Livia Gollancz obituary

Professional musician with a second career heading the publishing company Victor Gollancz

Livia Gollancz, who has died aged 97, was one of the first women to head a publishing company, serving for 17 years as managing director of Victor Gollancz Ltd. But it was her earlier career as a French horn player, working with many leading conductors, including John Barbirolli, Thomas Beecham and Adrian Boult, that captured her heart. Her 15 years as a professional musician were brought to an end only by dental problems exacerbated by and inimical to horn-playing.

In 1953, out of desperation rather than desire, she accepted her father’s invitation to join the family firm. The change in lifestyle was a tremendous shock at first. Describing herself at that time as “like a drowning person grasping at a raft”, she only planned to stay for a couple of months, but remained with the company for 36 years.

She started “right at the bottom”, making coffee and typing labels, laying out advertisements and book covers, and then writing cover copy. After two years she was allowed to edit her first book: Journey into a Fog by Margareta Berger-Hamerschlag, an art teacher’s account of her work with young people in a deprived area of London. Over the next decade Livia’s father taught her the workings of the industry, grooming her to be his successor. Her position as the boss’s daughter caused resentment at times: one of the casualties of her advancement was her cousin, Hilary Rubinstein, who left the firm and became a literary agent. When Victor suffered a serious stroke in 1966, Livia took over as managing director, and ended her time with the company as chairman (1983-89).

Professionally, if not emotionally, Livia was deeply committed to publishing. Her list of authors included Ivy Compton-Burnett, Daphne du Maurier, Michael Innes/JIM Stewart, Terence de Vere White and the spy thriller writer Anthony Price, whom she claimed to have discovered. As well as the thriller list at Gollancz, she took on all the music books and the mountaineering and walking titles, her own passions well into old age.

Under her leadership, Gollancz remained an old-fashioned company. Promotion came primarily from within and overtime was unpaid. Always willing to publish a book she liked, regardless of its commercial viability, she regretted the rise of large conglomerates and was critical of literary agents for the decline of the editor-author relationship. She made little effort to keep up with technological advances, although the accounts were finally computerised.

In spite of having suffragette ancestry, Livia was surprisingly indifferent to feminist publishing or lists aimed at female readers, and her attitude towards women’s advancement in publishing was far from progressive. “A publishing firm is like an hour glass,” she once said. “If you don’t get through the little gap into the top bit, you tend to leave. Once you’ve got through the gap you’ve probably got past the age when you want to be having a family.”

For Livia, books always took second place to music. In an interview given shortly after she retired, she remarked: “It’s very funny that the whole of the publishing thing has just gone from my mind – I must have absolutely hated it really.”

Livia Gollancz with her French horn
Livia Gollancz worked with many leading conductors during her years playing the French horn. Photograph: Tony Catterick Collection

Born in west London, Livia was the eldest of five daughters of Victor and his wife, Ruth (nee Lowy), and grew up in a large and long-established Anglo-Jewish family. Her maternal grandmother, Henrietta, was an active suffragette who taught all her daughters to drive. Imprisoned on several occasions for her suffragette activities, she and Emmeline Pankhurst would sometimes swap clothes after meetings to enable the latter to evade arrest. Livia’s mother was a fully qualified architect, one of the first four women in 1917 to gain admission to the Architectural Association.

Art, music and books played a central role in Livia’s childhood. All her pocket money went on concert and opera tickets, including the 15 shillings intended for her school certificate. She was also intensely political in her teenage years, heavily involved with the Left Book Club, which her father founded in 1936, and an ardent member of the Young Communist League. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 shattered her political beliefs, after which she lost all confidence in politics and politicians.

Educated at Kensington high school and St Paul’s Girls’ school, Livia bought her first French horn for £5 at the age of 15, and at 16 was accepted at the Royal College of Music to study horn and viola. The second world war created opportunities for female musicians and she joined the London Symphony Orchestra straight out of college in 1940. When Barbirolli became conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in 1943, he chose Livia as principal horn. She admired his insistence that female musicians should be treated on their musical merits, but after two years they parted company when she told him his approach to classical music was “too romantic for my taste”, an opinion she later regretted as the “audacity and stupidity of youth”. She then joined the Scottish Orchestra (1943–45, now the Royal Scottish National Orchestra), and the BBC Scottish Orchestra (1945-46, now the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra).

Returning to London in 1947, Livia was appointed principal horn at Covent Garden, where she had her first experience of pit work and chauvinism. Karl Rankl, then its musical director, who was known for his resistance to female musicians, refused to work with her. In 1949 one of the most enjoyable phases of her musical career began at the Old Vic Theatre Company. At Sadler’s Wells Opera (1950-53), she worked under Michael Mudie, whom she considered the best British conductor of his generation.

In retirement, she returned to the viola and violin, the instruments of her childhood, and also sang, both solo and chorally. A member of the Alpine Club, in 1964 she climbed the Matterhorn. She thought nothing of walking for five or six hours a day well into her 70s, and was still playing chamber music on a regular basis in her 80s. As a musician, she was proud of having played the demanding fourth horn part in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in the first season of Proms concerts after their move to the Royal Albert Hall, in 1941. As a publisher, she was proud of having sold Gollancz to Houghton Mifflin in 1989 without the loss of a single job.

She is survived by six nephews, three great-nephews and five great-nieces.

• Livia Ruth Gollancz, publisher and musician, born 25 May 1920; died 29 March 2018


Rebecca Abrams

The GuardianTramp

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