Obituary: David Astor

David Astor, who has died aged 89, was one of the most influential newspaper editors of the century, writes Anthony Sampson.

David Astor, who has died aged 89, was one of the most influential newspaper editors of the century, through the Observer which he edited from 1948-75.

But his influence extended further through a network of charities, lobbies and close friendships.

He was an idealist who learned how to turn ideas into execution, with a combination of sensitivity and persistence.

He appeared diffident, but was very determined. He had natural charm, but remained shy and uneasy with small talk. He relished political challenges, but remained very private.

As a child, through his parents, he had a nursery insight into world politicians and statesmen. But he was soon at odds with his American mother Nancy, the first woman MP, who sought to impose her conservative views and belief in Christian Science on her family.

At Eton, David's tensions with his mother induced a breakdown and later he left Oxford without taking a degree.

He took many years to find his m¿tier, working briefly at Lazard's bank, then at the Yorkshire Post and then putting on pantomimes.

During the war, David began contributing to the Observer, which was owned by his father, and after it took increasing responsibility until he was formally appointed editor in 1948.

His first marriage to Melanie Hauser ended in 1945 and it was not till he married Bridget Wreford in 1952 that he had a totally secure home life.

David had little respect for the conventions of journalism, but had a flair for editing and for nursing talent, and a rare overview of world politics.

He hired intellectual friends including George Orwell, Arthur Koestler and Sebastian Haffner and turned them into journalists.

He always looked for unorthodox thinkers and was determined to maintain the Observer's independence.

He was concerned above all with injustice, which led him to champion the anti-colonial movements in Africa and the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

The Observer in the fifties was a newspaper like no other - eccentric, amateurish, indulgent, but with a distinction and intellectual courage which attracted readers with a passionate loyalty.

Even though David was bored by commercial questions, economics and advertisers, the Observer steadily crept up on the money-minded Sunday Times, and by 1956 was about to overtake it.

But his campaign against the invasion of Suez appalled conservative readers, and led Jewish companies to withdrew their advertising, and three of the seven trustees to resign.

The paper found new readers but never recovered its commercial momentum.

David accepted more popular consumer features, but never compromised over the intellectual core of the paper.

In 1975 he retired as editor, although he stayed on as a director.

But David was almost as active without the Observer. He had initiated an extraordinary range of trusts, charities and pressure groups, luring distinguished people into small groups while remaining self-effacing.

His public achievements rested on a happy home life with Bridget and five children who helped to perpetuate many of his interests.

He could still inspire and reassure his friends, both young and old, with his personal generosity and passionate concern for truth and social justice.

· Francis David Langhorne Astor, newspaper editor, born March 5 1912; died December 7 2001

· For full obituary see The Guardian tomorrow, December 8

Anthony Sampson

The GuardianTramp

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