A Trump before Trump: Sir Allen Lane

There’s a new game in town: trying to understand our strange new world by searching for pre-, mini-, pseudo- and proto-Trumps.

Miranda Carter found a great example from European history. In June’s New Yorker she asked, “What happens when a bad-tempered, distractible doofus runs an empire?” Her doofus is Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918, and who appeared in Carter’s 2010 group biography, The Three Emperors.

Stephen Greenblatt found a bunch of candidates in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. After searching the works of Shakespeare, he revealed in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics a host of Trumpian villains, among them King Lear and Richard III. David Blight, professor of American history at Yale University, found plenty of other fictional Trumps in Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, The Gilded Age.

The worlds of show business and ordinary business have also been good sources of contenders. Writers have found Trumpish traits — and have drawn Trumpful lessons — by studying all manner of entrepreneurs and celebrities who tried their hand at politics. The growing register of lookalikes includes Henry Ford, William Randolph Hearst, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan and Pat Paulsen — whom Harvard’s James Kloppenberg called a “television clown whose notoriety made him attractive for a short time to disenchanted people who knew little or nothing about politics.”

In the spirit of this game, there is one candidate who seems to me to fit the Trump mould very well. That candidate is Sir Allen Lane, long-time head of Penguin Books.

A difficult guy to work for

In 1935, Lane and his two brothers founded what became one of the first global media enterprises. At a time when book publishing was big business and big news, Penguin’s low-cost paperbacks took things to a whole new level. Massive print runs. A massive list of titles. Massive geographical reach. The Penguin logo became one of the world’s most recognized brands.

As the eldest Lane brother, Allen was naturally the venture’s front man. He was formally CEO, nominally ‘King Penguin,’ and immediately a celebrity. The style of his leadership, and the contours of his life and character, offer urgent lessons for the era of Trump.

Penguin’s management culture — Byzantine, gossipy, treacherous — reflected Allen’s own style and proclivities. Like Trump, he favored a loose organizational structure. Projects and tasks were allocated almost at random. Managers competed for Allen’s favor, and he played them off against each other mercilessly. At Penguin, hollow charm and ingratiation became essential survival skills.

For Allen, competition among senior staff served a definite purpose. It meant no single executive could become indispensable, or a threat. And there was always an abundance of people to blame for mistakes.

Senior manager Bill Williams remarked that, at Allen’s Penguin, “You could be top dog one day — and in the dog house the next.” Dramatic firings and purges were defining features of the firm. People were fired with little warning. Why did they have to go? Maybe they’d done something to annoy Allen. Or, always fickle, he just decided that a particular face no longer fit. The sound of a pile-driver at a nearby building-site led one staffer to quip, “That’s Allen, testing out his guillotine.”

His method of dismissing staff followed a fixed pattern that resembles many of the recent White House exits. As the publisher Peter Calvocoressi noticed, Allen was “bad at hatchet work unless he could put the hatchet into someone else’s hands.” Bill Williams blamed a “lack of moral fiber” and “a decided streak of sadism” for Allen’s habit of getting others to do his dirty work. Whenever the difficult moment was imminent, Allen would scurry out a back door, bustle through a gap in the hedge, and make for the car park and escape.

A born pirate

As a leader, Allen Lane often displayed dubious judgment. During WWII, he cooked up a crazy plan with a black-marketeer to bust the wartime quota on the use of paper. When his senior staff found out, they begged him not to go through with it and jeopardize the firm’s good relations with the military authorities. People around him were always cleaning up after his self-made disasters.

Previewing the President’s infamous locker-room banter, Allen’s everyday conversation was laden with off-the-cuff witticisms and off-color jokes, like the one about the English poet William Watson “fiddling around with Mrs Watson’s twat.”

To delay decisions and distract himself from his work, he meddled in others’ tasks and intervened in details for which others were responsible. He hated meetings as much as President Trump evidently does. If they could not be avoided, then best hold them at a Spanish restaurant, or in a rowboat. Diva-like, Allen accepted invitations to events he had no intention of attending, and made promises he never intended to honor.

Though not an innovator or “ideas man,” Allen frequently took up the ideas of others and claimed them as his own. He craved change and novelty. The projects that most appealed to him always involved urgent telegrams and travel, and a surplus of drama and intrigue.

His appetite for leisure was as high as Trump’s. He spent much of every year on holidays. On one trip, he visited Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, on a dig at Nimrud, Iraq. According to Max, Allen was as a man of boundless energy, but also “an opportunist, a born pirate . . . who could ride rough-shod over his best friend.”

People who spent any amount of time with Allen discovered that his personable manner was a façade. (Those clever, off-the-cuff comments were in fact exhaustively rehearsed.) In his dealings with people, he always sought the upper hand. He was forever watching and probing for signs of weakness in others, and he could turn cold and vindictive in an instant.

As the American publisher Robert Lusty remarked in his memoir, “One might be gossiping with him of this and that and he would be attentive and involved. Some word, some name, some project might strike a certain chord and on the instant Allen would be neither attentive nor involved. Cold little shutters would close upon the light of his eyes … some sort of skulduggery was suggesting itself at the back of his mind [and] someone, something, somewhere had had it.”

