Though born in Ilford, he was brought up in the Belle Vue area of Bradford, Yorkshire, where he attended primary and secondary school. Between 1935-39 he was a manual labourer, an office boy and was unemployed for a while.
In 1940, early in the Second World War, he enlisted in the British Army in the Rifle Brigade and was commissioned as an officer the same year. He took part in the Normandy landings in 1944 and was twice wounded. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1945 and was demobilised as Major, serving on the General Staff, in 1946. He continued to serve with the Territorial Army, and was a Major with the Intelligence Corps before his death.
After demobilisation, he became full-time Assistant Secretary of the Civil Service Clerical Association, a trade union. In 1947, he joined the Labour Party Research Department, and was for four years the secretary of the party's policy committee, which involved him in drafting various articles of party policy during this period.
At the 1951 general election, Fienburgh was elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Labour seat of Islington North, in North London, although at the time of his death, he was actually living in Hemel Hempstead. Percy Lucas, a friend and fellow MP, mentioned in his memoir Five Up that Fienburgh also had a burgeoning media career with both Granada Television and the Sunday Express.
Modern commentators have varying viewpoints on Fienburgh's character. He was described by Anthony Howard in The Times of 7 November 2000 as being "rather louche", and Denis Healey in his autobiography The Time of My Life (1989) asserts that Fienburgh's "good looks and big brown eyes often led him astray". Edward Pearce, writing in The Guardian described him as a "delightful and amusing Labour politician". Peter Hitchens in his book The Abolition of Britain described him as "one of the most talented men on the party's Left". Fienburgh was allegedly involved in an altercation with Jennie Lee during the 1952 Labour Party conference, according to Lee's biographer Patricia Hollis.
Wilfred Fienburgh represented Islington North until his death in a car crash in 1958, aged 38. The car he was driving collided with a lamppost at Mill Hill, London. His funeral took place on 7 February at Golders Green Crematorium. He left £6,177 in his will (worth £139,951.35 in 2018), according to The Times report of 8 May 1958.
Fienburgh wrote several books including non-fiction works such as Steel Is Power - The Case for Nationalisation and 25 Momentous Years: A 25th Anniversary in the History of the Daily Herald. His best remembered book is a posthumously-published novel, No Love For Johnnie, a cynical portrayal of British politics in the late 1950s which was later adapted into a film starring Peter Finch as the title character. The novel seems to give vent to Fienburgh's deep-seated concerns about corruption in politics - he had previously claimed in 1955 that "the Labour party is the only party in Britain in which you can buy a seat", according to author Michael Rush in The Selection of Parliamentary Candidates (1969). One near-contemporary critic writing in the New Left Review of 1961 considered it a "bad novel" and that "Fienburgh seems to have had no conception of what idealism means". Author Derek Jewell, writing in 1967, called it "a bitter study of political life".
Geoffrey Wheatcroft in The Observer in 2001 saw No Love for Johnnie as the archetype novel of a genre that he names "the Labour Party novel of disillusionment". Paul Routledge in the New Statesman in 2000 described the novel as being highly prescient of the New Labour movement.
According to The Library Association Record (1961, p. 205) Fienburgh's widow Joan was invited to open a new Islington public library in July 1960 as an official mark of respect for her late husband. MP Robert Mellish collected a sum of £400 from fellow MPs to give to Joan Fienburgh. Joan remarried in 1975, and died in 1991.
- Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes, 1957. Kelly's. p. 788.
- Who Was Who, 1951-1960. A and C Black. 1961. p. 373.
- Author description in book cover for No Love for Johnnie (1959).
- Healey, Denis (1989). The Time of My Life. London: Michael Joseph. p. 72.
- Pearce, Edward (21 February 2007). "Short, if not sweet". The Guardian.
- Hitchens, Peter (2000). The Abolition of Britain. London: Quartet. p. 299. A version of the chapter in which Fienburgh is cited was printed in the Staff writer (17 December 2000). "Treat gays heroes". Mail on Sunday. p. 4..
- Hollis, Patricia. Jennie Lee: A Life. p. 186.
- Lovell, Alan (March–April 1961). "Film Chronicle". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (8): 55.
- Wheatcroft, Geoffrey (4 February 2001). "Peter's friend". The Observer.
- Routledge, Paul (2 October 2000). "Column". New Statesman.
- "Members salaries and pensions". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). 970. House of Commons. 11 July 1979. col. 476–614, 502.
- England & Wales register of deaths 1837-2007
- Craig, F. W. S. (1983) . British parliamentary election results 1918-1949 (3rd ed.). Chichester: Parliamentary Research Services. ISBN 0-900178-06-X.
- Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Wilfred Fienburgh
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
| Member of Parliament for Islington North
1951 – 1958