Malcolm Lester helped create a distinctively Canadian publishing industry

Malcolm Lester attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989.Courtesy of Louise Dennys

He was a wit, an intellectual, a gentleman, a talent spotter and mentor to many in the book world, who could talk as cogently about classical music or the philosophy of Spinoza as about baseball and Hollywood movies. Malcolm Lester was a figure from the heroic age of Canadian letters in the last century when a new crop of publishers tried to create a distinctive publishing industry in this country. They set out to prove that Canadian books could be as exciting as the foreign titles flooding our market from the US and the UK

In the 1970s and 80s, he and his business partner, the Oxford-educated Louise Dennys, brought sophistication and elan to their enterprise Lester & Orpen Dennys, a small press with big ambitions. After the death of his original partner, Eve Orpen, the two ran it from a cramped office in Toronto’s Chinatown, he as president and Ms. Dennys as publisher.

Ms. Dennys found leading young fiction writers to promote while Mr. Lester originated books on history, politics and baseball. The books Mr. Lester was most proud of publishing reflected his commitment to social justice, which he absorbed in his youth at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple and later as a rabbinical student in Cincinnati, Ohio.

None is Too Many (1982), about Canada’s decision during the Holocaust years to close its doors to Jewish refugees, was one of those books. “We had felt our [manuscript] to a couple of university presses, then to several commercial presses and we were told: This topic is too depressing, it’s un-Canadian, no one will read this book,” recalled the historian Harold Troper, who had co-authored the book with Irving Abella, another historian. “Then somebody suggested we take it to Malcolm Lester, who we had never heard of.” Mr. Lester told the two scholars that he planned to publish their book even if it doesn’t sell because it was important. “He said, Let’s hope it breaks even.”

On the day of publication, the book launch at Toronto’s Pages bookstore was mobbed, the book received glowing reviews, won prizes, became a bestseller and went into multiple editions, to the surprise of the two authors. It prompted Ron Atkey, the immigration minister of the day, to open the door to 60,000 Vietnamese “boat people.”

Mr. Lester died on April 1 in Toronto at Humber River Hospital of complications from Parkinson’s disease with family by his side. He was 83, and had quietly left his mark on Canadian culture.

“He was always reticent, modest and gentle and never put himself forward – that was one reason he was overlooked,” Ms. Dennys said in an interview. “He never got an Order of Canada.”

Other notable books from Lester & Orpen Dennys include obasan, Joy Kogawa’s novel about the internment of Japanese-Canadians; Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring, about the rise of modernism; The Illustrated History of Canada, the country’s first comprehensive one-volume history, by seven leading historians; and fiction by Czech émigré writer Josef Skvorecky, as well as John Irving, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jane Rule, Sandra Birdsell, Matt Cohen.

Twelve of their books received Governor-General’s Award nominations. The company was named Publisher of the Year three times by booksellers.

“He was a detailed, patient editor and he was impassioned about his books,” said former publisher Anna Porter, who owned a 10 per cent share in L&OD.

The firm’s sales had reached $2-million, though cash flow was a constant headache. The company was on a roll until in 1988 when they were undone by one tragic mistake: getting entangled in the business web of multi-millionaire investor Christopher Ondaatje. In 1988, he invited the two young publishers to his lavish home in Bermuda where he offered to buy up their shares and pay their bills, while taking their firm into his holding company, Pagurian. He persuaded them that he would help them grow, but after the publication of his own book of wildlife photos, Leopard in the Afternoon, I have lost interest in L&OD. Before the year was out, he sold Pagurian in a complicated deal to Hees International, a holding company for Peter and Edward Bronfman. Hees International had no experience in running a small press. Mr. Lester and Ms. Dennys tried everything to save it – Ms. Dennys appealed in person to Edward Bronfman – but she could not take back their company. L&OD was dismembered; Key Porter Books bought its inventory and backlist.

In 1992, Mr. Lester set up Lester Books in partnership with Ms. Porter, in an office next door to hers, continuing work with many of the same authors as before. Ms. Dennys, meanwhile, became publisher of Knopf Canada.

