Obituary: Leo Cooper, publisher

Born: 25 March, 1934, in Yorkshire. Died: 29 November, 2013, in Gloucestershire, aged 79

Leo Cooper, pictured with wife Jilly, specialised in books about military history. Picture: HEMEDIA
Leo Cooper, pictured with wife Jilly, specialised in books about military history. Picture: HEMEDIA

Leo Cooper was a larger-than-life character who enjoyed sport, books and good wine. He was convivial and genial, chatting at length about country matters, cricket and the latest gossip from the world of publishing. While he made his name as the publisher of military books he included in his list such names as Sir George “Loopy” Kennard and Brigadier “Honky” Henniker. He built up a substantial business but never rivalled that of his wife, the novelist Jilly Cooper. Her first book in 1969, How To Stay Married, shot her to international fame. In the 1990s a tabloid revealed that he had been keeping a mistress for some years. However, the Coopers remained devoted to each other and she nursed him through the difficult years after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Cooper was a popular figure in London’s clubland, being a longtime member of the Garrick – often wearing its distinctive green and pink tie.

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Leonard Cooper was the eldest of three children. His father had been invalided out of the army and wrote novels and biographies. Cooper attended Radley, where he was a talented sportsman and a keen musician.

He played for the school’s 1st X1 and was capped for the Yorkshire schoolboys. He then did his National Service with the King’s African Rifles in Kenya during the Mau Mau troubles. Cooper grew to love Africa and this military experience gave him a lifelong passion for the army, its traditions and its personalities.

Cooper joined a succession of publishing houses where his extrovert style was not always in keeping with the more staid surroundings.

In 1968 he decided to branch out on his own and specialise in military history and, in particular, in regimental history. He opened an office in a basement in Bloomsbury and was adamant that his books should present an honest account of a regiment and not just with past glories. He began with the York and Lancasters and over the next few decades covered most of the regiments of the UK.

Cooper excelled in his coverage of the Scottish regiments. Not only did they sell exceptionally well but such books as The Royal Scots: A Concise History, British Battalions in France and Belgium, (and on the Somme), The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, The Highland Light Infantry and The London Scottish were widely praised for their military scholarship.

One reviewer of the last publication commented: “It demonstrates as no history of the London Scottish has before the hopes, sufferings and aspirations of the volunteers who filled its ranks, so many of who made the supreme sacrifice.”

The Black Watch, (Royal Highland Regiment, 42nd Regiment of Foot) traces the famous regiment’s history back to 1724 and captured its proud and distinguished service in peace and war.

Cooper had a natural instinct for choosing the most appropriate author for a book. The Marquess of Anglesey, for example, was commissioned to write the history of the British cavalry.

The first of the eight volumes came out in 1973 and the Duke of Kent presented the Marquess (with Cooper in attendance) with the Chesney Gold Medal for military history at the Royal United Services Institute; the trumpeters blew a particularly glorious salute.

By the 1970s his wife was a best-selling author and Cooper a recognised publisher. They were well known media figures so Cooper’s affair was given a great deal of coverage. The mistress claimed she wrote on behalf of “thousands of mistresses ill-used and discarded without redress”.

Cooper retired in 1999, leaving his firm to be managed by Pen & Sword Books. Despite suffering from Parkinson’s he found the strength to write a typically endearing account of his life in publishing, All My Friends Will Buy It.

Cooper is survived by his wife and their adopted son and daughter, and by a daughter from his first marriage.