Robert Payne (December 4, 1911-February 18, 1983) was considered a "literary phenomenon of astounding industry and versatility."1 During his lifetime he had over 100 books published on an extraordinarily wide range of subjects.2 He was known chiefly for his biographies and histories, but he also wrote novels, poetry and was a multi-lingual translator. When he died The Times (London) headlined his obituary "Prolific Writer of High Standard."2
Pierre Stephen Robert Payne was born in Saltash, Cornwall, U.K. His father, a naval architect, was English; his mother was French. He was educated at St. Paul's School in London, the Diocesan College at Rondebosch and the University of Capetown in South Africa, the universities of Liverpool, Munich, and at the Sorbonne.2
In 1929 when he was almost eighteen he followed in his father's footsteps and worked as a shipwright for two years in Birkenhead. He was not happy. But on Saturday afternoons he would take the ferry to Liverpool and work in the Hornby Library until late in the evening when he would return home, his "head filled with happy discoveries."3
At age twenty he went to Liverpool University where he studied Russian, Polish, Danish, German and Italian. After his second year there his father felt he should get a job. And so he did--he applied to the Ministry of Labour and got the post of assistant inspector of taxes in Guildford in southern England for a year. It was a year he preferred to forget.
But it was during that year that he would travel to London for an advanced course on taxes, which would be relieved mercifully by meetings in a restaurant with the novelist and poet, Charles Williams, who was a friend of Robert's father. Charles Williams became his mentor and was later instrumental in getting Robert published: The first, a translation of Yuri Oleysha's Envy was published by the Hogarth Press in 1936; the second, The War in the Marshes, by Faber & Faber (T.S. Eliot was his editor) in 1937. Both books were published under pseudonyms, as were many others during those early years. He had been very impressed by E.M. Forster's pamphlet Anonymity.3
It was the height of the Depression and his father did not feel Robert could earn a living as a writer. An uncle came to the rescue. In 1937 his uncle, feeling that Robert's life had been somewhat fragmentary, gave him 100 pounds to travel around Europe to "learn the facts of life."3 In Munich he met Hitler through Rudolf Hess. It was a brief encounter--six minutes over tea and a strawberry cake speared with a fork by the Fuhrer and placed squarely on Robert's plate.4 A few months later he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.5
On an assignment for the London-based News Chronicle, he covered the civil war in Spain.2 Here he met Andre Malraux who became a close friend of his and of whom he would later write an authorized biography.
In 1939, his father was sent to Singapore as manager of the naval base. Robert joined his parents there and was inducted into the army as assistant armaments officer in charge of camouflage because he wrote novels. Southeast Asia was a whole new world to him and he absorbed everything around him. By now he had a number of books published and more would be written in Singapore; a few would be destroyed in the bombing by the Japanese.
In December 1941 he was sent to China, worked for the British embassy, covered the battle of Changsha, and after the British ambassador Sir Archibald Clark Kerr left, he too left and went to teach English literature at Fuhtan University. In 1942 he married Rose Hsiung, daughter of a former prime minister of China. In 1943, at the urging of Professor Hughes and Joseph Needham, he went to teach at Lienta University. Lienta, comprising the three universities of Beijing, Tsinghua and Nankai, was according to Professor Hughes comparable to Oxford and Harvard.6
"China lives in Payne's pages as it does in few other books," John Cournos of The Sun once remarked. China was his great love. Forever China, published in 1945, was greeted rhapsodically by both American and British critics. So was the sequel China Awake. But it was The White Pony, a collection culled from 3000 years of Chinese poetry, which was translated by scholars in Lienta, revised and edited by Robert Payne,7 that was considered a classic for thirty years. In China too he met Chiang Kai-shek, Mao in the caves of Yenan where they talked about poetry among other subjects long into the night,8 Edgar Snow, General Marshall, Madama Sun Yat-sen....It was the age when it was difficult to meet and interview people of that level, but somehow the doors would open for him and the people too would open up and talk freely with him. They knew he listened without judgment.
