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Kilmartin, Terence Kevin [Terry] (1922–1991), journalist and translator, was born on 10 January 1922 at Church Road, Greystones, Delgany, co Wicklow, Ireland, the seventh of the eight children of Ambrose Joseph Kilmartin, an Irish civil servant, and his wife, Eva, née Hyland. His Oxford-educated father was the Irish Free State's first deputy commissioner for forests and died when Terry, as he was always known, was a year old. A scholarship was secured for him to attend Xaverian College, a Catholic school in Sussex, which he left at the age of sixteen to tutor the children of a French provincial family in English, Latin, and German. Thus began a lifelong love affair with France and French culture. The scholar and translator J. G. Weightman, a blunt Northumbrian who worked with Kilmartin, once remarked: ‘I never heard Terry talk nonsense about France—or anything else’ (personal knowledge).

After returning to England when the Second World War broke out, Kilmartin (who carried a British passport) was found unfit for military service because he had lost a kidney as a child. But in 1940 he was recruited through an elder sister in the Foreign Office to what became the French section of the Special Operations Executive. Because he knew too much about intelligence operations, he never became an undercover agent, but it was there that he developed his diffident, deceptively patrician air and a distrust of what he saw as the devious, bungling British establishment. It was through the Special Operations Executive that he met David Astor, future editor and proprietor of The Observer, then an officer in the Royal Marines. In 1944 he and Astor undertook a secret mission worthy of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy to meet French Resistance leaders behind German lines in the Jura. They were ambushed, Astor was wounded (Kilmartin recalled cigarette smoke curling out of a bullet hole in Astor's neck), and the incident was hushed up.

After the war Astor encouraged Kilmartin to embark on a career in journalism, and following spells with Edward Hulton's short-lived World Review, an Arab radio station in the Middle East, and the BBC's French service, he joined The Observer's foreign news service in 1949. Appointed deputy literary editor in 1950, he became literary editor in 1952, a post he occupied until his retirement in 1986. When he took up his new post, John Hayward, the waspish critic and T. S. Eliot's then flatmate, cornered him at a publisher's party and asked: ‘Is it true you got your job because you saved David Astor's life?’ (private information).

Astor's post-war project was to transform The Observer into a world-class liberal newspaper, and when Kilmartin joined him there he was surrounded by major European writers such as Arthur Koestler, Sebastian Haffner, and Isaac Deutscher. Following his predecessor, Jim Rose (who had left The Observer to become director of the International Press Institute in Zurich), Kilmartin did a similar job in buttressing the paper's cultural sections. He was instrumental in bringing in such critics as Angus Wilson, Philip Toynbee, Maurice Richardson, and Al Alvarez (who became the paper's first poetry editor) to the books pages, and Kenneth Tynan, Penelope Gilliatt, and Clive James as arts critics.

Randall Jarrell characterized the post-war years as ‘the age of criticism’, and central to this era in Britain were Kilmartin on The Observer and J. W. (Jack) Lambert as his opposite number on the conservative rival, the Sunday Times. Both were largely self-taught (neither went to university), strikingly handsome provincial intellectuals with distinguished war records (Lambert had risen through the ranks in the Royal Navy to become a lieutenant-commander in charge of a motor torpedo boat). Both placed great value on literary style, lucidity, serious judgement, and unostentatious erudition. They also stood out against what they saw as a debasing pop culture and in the 1960s opposed, ultimately unsuccessfully, their papers' populist cultivation of young readers. But sartorially and temperamentally they stood far apart. Lambert, who had unsuccessfully sought a job at The Observer on leaving the navy in 1946, was a suave, articulate, immaculately dressed club man, a public figure, frequent broadcaster, theatrical first-nighter, and member of numerous committees. Kilmartin was charming, witty, but essentially a private man: left-wing, bohemian, and legendary for communicating with great effectiveness using grunts, ‘ums’, ‘ers’, and similar sub-locutions. Clive James worked for Karl Miller at The Listener, Ian Hamilton at the New Review, and Kilmartin at The Observer, and he once observed: ‘Karl edits with a snarl, Ian with a sneer, Terry with a smile’ (personal knowledge).

