Yorick Blumenfeld, author who envisaged a future for humanity based on co-operation – obituary

Yorick Blumenfeld at home in Grantchester in 2023
Yorick Blumenfeld at home in Grantchester in 2023 - Henryk Hetflaisz

Yorick Blumenfeld, who has died aged 91, was an American writer, scholar of futurology and a lifelong “eutopianist” [sic] who advocated a world made good by humanity working together.

In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Blumenfeld founded Philia, an international community of 300 people – friends and strangers – who felt threatened by nuclear annihilation and took refuge near the small city of Nelson in New Zealand.

Although the experiment did not last, his experience of co-operative living inspired a best-selling Penguin novel, Jenny, My Diary, purportedly the handwritten account of an Englishwoman surviving an apocalypse. It was published in 1981 and translated into 32 languages.

Blumenfeld went on to write or edit 25 other books, notably Scanning the Future: Prospects for Tomorrow (1999), an anthology of articles by eminent thinkers, among them four Nobel Prize-winners, that explore what the future holds. He set out his own stall in 2099: A Eutopia (1999), an optimistic parable of a possible future. “I’m looking at the prospect for a better world,” he explained, “and trying to give the younger generation a reason to vote.”

Blumenfeld in 1985
Blumenfeld in 1985: he was the son of the celebrated photographer Erwin Blumenfeld - David Buckland

Blumenfeld’s progressive beliefs would never waver. It was surprising, then, that his childhood gave such little cause for optimism.

Franck Yorick Blumenfeld was born in Amsterdam on April 11 1932 to Jewish parents, Lena Citroen, known as “Leentje”, a cousin of the Dadaist painter Paul Citroen, and the Berlin-born Erwin Blumenfeld, who would be celebrated post-war as a fashion photographer.

Erwin had served in the First World War as an ambulance driver, even though he could not drive, and then as book-keeper at a field brothel. In Amsterdam he had a shop selling handbags until his discovery of photography gave him new purpose. In 1933, as Hitler was rising to power, he risked creating several photomontages of the Führer as a dripping death’s head.

The image was widely reproduced as Allied propaganda during the War; by then the Blumenfelds had moved to France, where Erwin worked for Vogue.

Their French idyll was shattered by the German occupation. Erwin was declared an undesirable alien and interned for a short time in a Vichy government concentration camp at Le Vernet in the Midi-Pyrénées, while his family were confined to their house in Vézelay in Burgundy. Yorick never forgot local French children throwing stones and calling him a “dirty Jew”.

Blumenfeld's 1981 novel, Jenny, My Diary, purportedly the handwritten account of an Englishwoman surviving an apocalypse, was translated into 32 languages
Blumenfeld's 1981 novel, Jenny, My Diary, purportedly the handwritten account of an Englishwoman surviving an apocalypse, was translated into 32 languages

In 2002, when Tony Blair announced that he was holidaying at Le Vernet, Yorick Blumenfeld wrote a letter to The Guardian suggesting that the Prime Minister should lay a wreath at the site of the camp “because the French have always tried to pretend [it] never existed.”

In May 1941 in Marseille the Blumenfelds boarded a steamship bound for America, but the vessel was infested by rats and disease, and they were detained in Casablanca. Yorick and his siblings, Lisette and Henry, fell sick and Yorick almost died. Luckily the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, originally founded to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Europe, came to their aid and secured a new passage on a Portuguese liner, the SS Nyassa, arriving in New York in August 1941

Erwin Blumenfeld got a job as a photographer at Harper’s Bazaar and went on to become hugely successful, rich enough to drive a Cadillac Eldorado, employ a cook and send Yorick to Columbia Grammar School and then to Harvard. At home in Paris, Erwin wrote poetry, took pictures of young Yorick, and later enlisted him to shake the trays of strong chemical developer in his dark room. “The chemicals would roll and make me dizzy,” Yorick recalled, “and I would be in the blackness, totally disorientated.”

In 1999, Yorick would publish The Naked and the Veiled, a handsome collection of the many nudes his father photographed from the 1930s to the 1960s.

As a student of Russian history and literature, Yorick was tutored by Richard Pipes, a Polish Jew who would become well-known as a leading Cold Warrior and fierce critic of détente with the Soviet Union. “It was a very good experience to disagree with Richard Pipes,” Blumenfeld recalled.

Their debates helped to shape Blumenfeld’s Seesaw (1968), a book examining state censorship in the Soviet Bloc, in which he argued that censorship could have the opposite effect of that intended by stimulating creativity. A subsequent book, Dollars or Democracy (2004), contended that for civilisation to survive the profit motive must be replaced by co-operative thinking. “Yorick Blumenfeld should be invited to every TV chat show on the planet,” the Financial Times declared. “He could teach the world to sing.”

Blumenfeld had begun to write seriously after a chance meeting with Philip Graham, owner of The Washington Post, who hired him to write for his other publication, Newsweek. He stayed at the magazine for seven years, initially as a cultural correspondent in Paris, then as Eastern European bureau chief, in which capacity he profiled the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia,.

After the Philia community came to an end, Blumenfeld returned to Paris with his wife Helaine, née Becker, whom he had married in 1962. They had met when she was studying political philosophy at Columbia University and living a bohemian life in Greenwich Village.

Yorick encouraged Helaine in her real passion, for sculpture, and eventually she gave up philosophy to study in Paris under the Russian cubist Ossip Zadkine. In 1969 he and Helaine moved to Britain, settling in an old house, bought from King’s College, Cambridge, in the nearby village of Grantchester.

Helaine went on to become one of Britain’s most important sculptors, her husband becoming her sounding-board and a kindly presence at her gallery openings. Their garden was full of her sculptures – and a treehouse where Yorick wrote his first novel.

Yorick Blumenfeld is survived by Helaine and by their two sons.

Yorick Blumenfeld, born April 11 1932, died April 8 2024

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