Drue Heinz

b. 1915 – d. 2018

Drue Heinz was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002.

Drue Heinz (born Doreen Mary English) was an American patron of the literary arts, actress, philanthropist and socialite. She was the publisher of the literary magazine The Paris Review (1993 to 2007), co-founded Ecco Press, founded literary retreats and endowed the Drue Heinz Literature Prize among others. She was married to H. J. Heinz II, president of Heinz.

Drue Heinz remembered – by Grey Gowrie, Helen Simpson, Richard Ford, Hermione Lee, Maggie Fergusson, Selina Hastings, Derwent May

Grey Gowrie

Drue Heinz died in the early hours of Good Friday this year, three weeks after her 103rd birthday. A woman of powerful will and purpose, she was proud that only two months previously she had, with a little help, walked down the impossible stairs of her Mayfair mews house; walked unaided out of her front door; had herself flown to Hawthornden Castle outside Edinburgh to die.

Drue bought Hawthornden while her husband Jack Heinz was still alive. He died in 1987. Her aim was to convert the exquisite small castle, built on the edge of a maiden’s leap, a suicidal gorge of the river North Esk in a forest clearing, into an international retreat for writers. She wanted a British answer to Yaddo in the United States. She achieved this. The retreat has been generously endowed. It seems set fair for many generations of authors to receive a few weeks’ bed and board and, at her insistence, enforced Wi-Fi freedom to write imaginatively there.

Drue wanted to die at Hawthornden Castle and did so. In April there was a celebration ceremony of words and music in the octagonal library she built in the old kitchen garden above the castle. There was a fine eulogy from William Shawcross, who had known her since his childhood. Preceded by a Scots piper in full fig, some 40 staff, family and friends attended the burial among spring flowers near the gatehouse. There followed a festive lunch with grandchildren and great-grandchildren to cheer those who, in spite of Drue’s great age, knew very well the gap she would leave now in their lives.

Drue Heinz was probably the foremost literary philanthropist for the English-speaking world in the last 50 years. She thought of herself, with justice, as a Foundation Administrator. She did not welcome requests. She researched and decided her own giving. She devoted much time to her friends and their intellectual interests and was a skilful picker of brains. Otherwise she worked at and worried over her projects, in no way a lady of leisure. She never ceased to remind people that the money was Heinz money, not her own.

Drue married Jack in 1953. He ruled his food empire energetically. Outside the office he liked skiing and shooting and his yacht. One used to catch his eyes following Drue round the room whenever they were together, shaking his head a little as if in wonder at how he had managed to land a red-haired beauty with so much vim, such a hold on life. Jack was not greatly interested in the arts. But the Muses had smiled on him also. His best friend at Yale was James Laughlin. Laughlin went on to found the avant-garde publishing house New Directions, home of William Carlos Williams and his followers. When in the materialist 1970s and 1980s the major houses were abandoning the poets they had supported as prestigious loss leaders, Drue and Jim became the foremost publishers of verse in the United States. She rescued The Paris Review for her friend George Plimpton, who edited it. It was famous for long interviews with writers. She herself conducted a telling one with Ted Hughes. Drue also funded Antaeus for Daniel Halpern. Following Jack’s death, her Ecco Press took on discarded poets and many new ones as well.

The Heinz headquarters are in Pittsburgh. There Drue funded a short-fiction competition. She and Jack divided their time between Pittsburgh, Manhattan and Ascot Place, near Windsor. They also had a house on Hobe Sound in Florida where David Hockney would come to stay and paint. Her literary philanthropy was quite secretive at this time. She was best known as a hostess and social arbiter, one of the doyennes of the Manhattan beaux monde portrayed in novels by her friends Tom Wolfe, who has just died, and Truman Capote. And summer Ascot Place parties were legendary. There were swing bands, candlelit midnight boating trips on the lake, fancy-dress displays, royals and other luminaries, goings-on in hidden grottoes. Planning for such events, whether in Britain or America, was meticulous and exhaustive and undertaken by Drue and her long-time friend and aide Judy Mooney alone. She was never one to delegate. At the end of the British season, before returning home, Jack would fly with his guns to Scotland. It was on one such occasion that Drue, bored by shooting, discovered Hawthornden.