“There was a great back list and most of the authors wanted to stay,” Ms. Porter recalled. “His list of him was more erudite than ours.”

That arrangement lasted till 1995, when the government of Jean Chrétien canceled its loan guarantee program to publishers, making Lester Publishing unsustainable.

“The bank closed it down,” Ms. Porter recalled. “He was able to bear disappointment. He was never bitter and we remained friends.”

In his book about the history of modern Canadian publishing The Perilous business, Roy MacSkimming observed that after the shuttering of L&OD, Mr. Lester’s career had occasional crescendos “before subsiding into a sustained diminuendo.”

His next venture, launched with the support of 14 investors, was creating books for individuals or institutions. If you were the wife of a Toronto art dealer and wanted an adoring biography of him, or a Reform rabbi needing to create a modernized prayer book for your congregation, Mr. Lester could make it happen for a fee. “He called himself a publisher-at-large,” recalled Andrea Knight, who was his editorial assistant. “People wanted his name on their books.”

Malcolm Lester with his friend Kathy Lowinger in Venice in 1993.Courtesy of Kathy Lowinger

Later in life Mr. Lester suffered from a cascade of illnesses including colon and prostate cancers. Even so, he kept going as a publisher, launching the last of his publishing ventures, the New Jewish Press, when he was 75, with the University of Toronto’s Anne Tanenbaum Center for Jewish Studies. “We set out to publish books on serious topics but not necessarily following scholarly protocols, for a general audience,” explained Ms. Knight, who returned for a time to work with Mr. Lester. “We had to do all our own fundraising, which became an issue.”

The press reissued the 1987 classic The Riot at Christie Pits by Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir and published an ambitious companion book to The Evidence Room, an architectural project about the design of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, conceived for the Venice Biennale by architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo. Three other titles followed before Mr. Lester became too ill with Parkinson’s to continue. In 2018, the New Jewish Press was absorbed into U of T Press.

Malcolm David Lester was born on Aug. 27, 1938, the first of two sons of Lionel Lester and Zelma Beatrice Lester (née Gorfinkel). Malcolm was 19 when his mother died of cancer. Two years later, his father, Lionel, married Pearl Cole, a widow with two children of about the same age as Malcolm and his brother. The families moved in together into the Cole house, which was larger and rather more splendid than the Lester house had been.

The Lesters had long-standing connections to the movie business, since Malcolm’s grandfather George and his two brothers each owned a neighborhood film theatre. “They were called The Nabes,” explained Malcolm’s brother, Brian Lester. “Harry Lester had the Bonita, Sam had the Doric and our grandfather owned the King theater at College and Manning.” Their father worked for a time at 20th Century Fox, then worked booking new films into small cinemas throughout Ontario, before taking over his father’s theatre, later renamed the Studio. With the influx of Italian immigrants in the 50s, Lionel saw an opportunity and found success programming Italian language films there.

Through their father’s connections the Lester boys watched any film they wanted free – a big advantage when they began dating.

Malcolm studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Toronto, obtaining his BA and MA degrees before enrolling at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. While studying there he caught mononucleosis and was driven home to recover by his brother Brian. The illness gave him time to think about whether he really wanted to become a rabbi – he decided against it. What he really loved was books. Age 26, he became managing editor at the educational publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston Canada, then general manager of Coles Publishing, before starting his own publishing house with an older woman, Eve Orpen.

In his 20s, he married Sandra Florence who was as crazy about movies as he was. For a time they published a small monthly called Movies in Review. The marriage did not last. After an amicable divorce, he lived with Phyllis Bruce, a respected book editor, and in later life, he had a warm friendship with the pianist and music teacher Dorothy Glick, though they never lived together.

Mr. Lester was a great admirer of Glenn Gould and commissioned US writer Otto Friedrich to write Gould’s biography, which appeared in 1989 and won a prestigious US prize. He was twice president of the Glenn Gould Foundation which encourages and funds Gould-related projects.

Mr. Lester leaves his brother, Brian Lester, who cared for him in his last years; his stepsister, Judy Godfrey; stepbrother, Michael Cole; and eight nieces and nephews.

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