In 1946 he left China and went briefly to India where he met Nehru and Jinnah. Then on to Paris where he was involved in a student uprising, which resulted in Payne being hauled off to jail for half a day, which in turn resulted in a memorable article published in The New Statesman.2
In 1947 he came to the U.S. First San Francisco, then Los Angeles where he met Chaplin (they became friends and a biography was to come later), Aldous Huxley, the legendary librarian Lawrence Clark Powell and that friendship lasted until Robert Payne's death. He applied to the Eastern Colleges for professorship; they did not reply. It was the McCarthy era. He had lived in China. His writings, however, continued to be praised by critics such as Orville Prescott, Starr Nelson and even by authorities on China such as John K. Fairbank.7
University of Alabama in Montevallo accepted him. From 1949 to 1954 he was head of the English Department. He founded the Montevallo Review and published the poets Muriel Rukheyser (who also became a life-long friend) and Charles Olson among others.
His literary career had had a jumpstart with the help of Charles Williams; his book Forever China had brought him to public acclaim; The White Pony had received plaudits from critics on both sides of the Atlantic and went into various book club editions. During the 50's he wrote a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, on religion--Christianity, Buddhism, Islam. All were published and reviewed. Then came the biography of Schliemann--The Gold of Troy. It was a dual selection of BOMC and was translated into several languages. By now he was living in New York City.
During the 60's and 70's his career catapulted him to enormous stature as a biographer and literary figure. His name appeared everywhere in the literary world--in literary circles, in literary periodicals and newspapers; he was chairman of the Translation Committee at PEN (he organized the first international writers conference in 1970); he was editor of the Russian Library Series (Washington Square Press); his articles appeared in the Saturday Review (Norman Cousins became a close friend); he reviewed other authors in The New York Times, Saturday Review, as well as other magazines and newspapers.
At the same time his own books grew larger both in stature and in size. He became very interested in the concept of power and from that motivating force came his great works.9 The Life and Death of Lenin (1964) was a main selection of BOMC and a bestseller. Others followed: biographies of Stalin, Marx, Trotsky, and the forerunners of the revolution, The Fortress, in the Russian Series; in 1969, the biography of Gandhi, a BOMC alternate, and in 1973 his most famous book, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, which was a main selection of BOMC and a bestseller.
And all the while he traveled, gathering research material, interviewing people and digging up mountains of stuff in archives; the trips also to get a first-hand feel of the places he would describe so vividly in his books.
Critics raved about him; so did other authors of eminent standing:
"Mr. Payne's book on Lenin is an impressive work and as interesting as it is impressive...an admirable book" --Bertrand Russell10
"Splendid character study of a human dynamo" --The Scotsman (on Lenin)10
"Few writers have come closer to capturing the spiritual essence of their subject" --Harrison Salisbury (on Stalin)11
"A triumph of biography" --Will Durant (on Stalin)12
"Payne humanizes the inhuman Hitler" --Digby Diehl, L.A. Times Calendar13
"Payne gives the devil his due. And the effect is altogether more interesting and terrifying..." --Christopher Lehmann Haupt, International Herald Tribune (on Hitler)14
"...on the level of a great novel by Tolstoy, swiftly moving, panoramic, writ on the canvas of destiny and of close historical characterization. It is one of the great biographies. No finer account of Gandhi's life and death has been written." --Dr. Amiya Chakravarty, who knew Gandhi personally and worked with him15
"Payne makes a persuasive case....The biography is more than a sum of this scholarship. It is in itself a rendering of respect and admiration for the man." --Robert Kirsch, L.A. Times Book Review, (on Leonardo)16
There were also quotes that were considered timeless and publishers applied them to book after book on covers and dust jackets and still continue to do so:
"No man alive can write more beautiful prose than Robert Payne." --The New York Times17
"The important things about Robert Payne are his sensitive, astute intelligence, his vast erudition, and his magic power over words. If anyone can capture the spiritual essence of a place, of a way of life, of an exotic culture, Mr. Payne can. If anyone can write the English language with rare and individual loveliness. Mr. Payne can." --The New York Times18
Altogether he had six BOMC selections--two main, one dual, three alternate. Many of his books were translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Japanese, one even in Hungarian. His earlier novels and some of his earlier translations were published under pseudonyms: Anthony Wolfe, Richard Cargoe, John Anthony Devon, Howard Horne, Valentin Tikhonov and Robert Young. He also used his full name Pierre Stephen Robert Payne, again for his earlier works.
