CATS and the survival of Fabers

This is a continuation of the story about Valerie Eliot and the making of Cats, told here. Let’s start with a typical description of Valerie Eliot’s widowhood:

After his death on 4 January 1965, Valerie proved a sterling and inspirational guardian of Eliot’s work. She inherited his shareholding in the publishers Faber and Faber and became an active member of the board. The 1974 facsimile of The Waste Land, which includes Ezra Pound’s annotations and which she edited, has not been faulted.

I could quibble about the way Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, is ignored in the and other descriptions of the facsimile edition, even though she also helped to shape the final version and her notes are included along with Pound’s. But the important error is the general understanding of Valerie’s involvement in the firm. Indeed, she inherited her husband’s assets, and copyrights. He did not have a shareholding in the company, as far as I’ve discovered, but was of course important to the company’s reputation and brand. His books would have had steady backlist sales, but it was only with Cats that Eliot became a big moneymaker for the firm.

The last chapter of Toby Faber’s Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is, by his admission, very short. It tells, in fits and starts, the story of the company in the 1980s, between Cats and the reorganization that made Valerie a co-owner of the firm. (The book’s cover, incidentally, highlights how the firm has misrepresented its connection with Sylvia Plath – who probably, like Valerie, made more money for Fabers than either of the husbands. “Sylvia Plath’s ghostly presence.”)

In many ways, the second half of the 1980s was a golden time for Faber & Faber. It won the Booker Prize two years in succession, with Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in 1989.  There is little hint Of these triumphs in the short chapter that follows. For this was also a time of uncertainty. Every publisher in London seemed to be for sale, and Faber’s very success only made it more attractive to potential bidders. Many of its authors were not yet convinced that the firm could be a good paperback publisher. Sales directors left the firm with alarming regularity. Every year the company was only making profits because of the money it received from Cats. Tom Faber, still chairman of the Holding Company and essentially the owner of the firm, was frequently exasperated. so this chapter really seeks to give a sense of the mood that led, in 1990, not to the sale of the company, but instead to a restructuring that made the company almost impossible to sell.

Initially intended to enable employees to buy shares, this reorganisation brought in Valerie Eliot as a sympathetic shareholder in Faber & Faber on equal terms to the Holding Company. The move effectively meant that the Faber family gave up the ability to sell to a deep-pocketed competitor and has protected Faber’s independence ever since. To my mind, it is the happy ending towards which this story has been building since 1924.

We don’t know what royalty percentage was negotiated between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Fabers, or what the split between Fabers and Valerie was. That split would presumably have been set out in the subsidiary rights clause in the original contract for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. By the time I was signing book contracts, that clause was the biggest difference between UK and US standard terms. In the UK, the author got 80% and the publisher 20%, while in US contracts a 50/50% split seemed to be the standard.

I wish I knew if Valerie got 80% or 50% of those millions, and how the struggling Faber & Faber felt about passing on all that lovely lolly to a woman they no doubt felt didn’t need it the way they did.

Back to Toby Faber, from a report on how to improve the profitability of Faber & Faber, April 1989:

“Management have not been successful … in adapting the business to the rapidly changing market and competitive environments and in the application of modern management techniques for this purpose. The most serious weakness is the absence of a strong and stable team of senior managers across all the functions of the Company. In particular the long saga of the appointments to the position of Sales Director and the current absence of both a Sales Director and a Distribution Director are potentially disastrous at a time when the Company faces a bookselling and publishing revolution. . . . Lower down the scale, at departmental level, management structures and discipline are extremely loose, and with one or two exceptions, there is no real profit consciousness. . . . The absence of effective management shows up in the financial results…. Cats income has helped to soften the blow, but it has also had the effect of delaying the corrective action needed.”

To meet [the] criticism that staff in Faber & Faber needed to be more profit-conscious, and to help retain key individuals like Robert McCrum, the company decided to set up an Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP). Such a scheme would have lost its tax advantages, however, if the Holding Company retained a majority of Faber & Faber. The logic pointed towards finding a third shareholder, to sit alongside the Holding Company and the employees. That led to Valerie Eliot and ‘SET Copyrights’, which held T. S. Eliot’s copyrights and therefore received the royalties from Cats. Negotiations commenced between Tom Faber and Valerie’s advisers.

And on 17 November 1989, this press release appeared:


The shareholders of the Faber Group have recently approved a scheme which is designed to safeguard the prosperity and continued independence of the publishing house of Faber and Faber Ltd. [… ]

The central feature of the scheme is the sale by the Group’s Holding Company of over 50 per cent of the shares in Faber and Faber Ltd to Directors and other members of the staff, through an employee benefit trust, and to Mrs T. S. Eliot, through SET Copyrights Ltd.

Mrs Eliot already has shares in the Holding Company and will become, through SET, a major shareholder in Faber and Faber Ltd. She will also participate as a Director.

It is the intention of all those participating that Faber and Faber’s commitment to editorial excellence across a wide range of books, especially in new fiction, poetry and plays, should be as strong as ever.

The scheme is designed to assure all Faber authors, and Faber’s friends throughout the book trade generally, that the Company is determined to live up to the hopes and intentions of its founder, Sir Geoffrey Faber.

You will note that Fabers was negotiating with “Valerie and her advisors.” I don’t know who those advisors were at that point (though I met one of them when she asked me to deliver some papers and we got into a conversation that led to his giving me a book about mushrooms). What has struck me about her advisors, however, from about 2005 when I first started noticing names, is that a few of the same names would turn up in lists of Faber & Faber directors. Not surprising, in one sense: people ask their friends to recommend accountants and lawyers.