She was devastated and cut adrift by Jack’s death. Hitherto philanthropy had been a matter of backing individuals like George Plimpton and Jim Laughlin and going with the flow of traditional Heinz benevolence in Pittsburgh or conventional big-ticket items in New York like the Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum. Now she determined to dispose of her share of the Heinz fortune herself. She bought a villa, Casa Ecco, overlooking Lake Como and converted cottages on the estate to lend to writers and painters. Here she hosted ‘conversations’ where writers got to know each other and engaged in rapping sessions under some general rubric like ‘Humour’ or ‘Crime Fiction’ or ‘Biography’. Drue attended all these sessions, which I convened for her. Writers as diverse and entertaining as Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Cees Noteboom, Mordecai Richler, Auberon Waugh, Martin Amis, Simon Armitage, Lavinia Greenlaw, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, P.D. James, Hilary Spurling, Selina Hastings, John Keegan, Michael Dibdin, Jonathan Miller, Derek Malcolm, Michael Hofmann and Roy Foster attended. To season all the rapping, there was a brilliant local cook, Maria-Elena, long walks, boat trips. After supper on the last night, there was a ‘cabaret’, where each protagonist read something they had written or been inspired by, for not more than eight minutes.

As well as her support for British museums and galleries, notably the Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland, Drue gave a large donation to the London Library. She reconstituted the Hawthornden Prize. Surprisingly, there was no connection with the castle. She endowed the Hawthornden Lecture at the RSL. Of all the writers whom I met with her, or we talked about, I believe she felt closest to Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Tom Stoppard, David Cornwell (John le Carré), Joseph Brodsky and James Fenton. These are writers who maintain a fierce grip on life as lived. Drue had few metaphysical or mythological interests, fewer longings. Of an afterlife she once said, ‘And you can’t even take a book with you.’ An insomniac, she read much of the night and slept in the morning. Whenever writers came to stay, whether at Hawthornden, Hay’s Mews, Casa Ecco or Sutton Place in New York, their most recent work was laid out on the hall table for all to see.

In the end, Hawthornden was the project she devoted most time and care to. She loved it, worried about it, chose it for her last days. The home of the poet William Drummond (1585–1649), Hawthornden is numinous in the history of English verse as the place where Drummond and Ben Jonson (1572–1637) plotted the post-Shakespearian, post-metaphysical lapidary style, the neo-classical or Augustan phase of English poetry. Ben walked the four hundred miles from London to stay with Drummond, whom he had not met, in 1619. What we know of his conversation and intentions comes from the younger poet’s detailed account of the visit. Symbolically, the visit launched the poetry of Dryden, Pope, Swift and Samuel Johnson. At Drue’s wake her friend Francis Russell read an account of the great Doctor’s own visit to the castle. Now this fierce and literate woman, who it is not too fanciful to say would have commanded the attention of such men, has done everything imaginable to give writers of our own age and beyond a chance to cast new words down the North Esk and into the ocean of time.

Helen Simpson

She was a role model for relishing the life force; the last time I saw her she was wearing a beautiful silver-grey silk gown and though weighed down by years (her voice by now reduced to a whisper) took genuine youthful pleasure from being complimented on it and in every detail of the panoply of whatever party it was she was hosting.

Richard Ford

What I’ll cherish – and be everlastingly surprised by – is that Drue ever noticed me at all. One very dark autumn night – it was years ago in the blear early 1990s – I was attempting to depart on foot from a clamorous publishing party (there was a band). This was somewhere in north London where no one had ever seen or heard of a taxi. I, of course, had it in mind to find one – being American, and drunk, and entirely unaware of where I was. As I left the party, lurching along some unknown road towards what I fantasised would be bright lights and a high street and swarming taxis, I happened past a long, blackly-gleaming Jaguar saloon, idling in the darkness, with someone in its back seat. Down hissed a rear window, a gloved hand extended as though to touch my sleeve. A woman’s softened face was there cloaked in the shadows. ‘Richard,’ a rather high-pitched not-precisely-Englishy voice said, ‘where in the world are you going?’ ‘I’m going home,’ I said, possibly too assertively, not knowing whom I was addressing or why my name had come up at that moment. ‘Oh, do get in,’ the woman said, as if I’d been resisting (I hadn’t). ‘I’ll take you wherever you think you’re going. You’ll never get there otherwise. Just please get in.’