Kilmartin belonged to a heavy-drinking generation of journalists, whose passion for good prose was matched only by their unquenchable thirst for hard liquor. They developed a colourful reputation for carousing and left a trail of tales about encounters with the police and nights in the cooler in London and France. Some drank themselves into early graves, leaving little behind them except fading legends and yellowing newspaper cuttings. Kilmartin survived, gradually becoming more temperate in his behaviour and creating something more substantial in the way of a literary legacy. For this his handsome wife, Joanna Wendy Margaret Kilmartin [née Pearce] (1929–2005), deserved much of the credit: she provided a stable and comfortable home life and encouraged his gift for translation.

A fellow Francophile, Joanna Kilmartin was born in London on 17 August 1929, the daughter of James Townsend Pearce, army officer and landowner, and his wife, Olive, née Sainsbury. From a raffish, upper-middle-class background, well-acquainted with riding to hounds, she was brought up in Rutland and educated at Micklefield School. She was a self-taught naturalist, and later became a wide-ranging journalist, her work for The Observer encompassing cookery, sailing (she was the paper's sailing correspondent when it sponsored the single-handed trans-Atlantic race), and nature reserves. She and Kilmartin married on 16 April 1952 and had two children, a son, Christopher, who later worked as a painter in Paris, and a daughter, Olivia, later employed by a music publishing company in London. Kilmartin was never, however, truly tamed and domesticated. He was a convivial drinking companion, holding court every Friday evening at bars near The Observer's various offices with his colleagues and contributors. On one celebrated occasion he ran from a boozy dinner table infuriated by a remark by his friend, the Irish novelist Edna O'Brien, and stormed out into the night. Not until the door had slammed behind him did he realize that he was the host and this was his own house in Chelsea.

Terry and Joanna Kilmartin eventually acquired a house in France, and during the 1960s and 1970s he translated novels by Henri de Montherlant and memoirs by André Malraux and Charles de Gaulle, while Joanna translated novels by Patrick Modiano and Françoise Sagan. Both won numerous prizes. Terry Kilmartin's most remarkable achievement, however, was his revision of Scott Moncrieff's translation of A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). He once remarked that Proust ‘has written better than anyone else about what Freud called the psychopathology of human life, about human behaviour in all its minutiae’, and regarded le Baron de Charlus as ‘the greatest comic character in world literature since Falstaff’ (The Times, 16 Aug 1989). This commission began as a way of helping Chatto and Windus retain their copyright in what had come to be regarded as the standard English translation of Proust's roman-fleuve. But Kilmartin's revision steadily evolved into something rather different, in effect what some regarded as a new, more accurate, and more nuanced version of the book. After completing this task and writing a Guide to Proust (1983) as a labour of love, he embarked on a three-volume collection of Proust's letters, which Joanna Kilmartin completed after his death at the Lister Hospital, Westminster, from prostate cancer on 17 August 1991. He had been appointed CBE in 1987. Joanna Kilmartin died at Meadbank nursing home, Battersea, London, also of cancer, on 31 March 2005, and was survived by their two children.

Philip French


The Observer (28 Dec 1986) · The Times (16 Aug 1989); (19 Aug 1991); (23 April 2005) · The Guardian (19 Aug 1991) · The Independent (19 Aug 1991); (9 Oct 2006) · C. James, memorial service address, Stationers' Hall, London, 28 Oct 1991, www.clivejames.com/pieces/dreaming/kilmartin, accessed on 28 March 2012 · A. Curtis, LIT ED: on reviewing and reviewers (1998) · WWW · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) · b. cert. [T. Kilmartin] · m. cert. · d. cert. [T. Kilmartin] · d. cert. [J. Kilmartin]


Guardian News and Media Archive, corresp. and papers


J. Bown, photograph, repro. in The Observer (28 Dec 1986) · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£128,540: probate, 25 Oct 1991, CGPLA Eng. & Wales