In life, Desmond Elliott incurred the wrath of Dame Edith Sitwell and the love of innumerable authors and colleagues who regarded him as simply ‘the best’. Jilly Cooper, Sam Llewelyn, Penny Vincenzi, Leslie Thomas and Candida Lycett Green are among the writers forever in his debt. So, too, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber: if Elliott had not introduced the aspirant lyricist and composer, the West End and Broadway would have been the poorer.
In death, Desmond Elliott continues to launch careers for he stipulated that the proceeds of his estate be invested in a charitable trust that would fund a literary award ‘to enrich the careers of new writers’, launching them on a path on which the footholds are now ever-more precarious. For the agent’s goal was always that his authors be relieved of financial worries, allowed to write in happy security. To that end, he played a dual role, believing that agents should be ‘Machiavelli and Elizabeth Arden rolled into one’. It served his authors well and continues to do so.
Elliott himself was ‘a dapper little elf’ — five-foot-nothing, sporting Brooks Brothers’ boys’ wear — but a huge personality. His widowed mother could not afford to keep him so he was schooled at Dublin’s Royal Masonic Orphanage from where he was offered a scholarship to Trinity College. But Desmond was the classic young man in a hurry and, at 16, he boarded the ferry and crossed the Irish Sea with just £2 in his pocket.
He started his career in publishing ‘below stairs’ at Macmillan in 1947. Discovered one morning reading the directors’ mail, he was obliged to leave and joined another family firm, Hutchinson, where he assisted with the advertising. A self-confessed ‘snotty little brat’, Elliott passed swiftly through the offices of every great London publisher of the day, causing a little light mischief en route. Then, in 1960, a £1,000 golden goodbye (‘Pioneering as always, I was the first redundant publisher’) enabled him to strike out on his own.
Arlington Books operated out of one room in Duke Street Mayfair, a locale from which Desmond would never stray – other than to board Concord for New York. He made his first fortune with The Pocket Calorie Guide to Safe Slimming, which enjoyed 40 reprints. Then came a Barnardo’s Boy, Leslie Thomas, seeking a business manager. His best-selling memoir was followed by a best-selling novel which became a box-office smash: The Virgin Soldiers. Desmond Elliott was now both agent and publisher.
The rest is, indeed, history — history which continues to be made as each Desmond Elliott Prize-winner steps forth. Described by Leo Cooper as ‘a brilliant though eccentric publisher, a consummate showman and a clever literary agent’, Desmond Elliott was a one-off, a man who took pleasure in business and whose business was his life. Candida Lycett Green thought him ‘the best possible godfather or kind uncle’. With the Desmond Elliott Prize, he always will be.
Profile by Liz Thomson