Ernest Hecht (1929-2018)
About Ernest Hecht, Founder of Souvenir Press
I never met Ernest Hecht, but I’ve heard a lot about him. And having heard a lot about him, I’m sad I never got to meet him. I’ve heard he was generous, thoughtful and kind, sending his author’s child a football kit every year. And that he loved champagne, so much so that he seems to have made a provision in his will for cases to be sent to friends when he died. I’ve also read some of his letters, so I know he could be as irascible on paper as he was charming in person. I wish I’d seen his office, stacked waist high with manuscripts and other paperwork. He knew where everything was, but I’m not sure we found it all.
It’s been a pleasure getting to know him by proxy, through publishing colleagues, his authors and friends. But most of all, I have loved digging into what must be one of the best kept secrets in publishing: an extraordinarily rich and varied, sometimes downright peculiar, backlist. Some spectacularly timeless or far-sighted. Some gorgeously bizarre. I feel I’ve got to know one of publishing’s greatest magpies through the books he left behind. And still when I tell people about Souvenir, they say ‘oh my favourite Souvenir book is…’ the one about parrots, or weed, or loo roll. Or, more seriously, ‘The Artist’s Way changed my life’.
One of the greats, and a real original, not to mention a born entrepreneur, he was publishing books, and doing deals, to the end. Thank you, Ernest. I will endeavour to fill your magnificent shoes.
Rebecca Gray, Publisher, Souvenir Press
Ernest Hecht O.B.E.
21st September 1929 – 13th February 2018
‘If you take a job in publishing the pay is awful. If you start up on your own, and can invest a few years of your time, and work hard, you can have a business clear of debt, and a personal income of between £3,000 and £5,000. And watch all the football you want to.’ Ernest Hecht
Ernest was born on September 21st 1929 in Prostejov, Czechoslovakia, the only son of Annie and Richard (a clothing manufacturer). After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 Richard Hecht realised that the family needed to get away and he visited Britain, ostensibly on a business trip but he never returned, and began to arrange for his wife and son to follow him.
The young Ernest was the first child refugee from Moravia to reach Britain, arriving on the Kindertransport in April 1939. His mother, Annie, arrived later, in August. He was also, perhaps, the only refugee to survive having vomited over the neatly pressed uniform of a Gestapo staff officer, a story he often recounted with his customary glee. Ernest would never return to Prostejov, though he asked everyone visiting the Czech Republic to bring its speciality Pear Brandy back for him.
The family settled in London, first living in a couple of rooms in Soho over a cinema, which may explain his life-long love of film. When the War began Ernest was evacuated to the home of a blacksmith in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. His father was briefly interned on the Isle of Man while Annie Hecht was left to run the small clothing factory they had established. Ernest won a scholarship to the Polytechnic Secondary School, which had been evacuated to Minehead in Somerset.
‘It was not an act of heroism. I’m sick on trains always.’
After the War he took two degrees in economics at the University College of Hull. Ernest retained a great fondness for Hull, but the same can’t be said of the countryside. When asked about it he would respond ‘I’ve done books about it’. He much preferred cities.
After leaving Hull, Ernest failed to get the only job he ever applied for (as secretary to the Universities Athletic Union) and thought that he spotted an opportunity – publishing theatrical souvenir programmes. He produced one, on Marie Rambert, before realising that he was knocking on the door of a closed shop. But such situations for Ernest were as a red flag to a bull and he turned instead to publishing.
‘In 1950 I came down from Hull University College… when I saw an advertisement by the author of several standard economics textbooks to update them, I applied… I soon found that the reason my eminent author needed help was that he had given up lecturing to create a series of humour paperbacks which were on display at virtually every bookstall in the country. If my employer, who incidentally had an alcohol problem, could be successful, then publishing, I decided, must be an easy way to make a living.’
He founded Souvenir Press in 1951 in his bedroom at his parents’ house with £250 (partly a loan from his father and partly from money left from his university maintenance grant). Turning to sport and memoirs, his first publication was a biography of the cricketer Len Hutton. He optimistically printed 10,000 copies and sold 6,000 copies. His second book was Football: My Life by Ron Burgess (who played for Spurs), he printed 5,000 copies and made his first profit, £114 6s. 10d. The third Souvenir Press book was Mary Gallati’s Hostess Dinner Book, it sold 10,000 copies and introduced the company to the buyers of Britain’s bookshops, paving the way for its later success.
An early bestseller was The Password is Courage (1954), a wartime memoir co-written by Ronald Payne (Mr Payne soon joined Souvenir Press as its first Sales Director) brought to the screen starring Dirk Bogarde.
