Tom Rosenthal, publisher at Heinemann/Secker and Andre Deutsch, has died aged 78 following a long battle with cancer. It is almost two decades since Rosenthal left publishing's main stage, and many in the trade today will know nothing of a man who was once one of its great characters (inspiration for the portly figure in Private Eye's Snipcock & Tweed cartoons) - a big man in braces and bow tie who smoked fat cigars and lunched almost daily at the White Tower, a Fitzrovian fixture as celebrated for its eccentricities as for its food. His final years were occupied with writing, books and reviewing, and in a partnership with antiquarian bookseller Rick Gekoski, with whom he published fine editions of modern classics.

The son of a Cambridge don who had fled Nazi Germany, Rosenthal read English at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Despite the Apppointments Board's advice that he lacked both the means and family connections necessary for such a career, he came down to London with his heart set on publishing. He got a foothold at Thames & Hudson, where, as assistant to the sales manager, he kept a ledger, "Beat Yesterday," in which he recorded the day's turnover. "When any of the travelers got ill I went out on the road," he recalled to Publishing News in 1990. "That helped develop my broad shoulders, since Thames & Hudson books in two briefcases are wonderfully heavy." Walter Neurath, T&H founder, was something of a mentor, throwing manuscripts at the young Rosenthal and listening to his ideas. "I was lucky enough to join the firm when it was small and expanding and I expanded with it." He was there 12 years, finally as MD of Thames & Hudson International, a crucial part of the operation.

He went next to Secker & Warburg, "sort of head- hunted" according to his own account, though in John St John's history of Heinemann he offered himself to Alan Hill over a Garrick lunch. Over the coffee, Hill asked Rosenthal if he knew of any bright youngster who might be suitable to succeed Fred Warburg, then 72, at Secker & Warburg (which, along with Heinemann, was then owned by Tillings). "Well, Alan," St John quotes Rosenthal as replying, "if what you're saying is, would I like the job of running Secker & Warburg, the answer is yes, subject to one or two conditions…" It wasn't what Hill was saying, and, back at the office, Secker editor Barley Alison said she'd never heard of this Rosenthal chap. But Charles Pick, MD of Heinemann, had - he remembered his denunciation of Heinemann's J B Priestley compilation in the Savile's dining room.

The young whippersnapper's conditions were that he be appointed both Chairman and MD of Secker and that he be allowed to buy some of the company's shares. Tilling disliked both proposals but Pick prevailed, and Rosenthal joined with a 20% holding. A sure sign of things to come.

The list was already remarkable, and Rosenthal was most proud of adding Heinrich Boll and Italo Calvino. Commercial success came with the likes of David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Tom Sharpe and Umberto Eco, whose medieval mystery The Name of the Rose (a paperback success for Picador) enjoyed great screen success. But in 1981 Rosenthal was required to assume the duties of Chairman of both Secker and Heinemann as well as several smaller companies. He resented the time spent in meetings, and the "relentlessly boring" requirements of reporting and budgetary planning imposed by new owners BTR. "I just wasn't enjoying work any more. And I was approaching the witching hour of 50."

Meanwhile, Andre Deutsch was approaching a biblical three scores years and 10, and worrying about succession. The two men knew each other - indeed, Rosenthal claimed to have saved Deutsch's life when, following a trade delegation to Japan, they stopped off in Cambodia and visited Angkor Wat, climbing to the top of the most spectacular temple. Dusk fell, the temperature plummeted, and Deutsch took one look down and said he couldn't make the descent, not even backwards. "I said, fine, I'll go first and I will guide your feet into the appropriate footholds and we'll get down. Well, we both hit terra firma and as it became pitch black Andre said he couldn't thank me enough…"

Perhaps that incident was in Deutsch's mind when, in 1984, he proposed a deal that would entail joint running of Andre Deutsch Ltd until he turned 70, at which point Rosenthal would assume control. As Diana Athill recounts in her memoir Stet, Andre's colleagues were astounded. As was the trade. The two men were like chalk and cheese: Deutsch, though warm and generous with staff who needed help, was famously frugal and entertained guests in the flat above his Great Russell Street offices with "headache wine." Rosenthal paid himself twice as much and ran up vast taxi and lunch expenses. Deutsch returned from foreign trips with gifts for all the staff (usually ties for the men, scarves for the women), Rosenthal tweaked the pension fund - one long-server retired with a one-off payment of just £5,000 - and partitioned Deutsch's beautiful office, assigning the space to the post room.

