Obituary: Dan Grisewood, Innovative publisher of children’s books
Born: October 24 1934 , Edinburgh
Died: June 28 2003
Dan Grisewood, who has died aged 68, was one of the foremost international producers of information and children’s books and a bold innovator in the art of book packaging. He notably out-smarted Robert Maxwell in a publishing takeover, and, on a famous occasion, wrestled him to the floor during a dispute in Maxwell’s office. Maxwell had the weight, but Grisewood, 6ft 5in tall and a formidable tennis player, was the more agile. He also had a detailed grasp of colour print production, and a formidable aptitude for calculating hairsbreadth profit margins – often in different currencies – in his head. The company he founded with the late Michael Dempsey in 1973 pioneered multi-million print runs of many bestselling titles, including The Visual World Encylopaedia and The Wildlife Encyclopaedia, which they sold to multiple publishers.
Kingfisher, the children’s and information book imprint he started on his own in 1978, won a string of publishers’ prizes, including the Times Educational Supplement information book award for The Easy Way To Bird Recognition.
Starting out as manager of Andre Deutsch’s Africa Universities Press, in Lagos, Nigeria, in the late 1950s, Grisewood rose in 1993 to be chairman and chief executive of Larousse plc, a prestigious French-British group that included Grisewood and Dempsey, Kingfisher, Chambers and Harrap.
Grisewood was born in Nicosia, Cyprus, where his parents farmed before the second world war. His uncle, Harman Grisewood, founded the BBC Third Programme, and his cousin was the broadcaster Freddie Grisewood. Educated at Fort Augustus Abbey school, in Scotland, for a year he tried his vocation there as a Benedictine monk. After national service in the RAF in Oxfordshire, during which he interpreted aerial photographs, he read mathematics at St Andrews University.
Enthusiastic about public understanding of science, Grisewood was taken on as science editor by the publisher Macmillan, while also working as an assistant editor on Nature. He married his first wife, Margaret, in 1960. In 1962, he abandoned publishing for two years to research a PhD on Kurt Gödel’s famous proof, which argues that no non-trivial axiomatic system can be both complete and consistent. Though he never completed his doctorate, he always remained a keen amateur philosopher of science and mathematics, combining these interests with a study of theology.
After working for Deutsch in Africa, he returned, aged 34, to England to become managing director of the British Printing Corporation’s publishing division, broadening its markets in the United States. In 1973, with substantial BPC financing, he set up the packaging firm Grisewood and Dempsey, becoming chairman and managing director. In 1980, Robert Maxwell bought BPC (now the British Printing and Publishing Communication Corporation, or BPCC) and quickly moved to acquire Grisewood’s expanding company. When Grisewood refused to sell, Maxwell insisted that BPCC’s 49% share should be repaid within a week.
In a heated argument be tween the two men, Grisewood wrested the telephone from Maxwell, who was about to make a legally damaging phone call connected with their dispute. The two ended up on the carpet with Grisewood in charge of the phone. Grisewood eventually out-manoeuvred Maxwell by securing a bank loan to pay off the multi-million-pound BPCC share at the 11th hour.
In 1988, Grisewood sold Grisewood and Dempsey, and Kingfisher, to the French publisher Groupe de la Cité for a handsome sum, and was promptly asked to stay on as head of the newly formed Larousse division. Two years later, aged 60, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and took early retirement, settling in Suffolk with his second wife Jane, who had been a key editorial executive in his companies.
Here, he turned to a serious study of science and religion, filling many notebooks with meditations and reflections on the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Rahner, with excursions into physics and evolutionary biology. At a Cambridge seminar last year, he entered into dispute with the astronomer royal Sir Martin Rees and the physicist theologian Professor John Polkinghorne on the question of the Anthropic principle, the theological significance of the numerical accidents that make our universe hospitable to life. Grisewood more than held his own.
A devout Catholic, albeit espousing progressive and left-of-centre views, he became a constructive critic of his own church. He deplored those aspects of Catholicism that seek to dismiss the claims of other faiths. He was working on an essay attempting to reconcile Christianity with religious pluralism when he died. His opinions on science and religion were much valued by a circle of progressive senior Catholic commentators.
He leaves his wife Jane and children: Rachel, Sara, Naomi, and an adopted son Joe, by his first marriage, and Jessica by his second marriage.
From The Guardian, Friday 4 July 2003