The death of Ernest Hecht, the last great émigré publisher, marks the end of a special era

The founder of Souvenir Press lived a varied, fulfilling and, in many ways, thrilling life.

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My close friend Ernest Hecht, who died last week, was the last of a remarkable generation of Jewish émigré publishers who transformed and enlivened the British book scene, once the preserve of gentlemen, in the decades after the Second World War and before the era of conglomeration. Unlike the imprints of his fellow émigrés – André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn, George Weidenfeld, Victor Gollancz, Fredric Warburg – Ernest never sold out to a multinational group. He was committed to an entrepreneurial ideal of publishing as a cottage industry, as the expression of the sensibility and enthusiasms of one man or of a small group of people. To the end, he was resolutely proud of the independence of Souvenir Press, which he founded in 1951 in a spare room at his parents’ flat after graduating from Hull University. He was in charge of Souvenir Press right up until the final short illness that ended his life at the age of 88.

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I got to know Ernest in the 1990s when I was working as a reporter on the Bookseller magazine, my first full-time job after leaving university. Our offices were on Dyott Street, close to Tottenham Court Road and Covent Garden. Souvenir Press was nearby in an imposing building on Great Russell Street, opposite the British Museum. We spoke on the phone a couple of times – inconsequential chats about trade matters – before I finally met him in person at a dinner of the Society of Bookmen one evening in May 1994.

Ernest was chairing the dinner and mentioned he’d been in Copenhagen watching George Graham’s Arsenal (ten Englishmen and one Northern Irishman) defeat an all-star Parma team (Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Faustino Asprilla) 1-0 in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

My interest was piqued. When we spoke later in the evening, I noticed Ernest was wearing an Arsenal tie – he never wore a tie unless he had to, I would discover. He could tell that I was a fan – he tested me with some quick-fire questions – and, suitably impressed, said he would take me to an Arsenal game (he had two season tickets and used them to entertain friends and associates on match days at Highbury). He was true to his word and soon afterwards I received an invite to a match. He said we should meet at his offices and we would then take a taxi to Highbury. I arrived perhaps ten minutes late and was duly berated and traduced for my tardiness (“You’re late you awful man”, and so on). It was the beginning of a long friendship.

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Dishevelled and eccentric, Ernest was like no one I had ever met. He was quick-witted, a raconteur and generous host. He had an exceptional memory and a nimble mind but was not an ostentatious intellectual. He was shrewd in business (he was reluctant to pay big author advances) and his list was a curious mix of the high and low, the commercial and the maverick. He published Nobel laureates – Pablo Neruda, Knut Hamsun – but also international best-sellers, such as Arthur Hailey’s Airport and Erich von Däniken’s batty Chariots of the Gods. “Anyone can create a high-class literary list of prestige titles,” he once told me. “My adage is that a publisher’s first duty to an author is to remain solvent.” He also invested in theatre and music productions and, for a time, acted as an agent for Pelé (apart from Arsenal, Brazil was his other great footballing passion).

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Ernest was an only child and grew up in Moravia, Czechoslovakia. His parents had their own clothes manufacturing business, but that was confiscated by the Nazis (the Hechts eventually received modest compensation from the post-war German government). Ernest arrived in England in April 1939 on the Kindertransport, travelling alone with other Jewish children on one of the humanitarian trains. His father had arrived in London ahead of him; his mother would eventually escape from Prague just three weeks before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Ernest remembered travelling with her on a train through occupied Czechoslovakia. “We were alone in a carriage with a Gestapo officer,” he told me. “The atmosphere was very tense. And then, because I’ve never been a good passenger on trains, I made matters worse by being sick all over the Gestapo man. My mother must have died a thousand deaths.”

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Ernest was gregarious and sociable, yet also deeply private. And he had an unbreakable will. He loved to boast about the books he’d published and the famous sportsmen and musicians he’d known and worked with, but seldom, if ever, mentioned the many charitable causes he supported as a philanthropist through his foundation. He lived alone in a flat in Notting Hill, west London, and did not like to entertain there. He did his entertaining in restaurants, at the theatre or at Arsenal. He was kind and loyal and yet could be unforgiving of those he thought had failed or let him down.

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Together with some of his closest friends, I was at Ernest’s bedside when the decision was taken to turn off his life support machines. Ernest lived a varied, fulfilling and, in many ways, thrilling life. He lived as he wished, worked for no one else, and he made a difference. That night in intensive care at Hammersmith Hospital, as his blood pressure began to drop after the support machines were switched off, I reflected on the journey he’d made all those years ago as a young child on the Kindertransport and all that he’d achieved since, and as I thought about this, I recalled some lines spoken at the end of King Lear:

The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia