“Anyone can create a high-class literary list of prestige titles. It’s better to have a balanced list, comprising books that make money and those perhaps more worthy titles that don’t. My adage is that a publisher’s first duty to an author is to remain solvent.” (Ernest Hecht to Gareth Powell, 2014)
Refugee, publisher and Hull alumnus Ernest Hecht died on 13 February 2018 aged 88. He was not only the longest-lived of a celebrated generation of post-war Jewish emigre publishers, he was also the last to remain proudly and defiantly independent. Unlike the gilded generation of publishing contemporaries which included André Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn and George Weidenfeld, Hecht put his independence beyond monetary value, even as multinational publishers knocked at his door.
Whilst a fierce independence defined him, more remarkable still was his ability to take a counter-intuitive approach to business whilst building a highly successful publishing house that distributed works by figures as diverse as Che Guevera, PG Wodehouse, Fred Astaire, Elaine Morgan, James Lovelock and Jenny Joseph as well as five nobel winners. It wasn’t all highbrow though, toilet books and stocking fillers also flowed from the Sovereign Press. He knew his audience; not only could Hecht sense the zeitgeist, he also had the ability to recognise works that would acquire importance with age: “you have the freedom, and I’d be inclined to say, the duty, to publish books of a minority interest and titles whose time may not yet have arrived or ideas that challenge received wisdom” (Camden New Journal, 2011).
Arriving in Britain from occupied Czechoslovakia aboard the Kindertransport in April 1939, Ernest settled in London where his father had earlier based himself following the Nazi confiscation of the family’s textile business. He quickly became rooted in the capital and childhood evacuations to the West Country only served to reinforce his urbanite tendencies. With the exception of his period of study at the University of Hull where he studied economics and commerce in between his sporting activities, Ernest largely confined himself to London throughout his life and it was here, shortly after his graduation in 1951 that he founded the Souvenir Press with working capital of £250.
Beginning with theatrical programmes, he moved on to sport and memoirs before, true to form, he recognised, earlier than most, the publishing potential in the burgeoning youth culture of the early 1960s. With The Beatles and Cilla Black in his stable the Souvenir Press became the home of Rock’n’Roll publishing at a time when the centre of gravity in the world of popular music was shifting towards the UK.
Despite this, Sovereign’s output continued to diversify taking in sport, politics, philosophy and a whole range of eclectic content including A History of Toilet Paper. As the press developed, Ernest also found the financial capacity to develop his interest in theatre, producing plays, concerts and performances by Alan Bennett, Carol Ann Duffy and Liam Clancy among others.
His philanthropic interests found expression in the Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation, a grant-giving body which aimed to support the vulnerable, the young and the elderly through a range of largely arts-based projects. Another abiding passion for Ernest was his love of Arsenal FC. He rarely went anywhere without his Arsenal baseball cap, which later morphed into a beanie hat, attire which his close friend Matthew Engel recently claimed made him look like “Lear’s fool”
If, indeed, he could play the fool it was only from a position of pure canniness, self awareness and remarkable instinct. He was a true outsider, but never a pariah, a businessman, but never a corporatist, and an iconoclast who, ironically, created one of Bloomsbury’s most cherished institutions:
He was truly unique, a Technicolor figure in a now-monochrome world. Publishing will never see his like again.” (Liz Thomson – Book Trade journalist)
Ernest Hecht died on 13 February 2013, he never married and left no heir.