My last book about the mafia, Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman, was an international bestseller translated into 20 languages. Because of the book’s global appeal, I was invited by the German media conglomerate Axel Springer to speak at their annual retreat for editors, being held at the Hotel Villa Athena in Agrigento, Sicily.
The first evening, I met an older gentleman who introduced himself as George. We struck up an enjoyable conversation that centered on our mutual love of history, and, at some point, George said to me: “I would like to publish your next book.” This softly spoken man, who conversed with me as if we had known each other forever, was Lord Weidenfeld, one of the most talented and influential book publishers of the 20th century.
George’s long, illustrious career had a tragic start. Days after the Nazis entered Austria, his father was arrested by Brown Shirt auxiliaries. He was eventually released, but George’s grandmothers were not as lucky; both were gassed to death in the Holocaust. Nineteen-year-old George fled Vienna for London, where the Brits welcomed him and hired him at the British Broadcasting Corporation as a radio monitor. After the war, George and Nigel Nicolson started their own publishing firm, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and, for decades to come, George was well known for matching ideas with authors, exactly what he was doing with me as we conversed on that fateful day.
The following afternoon, George and I met for lunch along with his charming wife, Lady Annabelle. George suggested that I write a history of the mafia. Annabelle – who was educated in a convent boarding school where she became an avid reader – helped us flesh out the idea, and her brilliant input cannot be overstated.
As I travelled home from Sicily, I assessed the size and scope of the project and wondered if I was getting myself in over my head; a proper history of the mafia would take many years to research and write, and the mafia’s genesis, in and of itself, seemed an unsolvable riddle.
The commitment was daunting, so I put it aside and pursued other endeavors until my dear friend and goombah, Bruce Ramer, and his lovely wife, Madeline, were attending an event in Germany, where they happened upon George and Annabelle. Bruce ducked out of the event to call me from Germany and tell me that George was asking about me and the status of the book. I saw this chance occurrence as a reinforcement of the first encounter in Sicily, and I began to write a history that evolved into a trilogy and would chain me to my desk for the next seven years, eventually completing what George and Annabelle had known I was capable of as we sat overlooking the ruins of Agrigento.
Throughout his long career, George published authors such as Truman Capote, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer, while personally pitching ideas to legendary historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Pipes, Michael Grant, Arnold Toynbee, Lady Elizabeth Longford, and Lady Antonia Fraser. George also published the memoirs of de Gaulle, Tito, Pope John Paul II, Lyndon Johnson, and Moshe Dayan, as well as life-altering books such as The Double Helix by James Watson. As I understand it, I was the last author George personally commissioned before sadly passing on in 2016. I am forever grateful to him for giving me this opportunity and for placing a self-taught ex-convict in the company of the literary titans mentioned above.