Obituaries: Leo Cooper
Convivial publisher of the old school, and husband of successful novelist Jilly Cooper
LEO Cooper, who died recently aged 79, made his mark as a publisher of military books and included on his list Sir George "Loopy" Kennard and Brigadier "Honky" Henniker ; none of his authors, however, was remotely as successful as his wife, Jilly, to whom he was married for more than 50 years.
He was a convivial publisher of the old school, a pillar of the Garrick Club and an enthusiastic amateur cricketer. After learning the ropes at some distinguished publishing houses, he eventually set up on his own; but it became increasingly hard for small, independent firms to survive, and after various changes of ownership Cooper eventually retired from the business in 2002.
His own achievements were, inevitably, overshadowed by those of his wife, who began her career in books with How To Stay Married (1969). Despite the very public revelations of his affair with a married woman in the Nineties, the Coopers remained devoted to one another – a high-profile and popular couple in media circles.
Leonard Cooper was born in Yorkshire on March 25, 1934, the eldest of three children. His childhood was difficult – his father drank, and he was caught in the ensuing crossfire – but his schooldays were entirely pleasurable.
At his prep school he learned to play the piano with one hand – the other was busy fending off the advances of the music master – and at Radley he took charge of the military band and distinguished himself on the rugby and cricket fields. He was capped at cricket for the Yorkshire schoolboys; in later life he smashed Denis Compton for six with such vigour that he toppled a spectator sitting in a wheelchair into a nearby pond.
He did his National Service in Kenya, obtaining a commission despite being deaf in one ear, and was attached to the 70th East African Brigade. The Mau Mau troubles were then at their height – on one occasion 26 bodies were lined up outside his camp, all of them shot through the head. He loved the country, and acquired a lifelong interest in regimental lore and traditions which he later put to good use as a publisher.
Shortly after his return from Kenya, Cooper married his housemaster's daughter, Diana, but she left him soon after the birth of their daughter; the break-up of their marriage was described by his aunt, Lettice Cooper, in her novel The Double Heart (1968). Shortly afterwards he met Jilly Sallitt at a dinner party in London. They had known each other as children in Yorkshire, and she had been impressed by the way he hurled a raspberry jelly at a tiresome girl at a party. They were married in 1961.
With a family to keep, Cooper decided to look for a job in publishing. He turned for advice to his literary aunts Lettice and Barbara, who worked for John Lehmann at the London Magazine. In due course, he found a berth checking invoices at Longmans. The firm was run on pleasingly old-fashioned lines. "I am very glad that you take an interest in the books," Mark Longman told his new recruit, "but whatever you do don't talk to me about them when there are other people around. You see, I don't actually read them."
Willy Longman's only known contribution was to organise the All England Croquet Tournament at Hurlingham; a defrocked clergyman snoozed behind his desk; the publicity manager was an ex-boxer who had earlier been the transport manager in a laundry.
Cooper then moved to work for Andre Deutsch, whom he found mean, tyrannical and devious. Most unforgivably of all – or so Cooper later claimed – Deutsch deliberately spun out a meeting one Saturday morning, so making his employee late for a match in which he was captaining the Honourable Artillery Company against MCC. From there he went on to Hamish Hamilton, as publicity manager.
Cooper did not hit it off with Hamilton, whom he considered a snob. Hamilton, Cooper suggested, changed the photographs on his piano according to who was coming to dinner. One day Sir Malcolm Sargent rang in to say that he was "quietly slipping away". Hamilton was too busy to take his call, so Cooper took it instead. By the time Hamilton got around to phoning him back, the great conductor was dead.
While at Hamish Hamilton, Cooper had started Famous Regiments, a series of regimental histories edited by General Sir Brian Horrocks, and he took them with him when, in 1968, he set up Leo Cooper Ltd, specialising in books on military history. His authors included Sir George "Loopy" Kennard, and Brigadier "Honky" Henniker.
Life as a small, independent publisher was a hazardous business, however. In 1970 the firm merged with the long-established firm of Seeley Service, which was in turn bought by Frederick Warne in 1979 after the company went into receivership. This proved a wretched experience, but in 1982 he moved under the happier umbrella of Secker & Warburg, then part of the Heinemann Group. In 1990 the firm was sold to the Barnsley Chronicle and renamed Pen & Sword Books. Cooper stayed with them for a while before retiring from publishing.
In the Eighties the Coopers – Leo, Jilly and their adopted son and daughter – left Putney for The Chantry, an old manor house in Gloucestershire complete with tennis court and pet cemetery. Cooper was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2001; his memoirs, All My Friends Will Buy It (subtitled A Bottlefield Tour) were published in 2005.
His wife and children survive him.