This was Drue, age perhaps 77. I’d met her only once – in New York – ten years before, at another noisy party in a resplendent Upper East Side apartment I later understood was hers. Kristina and I had come along uninvited with my friend Daniel Halpern, who at the time edited Antaeus, a magazine Drue bankrolled. When I was introduced to Mrs Heinz, she seemed absolutely to know who I was, which I believed at that moment was what she did to everyone – to make people feel welcome. ‘Recognise’ them. I might be wrong about that. Only then, a decade later and three thousand miles away, she recognised me again, in the dark, a-stumble and a-lurch, in jeopardy of spending the cold night under a damp bush in Camden Town. What I remember about our journey that late night is virtually nothing. I’m not sure Drue even spoke other words to me. She did have her driver take her home before he took me – which seemed only correct. She, after all, had no interest in seeing where I lived, only that I made it there in one piece. So that in another way she recognised me. I was the fellow who needed…well…a lift.

Years went by. I saw Drue many times after that, was frequently a ‘guest’ of one sort or another, often was the lucky beneficiary of her remarkable largesse. The phone would ring in my house in Maine; that same voice would instantly begin, without prologue, ‘Richard, it’s Drue. I have something in mind for you.’ We never spoke of that chilly night in London. It likely wouldn’t have stayed in her mind as it did in mine. I’m sure such things happened to her often.

Hermione Lee

No one quite believed it. She seemed so indomitable, so alert, so greedy for life, that you felt death might finally have met his match. No one knew quite how old she was. When the obituaries gave her age as 103, it seemed oddly disappointing: what, only 103? You can tell something about a person from the tribute words used by the obituarists. Drue Heinz’s were: munificent, generous, intellectually hungry, quiet but influential, a voracious and passionate reader, socialite, insomniac, funny, steadfast, modest, fierce, spontaneous, down-to-earth, energetic. When one admirer called her ‘the great literary philanthropist of our time’, it didn’t seem an exaggeration.

The list of her commitments is astonishing, not just for its internationalism and distinction but also for its adventurousness. She was born in England in 1915 (to a family of women, because all the men had gone to the war), embarked on a courageous independence very young, was briefly an actress, and became enormously rich through her third marriage to the owner of the Heinz canned-food business. She decided to use her wealth to help and encourage writers, intellectuals and artists, and to support a great variety of cultural institutions.

She established a retreat for writers at Hawthornden Castle – the poet William Drummond’s sixteenth-century home near Edinburgh – where the Hawthornden Fellows could be looked after while they did nothing but write for a month: a godsend for them. She funded and sustained the Hawthornden Prize for literature. She also funded a quarterly journal, Antaeus, and a publishing house, Ecco Press, now an imprint of HarperCollins. She hosted writers and artists in her Italian house, Casa Ecco, on Lake Como. (Like Gertrude Stein, Drue preferred talking to her male guests. She confided in one, female, friend: ‘I don’t usually like the wives.’) Heinz funds were poured into the development of Pittsburgh’s cultural district, and she set up the Drue Heinz short-fiction award at the University of Pittsburgh Press. She published The Paris Review. She founded the American Friends of the Tate Gallery, to buy American paintings, and the Heinz Gallery at riba. She gave money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European galleries, the Scottish National Gallery, the Edinburgh Festival, the National Portrait Gallery (for its archive and library) and the London Library (for book purchasing). Much of this philanthropy was low-key. She did not like personal publicity, though she loved society and the world.

I knew her only in her very old age, through three of her projects. The first was the Drue Heinz Professorship of American Literature at Oxford, which, alongside the Rothermere American Institute, had the admirable aim of strengthening Anglo-American intellectual connections. She would get very cross when she wasn’t kept in the loop by one holder of the chair: she liked to know the end results of her patronage.

The second was her involvement with The Paris Review, born of her friendship with George Plimpton, which she published from 1993 to 2007. (She did the Paris Review interview with Ted Hughes in 1995.) In April 2010, there was a party at Cipriani’s to present the Review’s Hadada Prize to Philip Roth. It was just the kind of glittery, eventful literary evening that Drue loved, and she was frustrated at not feeling well enough to go. She asked me to come to tea the next day to describe it all. I asked her, idiotically, to tell me the number of her apartment. ‘In fact,’ she said, in that gravelly drawl of hers, ‘it’s a house.’ And it was. Drue lived at One Sutton Place, next to the East River, an Edith Wharton-style neo-Georgian brick mansion of great distinction, built by Mrs William K. Vanderbilt in the 1920s. It’s a breath-taking building, outside and in – not least when you entered the first downstairs room and came face to face with a large Modigliani. In this splendour sat Drue, well-looked-after, avid for stories and full of eager interest.

