LONDON: Eccentric publisher Naim Attallah passed away last week at the age of 89 after contracting the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), but the Palestinian-British man’s legacy — which includes his glamorous lifestyle — will outlive him for generations to come.
Attallah was born in 1931 to a Catholic family in Haifa, which was a part of Palestine at the time. In 1949, when he was 18 years old, his parents sent him to the UK to complete an engineering degree at the Battersea Polytechnic in London. His time at the institution was cut short due to financial restrictions imposed by the Israeli government in 1951, and so he pursued greater ambitions.
Over the next few years, and with no source of income from home, Attallah worked odd jobs in order to survive, a fact that would lead him to be described as self-made. This included work as a steeplejack, a bouncer at an all-night jazz club, a worker at an electrical factory and a banker, before becoming the well-dressed author and publisher known for his controversial ideas and the CEO of luxury-goods group Asprey.
In 1957, Attallah married interior decorator Maria Nykolyn after a proposal in a Wandsworth cinema. During a walk home in more straitened times, when the young couple saw a jewel-studded watch in one of Asprey’s shop windows, Attallah promised his wife that he would one day own it.
And so he did, along with the entire company.
But before taking the helm, Attallah worked arduously under John Asprey as a joint managing director. He was then promoted to lead the group and became its chief executive. Seeking to establish his own independent business, he bought Quartet Books in 1976, The Women’s Press in 1977 and several magazines that include the Wire, the Oldie and the Literary Review.
Attallah’s footprint in the publishing realm was prominent. Highly charismatic, he inspired and attracted large numbers of both authors and readers.
Well-connected with many high-profile personalities in the art field, Attallah knew the power of networking and friendships, frequently hosting lavish parties filled with the women he admired and wrote about in many of his publications.
At Quartet Books, he was known for being radical and risk-taking, unafraid of litigation riding into courts battle. Fearless of editorial boundaries, Attallah was known for his motto, “Let them sue!” when faced with the risk of court cases after taking controversial and bold decisions.
In 1987 and under his authoring, Attallah published his famous, 1.5-kilogram book “Women,” which featured the stories of women across the globe.
For this enormous compilation, Attallah interviewed close to 300 women on subjects that varied from feminism, sexuality, creativity, motherhood and professional life.
In his most recent book, “Memories,” published in 2020, Attallah cataloged his early years in London, speaking of his contemporaries at length and describing the highs and lows of his different relationships with a host of cultural luminaries over the years.
Attallah’s fifteen books, from memoirs to interviews, as well as his many blog posts, offer a taste of late 20th-century London culture.
Many would not know the name of Attallah — appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to Literature and the Arts — but in the publishing world, he remains an icon and an inspiration.