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Tom Maschler, British publisher instrumental in founding the Booker Prize, dies at 87

Tom Maschler, a British publisher who was instrumental in propelling the careers of such renowned writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and was a principal creator of the Booker Prize, one of the worlds' most prestigious literary honors, died Oct. 16 at a hospital in Apt, France. He was 87.

The death was confirmed by his son, Ben Maschler, who said he did not know the exact cause.

Mr. Maschler was a German-born emigre whose father had been a successful publisher in Europe. After coming to England as a child, Mr. Maschler reluctantly entered the family trade after being a tour guide and failing to become a film director.

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In 1960, when he was 26, Mr. Maschler became the literary director of the British publishing house of Jonathan Cape, after the death of its eponymous founder. Within a year, he began to restore the fortunes of the fading firm.

First, he bought the rights to Joseph Heller's debut novel, "Catch-22," for 250 pounds. When the book was published in 1961, it immediately became a No. 1 bestseller in Britain.

“It was a genuine word-of-mouth success and had a buzz about it in the literary world before publication,” Mr. Maschler told the Guardian newspaper in 2005. “I am not aware of another book by an American writer that became a great success in England before it did in America.”

Also in 1961, Mr. Maschler was invited by Mary Hemingway to visit her home in Idaho soon after the suicide of her husband, novelist Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Maschler helped her prepare Hemingway’s memoir of his years in Paris, “A Moveable Feast,” for publication. The book was a major literary event when it was published in 1964.

In Britain, the hyperkinetic, deeply tanned Mr. Maschler was almost as well known as his writers. Regarded as one of the most discerning literary talent scouts on either side of the Atlantic, he discovered or helped advance the careers of such acclaimed authors as Vonnegut, García Márquez, John Fowles, Thomas Pynchon, Ian McEwan, Edna O’Brien, Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and Bruce Chatwin.

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"In the office he was like a mad genius who would run around like an out-of-control windmill scattering pages of typescript on your desk and barking, 'I urge you to read this. I urge you to read this,' " onetime publicist Polly Samson told the Guardian. "And if you didn't read it that night he would think you were some sort of fool so you would. And you would always be glad that you had."

Mr. Maschler once decided to publish an early work by Virginia Stephen, declaring she had extraordinary talent - without realizing at the time that she was the same person as Virginia Woolf.

With a keen sense of marketing, Mr. Maschler published some of the first pop-up books. He commissioned zoologist Desmond Morris to write “The Naked Ape,” a 1967 nonfiction bestseller about evolution and human behavior. As early as 1964, he was publishing writings by John Lennon of the Beatles. In 1969, he came out with the British edition of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which helped make the novelist a literary celebrity.

No fewer than 15 writers whose works were published by Mr. Maschler, from García Márquez to Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa and V.S. Naipaul, received the Nobel Prize for literature.

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"Tom had this extraordinary knack, without apparently being all that literary himself, of being aware of what was happening and seeing what was good," a onetime colleague, Francis Wyndham, told the Guardian.

While visiting France in his late teens, Mr. Maschler noticed how the entire country was excited by the Prix Goncourt, an annual literary award. He thought Britain should have something similar and was instrumental in developing the Booker Prize, presented each year for the best work of fiction by a writer from the British Commonwealth. (It was originally called the Booker-McConnell Prize, after a food company that was its sponsor, and was later called the Man Booker Prize. It is now known simply as the Booker Prize and has two categories: novels written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland and novels translated into English from another language.)

Since the first Booker Prize was awarded in 1969, it has become an annual event along the lines of the Oscars. Bookmakers take odds on which writers will be named to the “short list,” the awards ceremony is televised and - true to Mr. Maschler’s vision - the winner and other finalists enjoy huge boosts in sales.

"The Booker may be the most important thing I've ever done," he told the Guardian. "It certainly had an impact and if it means people think they should occasionally read a good novel, that is something I'm very proud of."

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Thomas Michael Maschler was born Aug. 16, 1933, in Berlin. His father, who owned two publishing firms, moved the family to Vienna in 1938.

Because of their Jewish heritage, the Maschlers were forced to flee Austria in 1939. Their house was seized by the Nazis, along with letters from such figures as Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Thomas Mann. Three of Mr. Maschler’s grandparents died in the Holocaust.

The family ended up in England, and after Mr. Maschler’s parents separated in the 1940s, he lived with his mother, who worked as a housekeeper.

When Mr. Maschler was 12, his mother took him to Brittany, saying he needed to spend the summer learning French. She knocked on doors until she found a family that would take him in, then returned to England.

From then on, Mr. Maschler lived largely on his own. He attended a Quaker boarding school and excelled in tennis and other sports. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Oxford, but when he determined it was more for his athletic talent than his academic promise, he turned it down.

He traveled throughout the United States and Europe and by the time he was 20 had made a small fortune as a tour guide. After failing to break into the Italian film industry, he returned to England in 1955 and began to work in publishing. At Penguin Books, he made a literary splash by publishing the works of some of Britain's rising dramatists of the 1950s, before joining Jonathan Cape.

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“I think I can say there was something special going for Cape, from about the late Sixties to the Eighties, that made it a very potent place,” Mr. Maschler told Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2005.

He ran the publishing house until it was sold in 1988 and retained a connection with the company for many years afterward. His autobiography, "Publisher," appeared in 2005. For years, he divided his time between London and the South of France.

His marriage to Fay Coventry Maschler, a leading London restaurant critic, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1998, the former Regina Kulinicz; three children from his first marriage; and several grandchildren.

“I’m not a particularly scholarly person,” Mr. Maschler told the Independent in 2005, but he took offense whenever he was dismissed as a mere seller of books, someone whose abilities were limited to commerce rather than connoisseurship.

“My instincts in publishing are very much a gut reaction,” he said. “The only thing I can claim is that I have a very broad range, broader than most. . . . Of course, some of it is pure luck. Luck is a word I like very much.”