Naim Attallah, the Eighties literary ‘It’ girl set, and me

February 8, 2021
Anna Pasternak worked for Naim Attallah at Quartet Books in the 1980s
Naim Attallah with Nigella Lawson, Dominic Lawson and Rosa Monckton at the book launch of Fulfilment and Betrayal in 2007 
CREDIT: Richard Young/Shutterstock

When I heard that Naim Attallah had died last week, I felt as if a vital pop of literary colour had left our drab world. The flamboyant Palestinian proprietor of Quartet Books was a character so vivid that his exotic existence now seems the stuff of fiction. The entrepreneur who financed The Literary Review and The Oldie magazine, made a society splash in the 1980s throwing the most dazzling parties in London, employing only aristocratic beauties or girls with famous literary surnames. ‘Attallah’s harem’ as it was known, would not pass muster with HR today. He created a wave of literary It girls, including Nigella Lawson, Rebecca Fraser, Sophia Sackville-West, Daisy Waugh, Emma Soames, Candida Crewe, Jubby Ingrams, Virginia Bonham-Carter. And me.  

Attallah’s charm was so persuasive that he not only conquered the tweedy affections of the British establishment, but he practically seduced my rigidly intellectual grandmother, Josephine Pasternak, then well into her 80s, into letting him publish her painter father, Leonid’s memoirs. He had interviewed her about her brother, Boris Pasternak, for his iconic book Women, in which 300 high-powered women poured their secrets out to him. AN Wilson once described Attallah as “the best interviewer alive.”

Fresh out of Oxford, I was considered leggy enough to work for Attallah, who insisted that we wore mini skirts to the office. I worked in Quartet’s publicity department for a year and it was all so gloriously un-PC that viewed through the prism of today’s woke world, it makes me miss Attallah and his eccentricities more. Imagine any employer today saying, as Attallah did to an interviewer in 1990: “When you get an upper-class girl to work for you, she doesn’t mind what you ask her to do – she doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder, so she won’t say it is not her place to lick stamps or make coffee.”

“Attallah was a sorcerer with many gorgeous apprentices,” remembers his friend, Nicky Haslam. “Under that daffy appearance was a steely manner yet he bewitched everybody. He could get anyone to do anything for him. The girls who worked for him were spellbound, even though he was wonderfully dotty.”

Attallah’s style was trademark exhibitionist. He wore handmade suits with flashes of bright silk lining to match his tie, odd socks, two watches (one on each wrist as he was obsessive about punctuality) with chunky ruby and emerald rings. His “lair” was a penthouse in Soho – part upmarket brothel, part gentlemen’s club – complete with a huge tiger skin, head included, and erotic art on the walls. His Sloaney chef tottered around in stilettos serving fresh langoustines and sliced mango in the boardroom every day. Naim stoked jealousies and rivalries among us by choosing who was to join him for the coveted lunch. Afterwards, the chef added two drops of rose water into his coffee, in the manner of a holy rite.

It wasn’t exactly an upper crust cult but working at Quartet had the feel of a phenomenon. We adored him, jostling for position to be his favourite. He called us all “Beloved” in a soft purring voice. The first time I went to Quartet’s offices, two freezing, dilapidated Dickensian buildings in Goodge Street, I was like Alice in Wonderland. It was all out of whack. Instead of the whir of the typewriter, was the burr of the hairdryer. Velvet dresses hung on the backs of doors and chairs. Glossy hair-flicking girls sat around discussing last night’s parties. 

We rarely did any work, though I do remember lugging sacks of Glenys Kinnock’s book to the post office. (Publishing The Joy of Sex was one of Attallah’s more lucrative forays into print.) Naim paid us a pittance but we didn’t care because the cachet of being a Quartet Girl was everything. 

He was kind and generous to his core; as chief executive of Asprey jewellers, we were given fuschia lizard wallets from Asprey for Christmas, while his parties were a thrilling melting pot of society, literati and celebrity. In the 1980s, this meant that Imran Khan, Martin Amis, Viscount Linley, Jerry Hall and Marie Helvin would be among the throng. He introduced us to Auberon Waugh, who edited The Literary Review, so that those of us with literary aspirations could write for the brilliant Bron.

I achieved the sine qua non of being a Quartet Girl when I was chosen to accompany Naim to his holiday home in the Dordogne (flying Club Class for the first time). This honour created furious jealousies among the harem, which tickled him greatly. Apart from messing around with a few faxes, we did no work. My “duties” were to accompany him to the market every day to choose the lobster for lunch. Thankfully, when I went, there was no swimming pool. Later, according to his editor, Jennie Erdal, naked sunbathing by the pool was mandatory. Yet he remained happily married to his Polish wife Maria, who tolerated us all with amused benevolence. I remember those days bathed in the glow of innocence.

“Naim was always touchingly proud when things went well,” recalls Princess Alexandra’s daughter-in-law, Julia Ogilvy, whom Naim employed at Garrard, when he was CEO of Asprey. “Life was always entertaining around him.”

Sadly, the party ended for Attallah about 20 years ago, when he wound up his publishing company. His various entrepreneurial endeavours, including being a film producer (The Slipper and the Rose) and a parfumier (he launched fragrances called Avant L’Amour and Apres L’Amour) also lost traction. In 2004, he felt betrayed by the publication of Ghosting, in which Jennie Erdal revealed that she had ghostwritten most of his work – including two novels, the odd poem and his letters, speeches and columns for the best part of 15 years.

He had rescued Jennie after her first husband left her with three children to bring up alone in Scotland, offering her a job. Fluent in Russian, her first assignment for Attallah was to visit my grandmother in Oxford to acquire the rights to Leonid’s memoirs. Decades after I left Quartet, I became friends with Erdal myself. When she died last year, I re-read Ghosting. It’s the most superbly affectionate portrayal of Naim and I was instantly transported back to those heady, carefree days. 

Describing the Quartet Girls’ office banter, Erdal writes: “They also spoke in shrill absolutes, so that someone was a total darling or a complete noodle. They complained of a frightful pong.” When Erdal describes leaving after 20 years working for Naim, she writes: “Things would never be different again.” That is exactly how I feel after the death of this much-loved man. 

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