The death this week of Ernest Hecht, at the age of 88, feels like the final raven leaving the Tower. The last survivor of the remarkable group of Jewish publishers, including Andre Deutsch and George Weidenfeld, who came to Britain from a Europe under the Nazi shadow, he was a permanent, unchanging figure in the publishing world for over six decades.
Ernest Hecht set up Souvenir Press in 1951 in a bedroom in his parents’ flat and ran the imprint single-handedly right up to the illness from which he died in hospital this week. In recent years, visiting him in his eyrie at the top of Souvenir’s building opposite the British Museum was always an interesting experience, prompting wonder at how this elderly man with a walking stick could climb up so many steep and spiral stairs. And only Ernest himself could possibly know where things were in an office completely cluttered with yellowing old newspapers, magazines and books.
Souvenir’s list was extremely wide-ranging, from the educational to the musical, the serious to the satirical. Ernest was very proud of publishing a series of books on pregnancy and childcare as well as various feminist titles. In 1963, he bought the rights for the first Beatles book -- Meet the Beatles -- from Brian Epstein. It sold a million copies and he reissued it 50 years later to see it snapped up by Beatles fans and archivists.
Among the legion of authors that Hecht could -- and did – boast about were Martin Buber, Agatha Christie, Delmore Schwarz and Abraham Joshua Heschel. There are far too many others to name. Except perhaps the eminent cricket writer Neville Cardus, sport being one of Hecht’s passions.
Ernest especially loved football and was quite flamboyant in his support of Arsenal, revelling in taking guests to his grand perch at the old Highbury ground. He was particularly knowledgeable about the stars of the 1950s and published the biographies of the great Hungarian player Ferenc Puskas and Ron Burgess, captain of the Spurs’ championship-winning side of 1951.
He was also an accomplished impresario, staging many and varied shows. In 2011, he marked Souvenir’s 60th anniversary with a sumptuous concert, headed by opera singer, Willard White, at the Royal College of Music.
Hecht truly was a one-off. While other publishers send literary editors smart new review copies and press releases, Ernest would simply phone and insist that whatever new title he was promoting “must” be reviewed -- in between a few jibes at the expense, in my case, of Tottenham Hotspur. And now he has gone just when I could have got my own back. He is much missed.