Seeing the world through the same distorting lens of competition and threat that we associate with Trump, Allen had few close friends. (His personal lawyer was a key confidant, just as Trump’s used to be.) He also had little interest in culture. Though he was knighted for services to literature, his literary interests were in fact very meagre. His favorite book was a weight-loss handbook, F. A. Hornibrook’s 1924 The Culture of the Abdomen: The Cure of Obesity and Constipation. (When his butler informed him of his knighthood, Allen returned to bed, where he remained all day, complaining of feeling “bloated.”)

Allen published books on popular science and scholarship, but, like the President, seemed to have little respect for scientists and other academics. Instead, he regularly sought advice from astrologers and graphologists. (His favorite psychic delivered this Trumpian gem about Allen’s winning ways in business: “The termination of your transactions,” she wrote, “will always be for your good.”)

A juggler

In love as in commerce, Allen Lane was ambitious, even voracious. One story, told in the Lane family, pictures Allen as a popular young bachelor in London, juggling four liaisons, all with girls called Phyllis, and from different parts of the metropolis. He enlists his sister to screen incoming phone calls — so he can know whether he is talking to Phyllis north, Phyllis south, Phyllis east or Phyllis west. This diversified approach to love became another defining trait, even after Allen’s marriage to Lettice Orr, the daughter of the Governor of the Bahamas.

One affair in particular stands out. Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt introduced American-style paperbacks into post-war Germany. In July 1955, Allen invited Heinrich to spend a pleasant weekend at Lane’s mansion near Heathrow. Heinrich arrived with his young mistress, Susanne. One thing led to another and, by the end of the visit, Allen and Susanne had paired off.

(There are several stories about what happened. According to the best one, Allen and Lettice pick up the visitors at the airport in a limousine. When Susanne asks to see inside an authentic English tobacconist’s, the car pulls up at one such shop. Allen and Susanne go inside, then out the back door, jump into a taxi and head back to Heathrow to catch a plane to Portugal. All the while, Lettice and Heinrich wait awkwardly in the limo.)

When he returned to London, Allen wondered whether he should enter a longer-term arrangement with Susanne. He took a sample of her handwriting to his graphologist, along with what Lane biographer Jack Morpurgo called “a frank statement on what he had in mind.” The graphologist gave an encouraging reply, and Susanne became a valued fixture in Allen’s life, even more so than the swollen leather armchairs he bought at auction and prized as having belonged to Joachim von Ribbentrop when he was ambassador to Britain. Faced with Allen’s flagrant adultery, Lettice soon left him — on his birthday.

What can we learn from these parallels?

The game of finding Trumpian antecedents is not merely entertaining. It is also about sense-making, and gaining insights about where the nominal Leader of the Free World might take us. What can we learn from the case of Allen Lane about the case of Donald Trump?

Throughout his life, the people around Allen were forever making allowances and giving him the benefit of the doubt. But their hopes of redemption and repair went unanswered. He never changed, never made amends.

His youngest brother, John, died in WWII. Towards Richard, his surviving brother, Allen was as cruel and ruthless as he’d been in business. Late in his life, he cheated Richard out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and used every available stratagem to purge him from Penguin’s board and owners.

Allen also maintained his diversified approach to love. Though he reconciled somewhat with Lettice, he kept things going with Susanne as well.

His final decade was dark. He spent most of his last years gravely ill and bedridden. Lettice was often by his side, but the marriage had left her bitter and jaded. When she spoke of Allen, sarcasm colored her words. To Penguin stalwart Eunice Frost, she confided, “I sometimes think you must think I am very callous about Allen, but he is so much part of me that the cruel part of me exactly fits him — I can exorcize myself through him.”

Allen, in an equally candid moment, confessed, “I’m not a very intelligent man, and I’ve really got away with murder.”

One feature of his psychology stands out especially starkly. The powerful impulse to be the front-man, the centre of the maelstrom, always had an equally strong counterpoint.

Though ever ready to put himself forward, he struggled to cope with too many people, too many issues, too much responsibility. He craved change and drama, but the intensity to which this naturally led was invariably discouraging and deflating. Daily, he seesawed between the need to lead and the impulse to flee. His talent for chaos was twinned with a longing for quiet.

The interpersonal games and dramas had a flipside, too. Allen didn’t like people very much, except perhaps as lovers and lieutenants, and even there the regard was seasonal and capricious. He felt, just as Trump seems to feel, that success in his own field qualified him to stray into others. But his lack of a university degree — he would only ever pass two exams in his life, one to enter grammar school, and one to obtain a driver’s licence — gave him a deep insecurity that he strove to conceal.

Allen’s desire to escape was not about remorse. It was about lassitude and fear. He found conflict wearying and — when war, legal trouble, business trouble, angry husbands or something else made the going really tough — terrifying. At the height of the illegal paper fiasco, for example, he took a holiday, leaving his managers to extricate Penguin from the scheme.

This yearning for escape provokes a heartening thought. If Trump is another Allen Lane, there is every possibility that, at any given moment, and especially when faced with personal peril, he might just bugger off.

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Professor Stuart Kells’ book Penguin and the Lane Brothers won the 2015 Ashurst Australian Business Literature Prize. His latest book, with Professor Ian D. Gow, is The Big Four: The Curious Past and Perilous Future of the Global Accounting Monopoly. Stuart is Adjunct Professor in the La Trobe Business School.

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PHOTO: Wikicommons

Originally published on Medium.

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