Soon the new pop phenomenon arrived and Ernest saw a gap in the market. First he published Cliff Richard’s teenage memoir It’s Great to Be Young, then books by Brian Epstein, the first ever book on The Beatles, Meet The Beatles, a collector’s item now, plus books on Elvis, Cilla Black and The Shadows, among others. Book Collector magazine considered that Souvenir ‘invented’ rock’n’roll publishing in the UK. It did. He did.
Sport, particularly football (particularly Arsenal), was Ernest’s great passion and he published many books by and about sporting heroes, such as the footballers Matt Busby and Pelé, whose literary agent he was for a time.
‘For a while I represented Pele in Europe… I even have his tracksuit at home although I can’t get into it anymore. In 1966 I presented him with our International Football Book Sword of Honour… A story was put out that I was the Queen’s official representative giving Pele the honour!’
This provided him with an excuse to travel the world. Brazil was a particular favourite, he had a flat on Copacabana beach, and there he came to know not only its footballers but also many of its musicians, including Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, whom he helped to find and pay for a flat when they arrived in exile from Brazil.
‘One time in New York I was approached by a large group and not only did they want to buy the company, they wanted me to run the whole group. But someone pointed out to me that if I did that I wouldn’t be able to go off to see Brazil play football.’
He suggested that the TV playwright Arthur Hailey turn to fiction and a franchise was born. As were two more when he suggested that Peter O’Donnell might write novels based on his Modesty Blaise comic strips, then running in the Evening Standard, before later advising Peter to write a gothic romance. The Madeleine Brent novels went on to international success and a Romantic Novelists’ Association Award.
He caught the zeitgeist repeatedly, with Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, but believed that publishing should be based around ‘a balanced list comprising books that make money and those more worthy titles that don’t.’
Among those worthy books, that would also make money, were the works of five Nobel laureates (Pablo Neruda and Knut Hamsun among them), the work of Wilhelm Reich and Jorge Luis Borges, and his commitment to the work of Ronald Searle.
‘Of course, it’s not an occupation for gentlemen… But it is a very enjoyable trade with some convincing hucksters and it is very addictive.’
He was now in a super-league of his own, a globetrotting publisher who flew first class, occasionally on Concorde, collecting ideas and authors at every port of call and sometimes in-flight. He was also a producer of plays and concerts, in Britain and Europe, working with figures as diverse as Brian Rix, Sinéad Cusack and Barbara Cook. His show business stories were legion. He ran down the street after the French singer Barbara, in the middle of the night in Paris, he adored her so.
‘Ernest Hecht is perhaps the most unconventional figure in British publishing. He is certainly the scruffiest.’
An iconoclast himself, Ernest supported other rebellious spirits, such as Elaine Morgan and her aquatic ape theory of evolution. He was proud to have created the Human Horizons series on living with disability after a chat in the directors’ box at Arsenal with his friend Peter Haining, whose child had been born with brain damage – at one stage it was the biggest such list in Europe, winning praise from medical professionals. Ernest’s curiosity was boundless and he was always alert to developments in health and wellbeing, sex, childbirth, psychology and spirituality.
If his diverse passions fuelled his publishing, publishing in turn fuelled his charitable endeavours, pursued quietly via the Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation. It was set up in 2003, and supports a wide range of charities to help the vulnerable, the young and elderly people, many of them connecting the arts with health and well-being.
Ernest received the Neruda medal from the government of Chile; was made a member of the Order of the Rio Branco by the president of Brazil; and appointed OBE in 2015. He was granted honorary fellowship of University College London in 2006.
He was thrilled and proud to be appointed OBE in 2015, receiving his honour from Prince Charles, whom he kept chatting for several minutes and who was seen to laugh during the interchange at something Ernest had said.
‘Cheerful and fast-talking… the last survivor of that buttonholing entrepreneurial generation of Jewish immigrants who reinvigorated British publishing after the war… Hecht, with his melon-slice grin and disrespectful views, was the court jester.’
A fall after a party marking Souvenir’s 65th anniversary forced Ernest to run Souvenir from his home in west London, where his staff visited each day. Though unable to attend Arsenal he ensured that he had the best TV coverage of all the games, everywhere on the planet, and remained fully able to talk at length about all aspects of them with everyone.
He was a man without borders so, perhaps, it is fitting that the final book that Ernest Hecht commissioned, Noah Strycker’s Birding Without Borders, was published on the day of his memorial.
Ernest is now re-united with his parents, Annie and Richard, at Golder’s Green Crematorium. He is happy to be visited at any time.
The Ernest Hecht Memorial Production Team at Souvenir Press