At 19, I wanted to be Donald Zec. He was a journalist doing all the things I wanted to do. He was a top writer on the Daily Mirror; I was a junior reporter on The Luton News. He was spending all his time jetting to and from Hollywood; I was going to council meetings.
He seemed to have the perfect life. I have since done my share of jet-setting and have discovered that in Tinseltown, all that glitters is not gold. But I am not sure that for Donald Zec, 90 years old this month, that was ever the case.
If it were not for the loss three years ago of Frances, his wife of 66 years, this son of a tailor from Odessa would be a very happy man, sitting in his West London flat, surrounded by photographs and memorabilia — including a framed certificate commemorating his OBE for services to journalism — from a legendary career in Fleet Street.
His Orthodox father was a strong influence, if only because the tailor himself was a writer… of short stories in Yiddish. A photograph of Simon Zecanovsky (the original family name), with one of the stories behind it hangs on the wall, too.
Zec recalls: “On Friday nights, he would dress up in his black jacket and striped trousers, his heavy gold fob watch, and wax his moustache. He looked like Toscanini.”
Zec himself used to play the violin, enjoying performing klezmer music — “I’m available for weddings and barmitzvahs,” he laughs. Now, though, the violin is too heavy for him to play and he has taken up a keyboard instead.
His career began in 1938, when he had a three-day trial on the Daily Mirror. “I was so embarrassingly bad that no one had the courage to tell me, so I stayed for 40 years,” he says.
He spent six war years with the London Irish Rifles — “appropriate for the grandson of a Talmudic scholar”, he jokes — and then went back to the Mirror as a crime reporter.
It is when he talks about this that the non-stop flow anecdotes is unleashed — especially when he remembers interviewing John George Haig, the notorious “Acid Bath Murderer”, while the police gathered outside his hotel room. “I went to have tea with him, knowing that the police had evidence that he not only killed people, but drank their blood.”
From crime, he became Royal correspondent, “which I thought was a natural progression”, he says. His big advantage was having a mole in the Buckingham Palace boiler room who revealed details of the birth of Prince Charles, and how, on the day of the Queen’s 1953 coronation, he had been told to put six hot water bottles in her coach so she could keep warm on the way to Westminster Abbey.
After a scoop got into the Mirror, the mole would phone to say: “We certainly did a good job, didn’t we? Better than the Express.” No journalist could ask for more — unless it was when the then boss of the Mirror, Hugh Cudlipp, suggested that he find 12 “ordinary working class” people to have dinner at the Savoy. The then Chancellor, R A Butler, had said in his budget speech that people had to tighten their belts because “the days of over-ripe pheasant and vintage port are over’. So Zec had to find 12 people more used to fish and chips, who would have their last taste of such delicacies.
“I went out in the pouring rain. The first I approached was a lady at St John’s Wood roundabout. I said: ‘Madam, I wonder if you would consider having dinner…’ I didn’t get any further.
“She said: ‘You are a filthy pervert. Go away or I’ll call a policeman.’ I then went up to a bus conductor. He said, ‘I don’t deal with inquiries.’ I’m getting very worried now because there are 12 portions of over ripe pheasant at the Savoy Hotel, getting riper and riper. So I fetch up at Finchley Road station and there are some men who are digging a hole. I lean over the parapet and they are the dirtiest, most hostile group of navvies I’d ever seen. I heard myself say: ‘I wonder if you’d care to have dinner with me at the Savoy Hotel?’ One of them looked up at me with some pity, and said: ‘Can you take some advice?’ At that stage I would have taken strychnine. ‘Well, my advice is, p*** off’.”
Zec ended up giving dinner to “a motley crowd of people who had no idea why they were there”.
But the real fun began when he was appointed his paper’s film writer. His interviewees were “the greatest array of Hollywood stars ever, which has never been replicated. In one week, I would see Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart, the thoroughbreds of Hollywood at the time.”
He stayed at the super-plush Beverly Hills hotel where his suite was filled with “anticipatory gifts” of booze, chocolates and cigars.
“When Bogart arrived and looked around at what could charitably be described as all this engaging bribery, he said: ‘I see those b******ds have got at you already’.”
Zec thought “the most intriguing” person he met was Marilyn Monroe with whom he was flying in a plane when an engine caught fire. He still contemplates how he might have got the scoop to his paper if the aircraft had actually crashed.
Monroe was lot more pleasant than some of the other stars he knew. Elizabeth Taylor and he were sitting in her Rolls Royce when she said to him: “You know you are a s**t.” Sinatra sent him a telegram “when I wrote something that fell a little short of hero worship”, saying: “I thought you were my friend, but as of this morning, you blew it.”
The funniest line, he recalls, was from Mario Lanza, whom “I had neglected to flatter one week.” He sent a tea-chest filled with toilet rolls with the message: “Dear Donald, these foolish things remind me of you.”