Alexander Chancellor, an editor who reshaped the fading Spectator magazine into one of the most vibrant British weeklies of the 1970s and 1980s, turning a dreary, ideologically conservative journal into what he later called a literary “cocktail party,” died Jan. 28 in London. He was 77.
The Spectator reported the death but did not disclose the cause.
Chancellor was a self-described “gentleman hack” who said he became interested in journalism because it was “the ideal profession for the lazy person” — an observation he made after growing up as the son of a top executive of the Reuters news service. He worked for most of Britain’s top newspapers, including the Times, Telegraph, Guardian and Independent, and in the 1990s he had a brief, ill-fitting stint as an editor at the New Yorker magazine.
He combined editing and writing; his final column for the Spectator appeared on the day he died. He was a genial presence in newsrooms, often found with a glass of wine in hand, and often inspired fierce loyalty among colleagues.
In 1975, when Chancellor was named editor of the moribund Spectator, he said it was because he was the only journalist known to the magazine’s new millionaire owner, Henry Keswick. They had been chums at Eton, the upper-class boys’ school.
In short order, Chancellor hired a cast of lively writers and cartoonists and gave them a free hand. The magazine retained an element of its old Tory starchiness, but it wore its political allegiance lightly.
“The Spectator is more of a cocktail party than a political party,” Chancellor once said.
Neither a newsweekly nor a humor magazine, the Spectator combined political analysis, in-depth reporting, personal essays, cultural criticism, cartoons and contests for readers — often involving elaborate word games or limericks.
Under Chancellor’s leadership, the Spectator nearly doubled its 12,000 circulation, and its cheekiness was emulated by publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He hired such writers as Auberon Waugh, Christopher Hitchens and Ferdinand Mount, asking only that they write with vigor, elegance and a strong, independent voice.
Some of the magazine’s contributors were unknown, and others were celebrated figures such as the novelist Graham Greene, who seldom wrote for magazines.
“Graham Greene said he was the best editor he’d ever worked with,” James Pembroke, publisher of The Oldie, which Chancellor was editing at the time of his death, told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
After noticing the acerbic wit of Jennifer Paterson, Chancellor invited her to write about food for the Spectator. She later became a star of the British cooking show “Two Fat Ladies.”
He asked Taki Theodoracopulos, a playboy and Greek shipping heir, to write about life among the jet set in a column called “High Life.” Then Chancellor hired a witty alcoholic, Jeffrey Bernard, to write about his misadventures at the racetrack, London pubs and hospitals in a column dubbed “Low Life.” (Whenever Bernard missed a deadline, a headline read “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell,” which became the title of a long-running stage play about Bernard’s life.)
For all his skills at inspiring writers and reshaping a magazine, Chancellor was less adept at managing money. He was dismissed in 1984 after a new owner had purchased the Spectator. But he continued working at other publications, including as the Washington editor of the newly created Independent newspaper from 1986 to 1988.
He then spent four years as the editor of the Independent’s stylish weekly magazine before returning to the United States in 1992, when his fellow Briton Tina Brown was named editor of the New Yorker.
Chancellor edited the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section of short, sometimes whimsical articles about life in New York. In a 1999 memoir, “Some Time in America,” he admitted that it was a poor fit.
“Chancellor wouldn’t know 57th Street if you pointed it out to him,” noted the New York Observer.
He often clashed with Brown’s vision of journalism, which emphasized the new and “hot.” A few years later, Chancellor launched a new magazine for the Sunday Telegraph and pointedly told contributors to follow their interests and “dare to be dull.”
Alexander Surtees Chancellor was born Jan. 4, 1940, near Ware in rural Hertfordshire, England. His paternal grandfather was a British colonial officer who once served as the high commissioner for the British mandate of Palestine. His father became an executive with Reuters and ultimately its worldwide chairman.
At Eton, Chancellor was a skilled pianist and contemplated a career in music before studying languages at the University of Cambridge. After graduation, he began working for Reuters, eventually becoming its Rome correspondent.
A noted bon vivant, Chancellor was an opera lover, and enjoyed cooking for guests at his homes in Italy and the English countryside and playing show tunes on the piano.
Survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Susanna Debenham; their two daughters; a daughter from another relationship; two sisters; and four grandchildren.
Since 1996, Chancellor wrote a weekly column for the Spectator called “Long Life,” reflecting on his times and advancing age. In 2014 he became the editor of The Oldie, an only-in-England magazine for older readers. Chancellor called the publication “a haven for all who are fearful and uncomprehending of the all-pervasive ‘yoof’ culture of today.”