|Occupation||Journalist and editor|
|Known for||Editing the London Review of Books|
|Spouse(s)||Stephen Frears (1968–early 1970s)|
Family and education
Mary-Kay Wilmers was born in Chicago and grew up in New York City. Her mother, Cecilia Eitington, was Russian of Russian-Jewish descent, while her father's family were, she said, "very English", although they had come from Germany. For many years Wilmers worked on a book, published in 2009 as The Eitingons: A Twentieth Century Story, recounting the story of her mother's Russian relations, including the psychoanalyst Max Eitingon, as well as her grandfather's cousin Leonid Eitingon, an agent in Joseph Stalin's NKVD who was responsible for masterminding the assassination of Leon Trotsky.
In 1946 Wilmers' parents moved to Europe, spending time in London, Portugal, Belgium and Switzerland. Her father, Charles Wilmers, was President of Sofina, a sprawling Belgian multinational utilities holding company. Wilmers was educated in Brussels and at boarding school in England. She said that for some time she was happier speaking in French than in English. Her brother Robert G. Wilmers, an American billionaire, was chairman of M&T Bank until his death in 2017.
At Oxford, where Wilmers read modern languages at St Hugh's College from 1957, she became a friend of Alan Bennett, later a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, who said about her time at university that, "Outside the novels of Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh, I had never come across anyone who behaved so confidently or in such a cosmopolitan fashion."
For the week of her finals she moved into the Randolph Hotel, staying with her father whose presence was required as Wilmers was threatening to refuse to sit the exams.
After her graduation in 1960, she thought about becoming a translator at the United Nations, but instead went to work at the publishers Faber and Faber, at first being employed as a secretary. On one occasion she thought she might be sacked for saying "bugger" in front of T. S. Eliot, whose letters she used to type up. She later became an editor at Faber and Faber, and, among many books, was responsible for commissioning Eva Figes to write Patriarchal Attitudes, one of the first books of British feminism. She left Faber aged 29 to become deputy editor of the Listener, edited by Karl Miller, and in the 1970s had a spell at The Times Literary Supplement (TLS).
London Review of Books
In 1979 Wilmers joined Miller in founding the literary magazine London Review of Books (LRB), conceived to fill a gap in the market as a year-long industrial dispute had closed The Times Literary Supplement. The new review was an offshoot of The New York Review of Books, at first appearing folded inside the older publication. The first edition appeared in October 1979.
The New York Review of Books withdrew its support after a few months and in May 1980 Wilmers made the first of a number of investments of money inherited from her father, establishing an independent London Review of Books and later making herself the majority shareholder. In January 2010 The Times reported that the review was £27 million in debt to the Wilmers family trust. "It's family money and the debts have been rising for many years", Wilmers said. "But I really just look after the commas."
Wilmers became co-editor in 1988 and editor in 1992. Her style was to take a highly interventionist approach: "You want to help readers along. Not discourage them by making them go through a swamp of unnecessary sentences," she said. Her friend Hilary Mantel called Wilmers "a presiding genius", while Andrew O'Hagan explained: "She can’t bear a lazy sentence or secondhand metaphor. She’s tireless in her commitment to the paper". In 2009 the London Review's circulation was 48,000, making it the largest-selling literary publication in Europe.
As an editor, Wilmers has been closely associated with the work of a number of novelists and essayists, including Alan Bennett, John Lanchester, Jenny Diski, Blake Morrison, Alan Hollinghurst, Seamus Heaney, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Craig Raine, Colm Tóibín, Stefan Collini, James Wood, Linda Colley, Jacqueline Rose, Paul Foot, Tariq Ali and Edward Luttwak. Many of these were published prominently when at the beginnings of their careers.
Politically the review is not known for following a consistent party political line, although Wilmers described herself as being "captivated by the left but not of it". Under her editorship the review's treatment of political matters sometimes attracted controversy. In 2006 an article by academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt was criticised in some quarters for its claim that the foreign policy of the United States was in the grip of an "Israel lobby". Wilmers has herself said, "I'm unambiguously hostile to Israel because it's a mendacious state", an assessment which has not gone unchallenged. An article by the Cambridge historian Mary Beard, published after the events of September 11, 2001, attracted some attention for suggesting that "America had it coming", and when David Marquand, the political historian and principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, submitted a review praising Tony Blair's handling of the post-11 September period as "impeccable", Wilmers replied saying, "I can't square it with my conscience to praise so wholeheartedly Blair's conduct..." and pulled the piece. Marquand announced that he was "utterly shocked".
Wilmers has also written for the New Review, and The New Yorker.
A book of tributes to Wilmers, Bad Character, was published privately in June 2008 and distributed as a limited edition.
In 1968 Wilmers married film director Stephen Frears, with whom she had two sons, Sam and Will Frears (a stage and film director). They lived on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town. The couple divorced in the early 1970s. The live-in nanny Wilmers hired in the early 1980s, Nina Stibbe, wrote letters home describing the North London literati life; these were compiled and published, and turned into a 2016 TV series, Love, Nina.
- Brooks, Richard. "London Review of Books £27m in the red – but it isn’t counting", The Times, 24 January 2010. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- Watson, Heather. "In conversation with Mary-Kay Wilmers", P.N. Review, Volume 28, Number 1, September – October 2001. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
- Tonkin, Boyd, "Mary-Kay Wilmers: London's mythical urban elite made flesh", The Independent, 22 February 2013.
- McKay, Sinclair. "The London Review of Books celebrated its 30th Birthday", The Daily Telegraph, 30 October 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
- "Robert G. Wilmers, Bank Chief and Buffalo Philanthropist, Dies at 83", The New York Times, 19 December 2017. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
- "Modern Languages at St Hugh's" Archived 23 August 2012 at the Wayback Machine, St Hugh's Newsletter, Spring 2008, p. 14,
- McElvoy, Anne. "Mary-Kay Wilmers: Queen of Plots", The Sunday Times, 18 October 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- Wroe, Nicholas."Mary-Kay Wilmers: 'I like difficult women. Not just because I'm a bit difficult myself. I like their complication'" (A Life In... Books), The Guardian, 24 October 2009. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
- Cooke, Rachel. "Happy birthday, LRB", The Observer, 31 October 2004. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- Sutherland, John. "London Review of Books marks its 30th year", The Financial Times, 24 October 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2011.
- Jacobson, Howard, "What do George Galloway, the London Review of Books and the Third Reich have in common? A dangerous certitude when it comes to Israel", The Independent, 1 March 2013
- Onwuemezi, Natasha, "Rankin, McDermid and Levy named new RSL fellows", The Bookseller, 7 June 2017.
- "Current RSL Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 10 June 2017.
- "The Benson Medal", The Royal Society of Literature.
- Stibbe, Nina (2013). Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life. London: Penguin Viking. An amusing account of family life in the Wilmers' household between 1982 and 1987. Published in U.S. as Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home" by Little, Brown & Company, 2014.