In 1956, when the writer and journalist Stephen Fay was just 18 years old, he was invited, along with other recipients of the Beaverbrook scholarship for children of journalists, to lunch by the lord himself. Beaverbrook asked them for their reaction to the Suez crisis. Stephen was the only one to say that it was an extremely bad idea.
Despite his tender years, he already refused to be intimidated, a characteristic that served him well in six decades of writing and editing.
When the Bank of England was displeased after his book Portrait of an Old Lady: Turmoil at the Bank of England was published in 1987, Stephen refused to take back a word; when Ian Botham tore into him in the Lord’s press box because of what he had written, Stephen stood his ground. The only time he expressed regret about a subject’s ire was after the publication of Power Play: The Life and Times of Peter Hall (1995), his biography of the National Theatre director, whom Stephen revered for both his artistic interpretation and political gifts.
Stephen, who has died aged 81, was one of the great all-rounders of his day, a man of tremendous energy and versatility who made a career from his passions. His books fall roughly into three categories – business and finance, theatre and opera, and cricket, to which he devoted the last part of an astonishingly broad career.
After 20 years at the Sunday Times, finally as Washington correspondent, and then twice deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday, he became, aged 62, the editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly, which the Wisden editor-in-chief Matthew Engel described as consistent with the organisation’s “youth policy”.
Stephen’s great professional joy in recent years was the successful partnership with David Kynaston on Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket (2018), which earned the 2019 Cricket Book of the Year award.
His early books were generated by his work for the Sunday Times after the arrival of Harold Evans as editor in 1967. Compelled by a passion for establishing the facts, Stephen wrote Hoax (1972), the Edgar award-winning exposé of Clifford Irving’s fake biography of Howard Hughes, with Lewis Chester and Magnus Linklater, and The Death of Venice (1976) – about the industrial pollution and corruption in the city – with his friend Phillip Knightley.
In 1980 he published The Great Silver Bubble, the account of how the House of Saud and the Hunt family of Texas tried to corner the silver market. The Collapse of Barings (1996) was, said Kynaston – not, then, a friend – “a virtuoso piece of high-speed research and writing” which “pulls no punches”.
Born in Littleborough, Lancashire, Stephen was the son of Gerard Fay, a journalist on the Manchester Guardian who later became its London editor, and Alice (nee Bentley), who became a teacher. Gerard was the son of Frank, one of two actor brothers who helped set up the Abbey theatre in Dublin with WB Yeats, JM Synge and Augusta Gregory.
After Stephen and his family moved south he went to Highgate school where, in his words, “his performance was entirely without distinction”. He did four years at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, for his scholarship at Beaverbrook’s alma mater, and returned in 1959 with an MA in mid-century maritime economics. Stephen became a journalist with a weekly magazine and was later offered a job at the Glasgow Evening Herald. In 1964 he became Labour editor for the Sunday Times, the same year he married Prudence Butcher, a South African journalist whom he had met on a press trip to Italy organised by a drinks company.
After two decades with the paper he emerged as an apostle for the Sunday Times school of writing, but also as an instinctive and decisive editor. In 1986 he became editor of Kevin Kelly’s Business Magazine where he showed another trait – support for young writers.
One of these was Michael Lewis, the now famous author of The Big Short and Moneyball, whom Stephen spotted early. “When you were with him,” said Lewis, “you felt like you had entered a time capsule and been transported back to 19th-century Fleet Street. He had a face that should have been painted by Hogarth, and was just a joy to write for.”
In 1990, just after the launch of the Independent on Sunday, he took over as Stephen Glover’s deputy and was responsible for much of the paper’s development. “He was a master of the longer descriptive or analytical piece. Young journalists loved learning from him,” said Glover. He returned to the role as deputy to Rosie Boycott for two years from 1996 and was briefly acting editor.
This led to his final third of his career – cricket writing. Since 1948, when aged 10 he saw Denis Compton as well as Don Bradman’s last innings at Lord’s, he had been hooked. He wrote on cricket for the Independent on Sunday then, in 2000, took on the plum Wisden job.
He appointed the young Emma John, now an award-winning sports writer for, among others, the Guardian. “Long before it was cool, he championed female sports writers like me and Tanya Aldred [of the Guardian],” said Emma, who became a friend.
Stephen loved talking to cricket stars. He was at his happiest at a recent Garrick club cricket dinner when surrounded by David Gower, the commentator Jonathan Agnew and the former Australian captain Greg Chappell.
It pleased him that Mike Brearley phoned him in hospital during what turned out to be his final weeks. And he was proud of his friendships with Bob Willis and another England captain, Michael Atherton. “I always left his company with a spring in my step,” said Atherton. “He was a welcome presence in the press box, because he came from outside cricket.”
A charming man with a huge grin, Stephen loved people and sharing his knowledge and experience. He was an extremely cultured man, always reading, passionate about art and architecture, and often going to the theatre and opera with Prudence.
She survives him, as do his children, Susanna and Matthew, and his grandchildren, Rose, Phoebe, Georgina and Charlotte.
• Stephen Francis John Fay, writer and journalist, born 14 August 1938; died 12 May 2020