became successively editorial director and managing director.
With his instinctive grasp of public taste, Denniston soon changed the firm's stuffy image. Among other coups, he was responsible for buying Erich Segal's Love Story, which became a huge bestseller, and also commissioned Anthony Sampson to write his Anatomy of Britain, first published in 1962.
Perhaps his greatest triumph was to poach John le Carre from Gollancz at a time when the author was under attack from critics for The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971), and went on to bring the world the George Smiley novels, starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974).
Le Carre rewarded Robin for his unstinting support by staying with Hodder through 25 years and 16 bestsellers.
Publishing spy novels was a natural progression for the boy whose father had been head of the legendary team of World War II code-breakers at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. The literary agent, George Greenfield, noted in his memoirs that Denniston "could almost have been a character out of a Graham Greene or John le Carre novel . . . he had that vague, slightly shambling air that concealed a sharp and incisive mind".
Fiercely proud of his father, Alastair, he documented his contribution to British intelligence in Thirty Secret Years (2007).
Born in London to Alastair and Dorothy, Denniston was educated at Westminster school, one of Britain's leading independent schools, where he was a scholar, captain of the cricket XI and a promising pianist. He took a classics degree at Oxford University where, by his own account, he "scraped an indifferent second". National Service followed in the airborne artillery.
In 1950, he married Anne Evans and took up a trainee post at Collins in Glasgow. He swiftly became an editor, but left to take up the post of managing director of the religious publisher, Faith Press (1959-60). However, his professional heart lay in mainstream publishing, so he moved on to a string of increasingly stellar roles at, successively, Hodder, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Thomson Publications and Oxford University Press (OUP).
Denniston joined OUP as academic publisher in 1978 and, by the time of his retirement in 1988, had risen to publisher.
He had an instinctive flair for dealing with people as well as books. Rapidly expanding OUPs publishing programs, he did much to transform an ancient institution to meet the challenges of the modern industry.
While working in publishing, Denniston was ordained first as a deacon, then as a priest in the Anglican Church. He became a non-stipendiary minister at the village of Great Tew, near Oxford (1987-90), and then minister to a congregation in Fife, Scotland (1990-93), where he had followed his second wife, Rosa Beddington, as she pursued an illustrious scientific career.
They had married in 1987, after she read the moving letters he wrote to a friend on the death from cancer two years earlier of Anne, with whom he had a son, Nicholas, and two daughters, Susanna and Candida. Rosa died in 2001 at the vicarage at Great Tew, where the couple had returned at the request of the parishioners, after five years in Edinburgh, with Denniston now as priest-in-charge (1995-2002).
Denniston's interest in his father's intelligence career led him to write Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, The Foreign Office and Turkey 1942-44 (1997), in which he showed how Churchill tried to bring Turkey into the war on the side of the Allies.
A long friendship with the anti-apartheid bishop, Trevor Huddleston, whose Naught For Your Comfort he had edited for publication, led to his writing Huddleston's official biography, Trevor Huddleston: A Life, in 1999. Earlier, in 1992, he co-edited Anatomy of Scotland with Magnus Linklater.
He is survived by his children.