'Wise and witty' Ernest Hecht dies, aged 88

'Wise and witty' Ernest Hecht dies, aged 88

Ernest Hecht OBE, founder and publisher of Souvenir Press, has died at the age of 88.

Hecht died in hospital after a short illness, but had remained at the helm of Souvenir Press, conducting business from his West London home, "till the last". 

Born in 1929, Hecht came to England on the Kindertransport as one of the first refugees from Moravia. He founded the independent press in 1951, setting it up in his parents' back bedroom after securing a £250 loan from his father.

He went on to publish an eclectic list, including Nobel laureates, humour classics - such as Jenny Joseph’s Warning: When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple - cult classics such as Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and the series of Modesty Blaise thrillers by Peter O’Donnell. The publisher's first bestseller was a war memoir by John Castle called Their Password is Courage, published in 1954 and later adapted into a film starring Dirk Bogarde.

Hecht received the first Lifetime Achievement award at the British Book Awards in 2001 and was awarded an OBE in 2015.

A spokesperson for Souvenir Press said Hecht was "much more than a publisher". He also produced plays and concerts, and supported numerous charities in his work as a philanthopist.

"An ever-generous host, whether at long lunches or his many theatrical and musical events, Hecht was a loyal friend to many, offering ideas and advice, but also criticism when he felt it was needed," said the spokesperson. "He was wise and witty, a great anecdotalist with a mind like a steel trap who forgot nothing. No one would say he was easy - but for Ernest that was all just part of the sport.

"Publishing will never see his like again and his passing leaves a void in a great many lives."

Writing his obituary, book trade journalist Liz Thomson said that “Hecht was nothing if not competitive, always keen to beat (or at least better) his fellow publishers, never allowing a promotional opportunity to go to waste. Whatever the subject, Souvenir Press had published the first book on the subject. And more often than not it was true.”

He believed publishers had “the duty” to publish “books of a minority interest and titles whose time may not yet have arrived or ideas that challenge received wisdom”, Thomson said. “Bookseller choices about what sold yesterday had little to say about what might sell tomorrow, he believed. hat around 75% of Souvenir’s turnover was backlist rather proves his point.”

She added: “No one would say he was easy, but being difficult was for Hecht a sport. Being with him, even in the last couple of tricky years, was never dull. He was truly unique, a Technicolor figure in a now-monochrome world. Publishing will never see his like again.”

Read Liz Thomson's obituary for Ernest Hecht OBE here.