I knew her best because of judging the Hawthornden Prize. Alice Warrender, the daughter of a Scottish baronet, born at Hawthornden, set up the prize for ‘a work of imaginative literature by an author under 41’, with a prize of £100 and a silver medal. The age rule and the medal have long gone, but the prize has run for 99 years, has been won by a remarkable list of novelists, poets and non-fiction writers, and is now, thanks to Drue, who took over its funding in 1973, worth £15,000. It is judged by a group of five, does not invite entries and has no shortlist. I used to argue with Drue that the prize would attract much more attention if it had one, but she was firmly against any publicity that might distract the writers.

We judged the prize in Drue’s house in Mayfair, another astonishing home, a long low mews building adapted from a house and garage, which she and Jack bought and converted in 1958. Inside there were trompe l’oeil frescoes and a courtyard with a rose bower and treasures everywhere and marble pillars – even the box of tissues had a marble container. Drue was always at the judges’ meeting, which lasted the whole morning, and had read all the books. Though she (mainly) stayed quiet while we talked, she made her opinions forcibly felt once we’d decided. And her preference was often for the most experimental book – a book of poetry or a book by a young writer.

The prize was accompanied by the kind of generous, lavish rituals which Drue enjoyed providing. There would be a gorgeous lunch for the judges at her club, and Christmas presents of Scottish grouse or partridge. The prize-giving at the London Library might be followed by a party at the Savile Club. Drue would appear, stylishly dressed in flowing silk and pale-shaded linens, her silver hair tightly drawn back, her blue eyes very concentrated, determined that all should go according to plan. Her passion for the prize, and for the writers, was tangible.

I didn’t know her for long, but I felt I was being treated as a friend: it’s not everyone who makes new friends in their nineties. She could be exacting and imperious. But she was also extraordinarily generous (in spirit as well as materially), interested in people, curious, shrewd and in love with books. She forged affectionate bonds with a great many people, and they were moved by her death, as these three messages, from William Waldegrave, Victoria Glendinning and Christopher Reid, show: ‘She seemed such a permanent part of life, it will seem strange without her. It is ridiculous to feel bereft when someone of (at least) 104 dies; but bereft is what I feel.’ ‘I imagine her released spirit bursting out into the universe like when a champagne bottle explodes.’ ‘All that life force extinguished!’

Maggie Fergusson

I first met Drue over lunch in Odin’s, off Marylebone High Street, in the mid-1990s. Roy Jenkins, then President of the Royal Society of Literature, made up a threesome. Roy was keen that Drue should fund some activity at the RSL, but this white-haired old lady (she was already in her eighties) was no pushover: she asked us beady, searching questions. Still, by the time pudding arrived, Drue had agreed to sponsor a series of RSL lectures – the Hawthornden Anglo-American Lectures – for which we would invite American writers to speak on British subjects, and vice versa. They have been an annual feature of the RSL programme ever since.

It soon became the custom that after each lecture Drue would host a lavish dinner at her home off Berkeley Square. Reached through an ordinary front door in what looked like a row of garages, this was a tardis of a residence. Once over the threshold, one found oneself in a palazzo, complete with balconied courtyard. In the vast dining room, Drue’s latest art acquisitions – a Modigliani, a Lucien Freud – would be displayed on easels. The food was always sumptuous, and on every table there was a bottle of up-market ketchup – not Heinz.

Somehow, over the years, Drue morphed from a formidable patron of the RSL into a friend. Every so often, she would invite me round for tea, an elaborate ceremony involving a great deal of silver – teapot, jug for hot water, domes covering sandwiches and cake. She loved peanut butter, and believed it promoted longevity.

Sometimes, she made a sudden gesture of extraordinary generosity. One Christmas Eve, she had delivered to me a dozen partridges from a smart butcher in Mount Street. We froze them, then invited Drue round to eat them with us in the new year, with Michael Holroyd and Maggie Drabble, and Ronnie and Natasha Harwood. She was the life and soul of the party. She could receive as well as give.

Drue had many houses, but the one she loved best – and where she died – was Hawthornden, a castle clinging vertiginously to the rocks in Midlothian. She once invited my husband, Jamie, and me to dinner there during the Edinburgh Festival. In front of each guest, when we entered the dining room, was one entire lobster – and in place of knives and forks a set of pincers and crackers I had no idea how to deploy. To make things more alarming, Drue had seated me next to Richard Ford, and I was thoroughly overawed. But Ford was charming, and the lobster proved manageable, and it was – as always with Drue – a wonderful evening.