But she was a copyright owner and a rich woman. When there were questions about money, or negotiations, was she getting proper representation?
This is true today: the managers of the Eliot Estate have long seemed to overlap with Faber & Faber.

Do those running SET Copyrights and the Eliot Foundation act on behalf of the estate of T S Eliot or Valerie Eliot, or on behalf of Faber & Faber? I hear that one of them has said frankly, to someone complaining about a decision, “You have to realize that my first loyalty is to Fabers.” An odd and telling comment from someone who is not employed by Fabers but by a different organization.

The thing that interests me is what it meant to the firm to give Valerie so much power, and what actions they took to minimize the risk.

And it was a risk. She was in her early sixties and, depending on the terms of her investment in the firm, could have complicated matters in a variety of ways.  She wasn’t really one of them. She  might have fallen in love, or become devoted to a religion or a case. She might have become fond of her nephew’s young children.

Everything that happened from then on, the late-life story that always made me feel sad and a little guilty, was exactly what was best for Fabers. There was first an informal group that took control of Valerie’s life and then more formal arrangements as her dementia increased. But who was responsible? The dementia was kept under wraps, though it was mostly an open secret in London.

This meant that Valerie was being trotted out to events, carefully dressed and made up by her attendants, and was signing cheques long after she’d stopped recognizing people or knowing what was going on with the work in the flat. Contact with her nephew and his family, her only relations, was broken off; he hadn’t seen her for more than a decade when he learned of her death, though he had regularly telephoned and tried to have a conversation with her.

“How dare you question an eminent literary firm like Fabers?” “Valerie Eliot had a comfortable life so why are you asking?” “She probably wanted to leave her assets to help Fabers.” “Who are you, anyway [a former secretary, the Help], to think you have a right to ask questions?”

When I was first chastised like that, I didn’t have much more to say than that I was curious. Indeed, I was thinking I might write another article about Valerie because I’d learned a great deal from people who’d read the Guardian feature and emailed me with their stories. Then I decided that Valerie’s story would make a fascinating contrast with that of the other literary widow I’d known, Sophia Mumford, and I began to research their lives and overlapping relationships. The Valerie research was different because she’d been a generation younger than Sophia and there were still many people alive who’d known her.

And she was a chameleon of a character, far stranger and more elusive than I had imagined. Unfortunately, she let herself be caught up in the whack-a-mole effort to control rumors about Eliot and to repress any knowledge of the other women, especially Vivien Eliot and Emily Hale. I discovered (and this reinforced my own impressions from working with her) that she had wanted to be someone herself, to be known for and respected for her own accomplishments. Tending the flame wasn’t everything she’d dreamed of. This made me more curious about the fact that she never published a thing after the single volume I helped her finish.

I’ve concluded that she wasn’t given the help or support she needed to keep publishing the letters. She apparently thought the first volume hadn’t been well-received, though the reviews were consistently positive. I find myself thinking that it would have been better for Fabers to have her simply keep collecting letters, until they were finally able to appoint Hugh Haughton to take over. It would have been easy to sow doubt in her mind, given her hoarding tendency and her intellectual insecurity. They wouldn’t have to go through editing and production with her again (it can’t have been easy). And when it came to negotiating about the Cats money and a shareholder role they would be clear of author-publisher dynamics and could engage her as a business partner.

What happened after her death? Her will has some curious details, but the most important question is whether Valerie would have approved of the sale in 2013 of her artwork and jewellery. A sale was not her intention when she signed the will, but only one publication has raised the point:

Why are Valerie Eliot’s executors seeming to ignore the terms of her will? Today Christie’s is selling more than 200 miniature portraits left by TS Eliot’s widow Valerie, who died a year ago, as part of a £5 million sale of her art collection.

Valerie’s miniatures decorated the walls of her Kensington flat and one painting of Elizabeth I’s reputed lover Robert Devereux is valued at £300,000-£500,000. According to the terms of Valerie’s will, she passed the miniatures to her literary charity the Old Possum’s Trust, “with the request that the trustees of the Old Possum’s Trust lend them to the Victoria and Albert Museum”.

So why are they being sold? The V&A confirms that Valerie intended the collection to go on display for the public at the museum but said the loan never materialised because “it cannot be guaranteed that it will remain together on permanent display”.

Yet this condition is not stipulated in her will. “I can see on the face of it how it would be a bit unclear,” says Judith Hooper, both an executor of the will alongside poet Craig Raine and a trustee of Old Possum. “That [condition] was not specified in the will but it was specified to her trustees, verbally.”

The article is classic, careful British journalism (libel laws favor plaintiffs there): “Valerie Eliot portraits to go on sale amid whispers.” One wonders who was whispering and what they suspected. There apparently were whispers about the Valerie-Fabers deal in 1989, too.

When I heard about the sale, I was able to see part on the collection on display and talk to the curator at Christie’s in New York. I puzzled over it, though: why were they selling everything? It took me ages to see the obvious answer: the executors sold everything that had been Valerie’s own, everything that was a reflection of her taste and desires and that TSE had not touched. Excepting, I assume, the desk she’d bought to replace the one she then gave me?

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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March 21st, 2024|Categories: Writing a Woman's Life|Tags: |

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About the Author:

Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and scholar who writes about the many ways women have gained and wielded power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a former trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and the founder of the Train Campaign. Subscribe to Karen’s Letter @Substack or try her Home Ecology newsletter.

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