Obituary: Ernest Hecht

Obituary: Ernest Hecht

Ernest Hecht, who has died aged 88, was the last of the émigré publishers – a fact he delighted in pointing out in the wake of the passing two years ago of Lord Weidenfeld and Peter Owen.

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.

Souvenir Press was founded in the Hecht family home in 1951, with a £250 loan from his father. The first bestseller, three years later, was John Castle’s wartime memoir Their Password is Courage, later filmed with Dirk Bogarde. A sports-mad graduate in economics and commerce from the University of Hull, Hecht had in fact applied to be secretary of the Universities Athletics Union and made it to a shortlist of candidates significantly older than he. Publishing was a chance encounter: he was asked to rewrite a couple of economic texts that went on to become standards and then spotted an opportunity – to publish souvenir programmes for theatres. That didn’t work out so he turned to sport and, soon, to music, as the new pop phenomenon began to enthral teenagers. Brian Epstein and the Beatles, plus Cilla Black and Cliff Richard, were early signings. Book Collector wrote that Souvenir invented rock ‘n’ roll publishing in the UK.

But Souvenir Press grew to be all embracing. “Eclectic” doesn’t even begin to describe a list that reflected the wide-ranging interests and obsessions of its founder, managing director and publisher. Hecht was the supreme actor-manager, and the various facets of his life – sport, music, theatre, film, life’s curiosities – came seamlessly together in the Souvenir catalogue, where Ken Dodd jostled for attention with Albert Einstein, Kahlil Gibran with Monsieur Pétomane, Arthur Hailey with Pablo Neruda, of whom he was the first British publisher. There were endless books on cats and dogs, others on knickers, or the history of lavatory paper – whimsical but not without serious intent.

Passers-by in Great Russell Street found Souvenir’s office-cum-shop a great diversion. Few who gazed at its windows would have guessed at the chaotic Aladdin’s cave within. Untidy doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Human Horizons series of books on living with disability – dreamed up in the box at Arsenal after a friend told him about a brain-damaged child – was no less remarkable, a hint at the serious side not always evident beneath Hecht’s mischievous grin and Arsenal cap. His interest and curiosity knew no bounds and he was always alert to developments in health and wellbeing, sex, childbirth, psychology, spirituality and much besides. When the world awoke to the dangers of BSE or the cancer risks of living under electric pylons, Souvenir Press had a book on the subject.

And Hecht had a good eye for a genuine human interest story on a tricky subject – Jessica Thom’s memoir of Tourette’s Syndrome, Welcome to Biscuit Land, for example, where personal engagement with author and subject enabled him to find creative ways of reaching a wide audience for what might have seemed a niche title.

He was an astute publisher with a sharp eye and a keen ear for projects that would never have survived the bureaucracy of a P&L. 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”. Bookseller choices about what sold yesterday had little to say about what might sell tomorrow, he believed. That around 75% of Souvenir’s turnover was backlist rather proves his point.

Beyond publishing, Hecht was a producer of plays and concerts, in Britain and in Europe, and a theatrical angel. Through the Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation, set up in 2003, he supported a wide-range of charities that helped the vulnerable, the young and the elderly, many of them connecting the arts with health and well-being.

His many honours included Chile’s Neruda Medal; the Order of the Rio Branco, bestowed by the President of Brazil; and an OBE, awarded in the 2015 Birthday Honours List. He was granted an Honorary Fellowship of University College London in 2006.

Generous in every way, he was a good friend to many, offering advice, a shoulder and sometimes tough love. 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.