About a year ago, Drue invited Jamie and me to drop round one evening after work. She was, by then, too blind to read – but, undaunted, she had arranged a rota of young actors and actresses to come and read to her. We spoke about books, but about many other things besides. She reminisced about her first meeting with Donald Trump, when he turned up very late for a lunch party, 30 years ago. She talked about hairdressers, and how, as soon as one touched her head, she could tell whether he was worth his salt.

On our next visit, she insisted, we must bring our daughters – ‘And we’ll send out for fish and chips’. Alas…

Selina Hastings

In the early 1990s, I was one of a small group staying at Hawthornden, the castle near Edinburgh Drue had bought and partly converted into a writers’ retreat. The five writers each had a tiny room on the top floor, lunch was left in a basket outside the door, and nobody spoke until the evening when we assembled for dinner. Then, late one afternoon, Drue herself arrived and everything changed. Walking into the house with a large box of chocolates under her arm, she immediately brought us to life and back into the real world. Over a delicious dinner, she talked most amusingly, showed interest in everyone, and displayed a formidable knowledge of, mainly contemporary, literature. She was impressively well read, her critical opinions far from mild, briskly dismissing a number of well-known authors with an enjoyable acidity.

Some years later, I took part in a biographers’ conference over several days at Casa Ecco, Drue’s beautiful property on the shores of Lake Como. Here we stayed in the greatest luxury, sumptuous meals, drinks at sunset on the terrace overlooking the garden. But we were there to work: with Drue at the head of the table, we assembled soon after nine o’clock to spend most of the day debating various aspects of our subject. Drue listened intently, never interrupting, until the end of the final session, when she commented perceptively on the proceedings mostly, if not entirely, with approval, before sweeping us off for a glorious dinner and a cabaret performed by some of her guests.

The last time I saw Drue was at the London Library last July, for the awarding of the Hawthornden Prize. Drue, in appearance very fragile, was elegantly dressed in a white tunic and long black skirt. As one by one various guests came to sit beside her, she talked in a voice that was quiet and low, but her mind was as incisive as ever; she had read every title on the judges’ list and had decided opinions on them all. For the first time that I remember she left the party early, protectively escorted out of the room by her devoted driver, Shavez.

Derwent May

Drue Heinz became a great benefactress of the arts and literature after she married H.J. (Jack) Heinz in 1953. She gave munificent support to both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Portrait Gallery here. But I always thought that literature was her great love.

She bought Hawthornden Castle, near Edinburgh, and set it up as a place where writers could stay for a month to work in peace in beautiful surroundings – as they continue to do. She then learned that by coincidence the renowned Hawthornden Prize, founded in 1919 (and won in its early years by Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene), was short of money, and rather wittily she took that over too.

I got to know her well as a member of the judges’ panel for the prize, and think that of all her benefactions she took greatest pleasure in that one. She bought, en bloc at Heywood Hill in Curzon Street, the books we were considering, and read them all. There were fifteen of them, consisting of three books chosen for the list in January by each of the five judges.

We met on a June morning in her house near Berkeley Square, a set of mews buildings that she had turned into a small palazzo. She always came to the meeting to listen to us, beautifully dressed, but never interfered in any way. I could see on her face, though, whether she was pleased or displeased by our final choice, which could vary between established writers like Ali Smith and Colm Tóibín, and little-known younger writers.

We tried to get the winner on the phone straightaway, and Drue particularly liked giving him or her the good news. One year the winner responded suspiciously, ‘Is this a hoax?’

She also invited the winner to choose someone to present the prize – generally steering them towards someone, ideally a friend of hers, whom she would like to have at the prize-giving party. This party, followed by a dinner, took place in July, of late years usually at the London Library (of which she had also been a great benefactress, and where there is a bust of her on the staircase).

Unfortunately she would not invite to the party any journalists, of whom she had a horror. She greatly disliked any mention of herself in the press, and never wanted public recognition of or credit for her good deeds. This was the main reason why the Hawthornden, though a substantial and serious prize, has never got the publicity it deserves. Some winners naturally regretted this, but Ali Smith made a charming speech in which she said that she was glad there was no great fuss made about it. She was much happier simply to learn that a group of judges whom she admired had chosen her.

Drue died at Hawthornden Castle in her sleep, with writers working around her.