The relationship soured, staff were caught in the middle, and Deutsch bemoaned his situation to all and sundry - leading to a major story in the Independent on Sunday in August 1990. There was plenty to write about: Rosenthal had essentially acquired the company for nothing, recouping the money he'd paid Deutsch by selling off the revered children's list and the company archive, which went to the University of Tulsa for £100,000. But with the retirement of the firm's trusty accountant, on whose counsel Deutsch had always relied, Rosenthal had no one to help him chart a path through publishing's increasingly difficult terrain in difficult economic circumstances. Deutsch was a standalone hardback house in a vertical world. Occasional successes, Penelope Lively's Booker-winning Moon Tiger for example, simply weren't enough. As Athill writes: "What it boiled down to was that Tom's claim to be a bloody good businessman was poppycock" (p127). When in 1990 Rosenthal finally hoisted the for sale sign, a trio of directors tried to bid. Perhaps fearing the return of the founder, he refused.

Outside publishing, Rosenthal was a passionate opera fan (and an equally "passionate anti- Wagnerian"), a regular at Covent Garden and the Coliseum and at opera houses around the world - foreign trips were carefully timed. A "gourmet and gourmand", his cricket-loving was restricted to spectating. He was also a noted art collector who was especially proud of Jack Yeats' "The Liffey Swim," which dominated his Deutsch office.

A version of this story originally appeared in the London-based trade publication, Following its publication, Rosenthal's son Daniel, made the following points regarding the piece:

Tom was for many years a regular at the White Tower but never ate there "almost daily".

Tom read History and English at Pembroke.

"Rosenthal tweaked the pension fund" - simply not true, as Diana Athill made clear in her letter to theBookseller, 26 January 2001:

'In my book Stet I implied that Tom Rosenthal had "adjusted" the André Deutsch company pension scheme to the disadvantage of myself and some of my colleagues.

In fact the company had simply, in a manner increasingly prevalent throughout the industry, switched from a proportion of monthly salary to a "money purchase" scheme. This did not disadvantage me in any way, as when the change occurred I was already of pensionable age and remained in the old scheme retained for me and other pensioners of my generation.

A younger senior staff member was going to be disadvantaged and the company under Tom made a substantial ex gratia additional pension award to that person before she reached pensionable age.

I was confused because André Deutsch himself, who at this time purchased a modest extra annuity for me, led me to believe that he personally, rather than the company Tom had bought from him, had paid for the bulk of my pension. This was not so.

Throughout my time with the firm after André sold it Tom behaved honourably towards me in all matters.

I would therefore like to apologise for my unwitting misunderstanding and express my regret to Tom and his family for the distress my words have caused them.

The passage in question is being deleted from all future printings and editions of Stet.'

That Rosenthal "had essentially acquired the company for nothing": in 1984 Tom raised part of the substantial purchase price for buying Deutsch through the sale of an Arthur Boyd painting and he borrowed the rest from a bank, with a considerable degree of personal financial exposure.

1988 -1994 - the sale of the Deutsch archive to Tulsa (first tranche in 1988, second tranche in 1994) was in response to the company's tough financial position in this period. Numerous other UK publishing houses had by then sold and/or deposited their archives with universities in the UK or overseas.

1990 - the sale of the children's list in autumn 1990 was also in response to Deutsch's tough financial circumstances at that point. As the piece currently stands, readers may well have concluded that the two-part sale of the archive and the sale of the children's list followed very soon after the original acquisition, as part of a grand plan to recoup the purchase price by selling off company assets. This was most definitely not the case.

Tom may have told Diana Athill he thought himself "a bloody good business man", but in one of my tape-recorded conversations with my father, he undoubtedly said "I've been quite a competent publisher at times, quite bad at times"; he knew his flaws and limitations.