With this vast body of work and accolades on both sides of the Atlantic, what then went wrong? His U.S. agent had sold him to too many publishers--close to 40 in the U.S. without any thought of coordinating or staggering the publication dates. It was an era when publishers promoted authors they considered as theirs. As such, no one protected him; precious little was done to promote him (when he was promoted the book did well); yet everyone wanted to publish him. By the time he died his books were more or less out of print.
David Higham Associates had been his literary agents for British and Commonwealth rights since the early 40's. They had handled his works in a sensible, organized and professional manner. His works were sold only to a few publishers in the U.K., the selection according to the series; Robert Hale Publishers would then accept whatever else was offered to them.
However, when The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades was published in the U.S. in 1984, a year after his death, it had rave reviews19 and was a BOMC dividend selection. It was also published in the U.K. and Germany and went into book club editions in both countries.
From time to time some of his books were reprinted in the U.S. and contracts came from other parts of the world, even Eastern Europe and Russia, the latter through David Higham Associates. But it was a trickle considering his gigantic output.
That trickle turned into a stream and many are now available as eBooks, published by Lume Books, U.K.'s leading independent digital publisher, with contracts negotiated by Georgia Glover of Higham.
World rights in all of his works are now handled by David Higham Associates in London.
Atico de los Libros in Spain published The Dream and the Tomb in November 2017, The Holy Sword was published in 2019, both titles in hardcover.
I have had extensive experience in book publishing, both as an editor and later as proprietor and custodian of this literary legacy. I work closely with English language publishers through Georgia Glover.
Biography by Sheila Lalwani Payne c/o David Higham Associates
(All photographs of Robert Payne are by Alexander Artemakis)
1. Payne, The Fortress (author note, dust jacket) Simon & Schuster, 1967, quote by Orville Prescott of The New York Times. See also The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi (author note, dust jacket)
2. The Times(London), Robert Payne obituary, February 23, 1983
3. Payne, Eyewitness, Doubleday, 1972, pp. 4-9
4. Payne, Eyewitness, Doubleday, 1972, pp. 12,13
5. Payne, Eyewitness, Doubleday, 1972, pp.20-22
6. Payne, Eyewitness, Doubleday, 1972, pp. 245-247
7. Current Biography 1947, pp. 500-501
8. Payne, Eyewitness, Doubleday, 1972, pp. 327-332
9. Israel Shenker, "Payne, Over 100" The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1978
10. Payne, The Life and Death of Lenin, Grafton Books, London, 1987, quotes on back cover
11. Payne, The Rise and Fall of Stalin, Avon Books (inside pp) Critical Acclaim by Harrison Salisbury
12. Payne, The Rise and Fall of Stalin, Avon Books (back cover) quote by Will Durant
13. Digby Diehl, "Payne Humanizes the Inhuman Hitler" L.A. Times Calendar, May 6, 1973
14. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler" Intl Herald Tribune, May 2, 1973
15. Payne, The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi, Dutton, 1969, quote by Dr. Chakravarty on dust jacket
16. Robert Kirsch, "Leonardo," L.A. Times, The Book Review, July 2, 1978
17. Payne, The Dream and the Tomb, Stein & Day, paperback ed., quote on front cover
18. Payne, The Dream and the Tomb, Stein & Day, paperback ed., quotes on inside of front cover
19. Payne, The Dream and the Tomb, Stein & Day, paperback ed., quotes on inside pp. and back cover