Astor and the Observer

1912 David Astor was born the son of Waldorf and Nancy Astor, and grew up in the extraordinary atmosphere of the family home, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, a hotbed of political debate. Cabinet Ministers, intellectuals, celebrities and royalty were regular visitors.

1912 David Astor was born the son of Waldorf and Nancy Astor, and grew up in the extraordinary atmosphere of the family home, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, a hotbed of political debate. Cabinet Ministers, intellectuals, celebrities and royalty were regular visitors.

1916 His wealthy grandfather, W.W. Astor (who, with Waldorf, had bought The Observer in 1911), accepted a peerage to the fury of Waldorf, who would have to give up his Plymouth parliamentary seat and succeed to the title on W.W.'s death. David's mother Nancy went on to take the seat and become the first woman MP.

1924 He was sent to Eton, where tensions with his mother induced a breakdown.

1931 He went up to Balliol. The first person he met in the porter's lodge was a young anti-fascist German, Adam von Trott, who was to become the most influential person in his life.

1933 David left Oxford without a degree.

1936 He joined the Yorkshire Post for a year.

1939 Von Trott, with Astor's help, attempted to persuade the Government that an active opposition to Hitler existed within Germany. Von Trott's involvement in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler led to his execution.

1942-44 J.L. Garvin had been editing The Observer for 34 years. He finally stepped down in 1942 after disagreeing with the Astors over Churchill's handling of the war. 'As far as there was an editor in those dreadful weeks, it was me in my lunch hour,' reflected David some 40 years later. He was a captain in the Royal Marines, on the staff of Mountbatten's Combined Operations HQ, yet he set about remoulding the paper, clearing classified advertisements off the front page and pushing it away from Garvin's conservatism; indeed declaring it a non-party newspaper. Cyril Connolly, who joined briefly as literary editor, introduced him to George Orwell, who was to be a profound influence. Arthur Koestler, Philip Toynbee and Harold Nicolson became regular contributors. Astor introduced the Profile, which represented the paper's collective view of an individual. They were not hatchet jobs: Astor believed that 'men of positive, deliberate evil are exceedingly scarce'.

1944 Astor was wounded in France when his car was machine-gunned. Also caught in the gunfire was Terence Kilmartin, who became literary editor of T he Observer in 1951, retiring in 1985.

1945 Waldorf and Astor transferred ownership of the paper to a board of trustees. Under the terms of the Trust it was impossible for the paper to be bought, and compulsory that its revenue be used for improving it, for promoting good journalism or for charitable purposes.

1948 Astor began 27 years in the editor's chair, establishing The Observer as one of the country's primary voices of freethinking liberalism, and moving it on to a world stage, identifying the evils of apartheid in South Africa.

1948-1956 He attracted more talent to the paper: Vita Sackville-West wrote on gardening, John Davy on science, and Kenneth Tynan's dramatic criticism was required reading. Kilmartin's literary pages won awards for 'unwavering upholding of quality', and Kenneth Obank, as production editor and later managing editor, introduced typography that won the paper a series of design awards.

1956 An extraordinary year for Astor. In February Koestler began the paper's long campaign against capital punishment. In May Tynan wrote his famous review of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger - 'Jimmy Porter is the completest young pup in our literature since Hamlet, Prince of Denmark'. In June the paper cleared regular features and advertisements to make way for all 26,000 words of Nikita Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin. Reaction was generally favourable, but one letter writer was disappointed: 'It was a grave mistake,' he wrote, 'to underestimate your readers and not publish it in the original Russian.' In November Astor denounced Anthony Eden's handling of the Suez crisis, becoming the first national newspaper editor to criticise the invasion. 'We had not realised that our Government was capable of such folly and such crookedness,' said the paper, in a what is now regarded as one of the great editorials of the century. Yet thousands of readers deserted the paper.

1961 Astor was instrumental in establishing Amnesty International after the paper published 'The Forgotten Prisoners' by Peter Benenson.

1962: Astor had a secret meeting in London with Nelson Mandela (he regarded him as 'an African Adam von Trott') who was then on the run from South African police. He introduced him to Labour's Hugh Gaitskell and the Liberals' Jo Grimond.

1963 Kim Philby - widely accused of being the Third Man, the Soviet spy who had tipped off Guy Burgess that Donald Maclean was about to be exposed - was cleared but forced to abandon his job at the Foreign Office. He became The Observer 's Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut, but was expelled and fled to Moscow. He had been the Third Man all along.

1964 Observer colour magazine launched.

1967 Sales reached 903,000.

1975 Astor retired as editor, remaining a director until 1981. Donald Trelford, his successor as editor, stayed for 18 turbulent years, during which he fought to find new owners and save the paper from extinction.


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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