Times Obituary Donald Zec


Donald Zec joined the Daily Mirror on a three-day trial in 1938 but “no one had the courage to tell me how embarrassingly bad I was, so I stayed for 40 years”. He soon found himself on the crime beat, interviewing John Haigh, the “acid bath murderer” at Onslow Court Hotel on the very night he was arrested. “I went to have tea with him, knowing the police had evidence that he not only killed people, but drank their blood,” he recalled, adding that Haigh offered him a cup of tea murmuring: “Shall I be mother?”

Moving on to royal correspondent, “which I thought was a natural progression”, he told of a mole in the Buckingham Palace boiler room giving him the story of how he had been ordered to place six hot-water bottles in the Queen’s Coronation Day coach in 1953. Even when his source was sacked he remained an informant, ringing Zec from the hospital where he worked as a porter to tell him about celebrity patients. “His motivation wasn’t entirely money,” said Zec. “He loved the idea, particularly when he was stoking boilers at the palace, that history was taking place all around him.”

At other times he touched on politics. When RA Butler, the chancellor, announced an austerity budget adding that “the days of over-ripe pheasant and vintage port are over”, Hugh Cudlipp, Zec’s editor, sent him out to find 12 ordinary people to partake of a last supper of “over-ripe pheasant and vintage port” at the Savoy. The first woman he approached screamed that he was a “filthy pervert”, while a bus conductor said he did not deal with inquiries. Finally, he came across “the dirtiest, most hostile group of navvies I’d ever seen” and asked if they would join him. “One of them looked up at me with some pity, and said, ‘Can you take some advice?’ At that stage I would have taken strychnine. ‘Well my advice is, piss off’.”

The real fun began when Zec became the Mirror’s showbusiness correspondent, flying first-class to and from Hollywood. “In one week I would see Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando,” he said. When he was with Marilyn Monroe she declined some proffered food because “I need to watch my figure”. Zec, according to Zec, did not miss a beat before he quipped: “You eat, Marilyn, I’ll watch your figure.” On another occasion, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, he found the room in which he was due to interview Humphrey Bogart filled with “anticipatory” bribes of drink, chocolates and cigars. “When Bogart arrived he said, ‘I see those bastards have got at you already’.” The stars soon learnt that palm-greasing did them little good. “I was not going to be got at,” he insisted. Kirk Douglas told him to “put the knife in gently”, which became the title of Zec’s autobiography published in 2003.

Along the way he wrote one of the earliest Fleet Street profiles of the Beatles, “four cheeky-looking kids with Stone-Age hairstyles”. Then, six years later, he managed to upset John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “peace bed” at the Amsterdam Hilton by describing them as “two chromium-plated nuts”. That Lennon was inviting people to grow their hair for peace and Zec was unambiguously bald may have put further strain on their relationship.

With Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton he was “by turn war reporter, voyeur, ringside commentator and marriage guidance counsellor”, though he was once in Taylor’s Rolls-Royce when she turned on him, saying: “You know, you are a little shit.” Frank Sinatra was equally forthcoming, sending Zec a telegram which read: “I thought you were my friend, but as of this morning, you blew it.” Mario Lanza reacted to a disobliging Zec profile by sending him a tea chest packed with rolls of lavatory paper and the message: “Dear Donald, these foolish things remind me of you.”

Donald David Zec was born in London in 1919, one of 11 children (nine girls and two boys) of Simon Zecanovsky, a Jewish tailor whose garments sold in Harrods, and his wife Leah (née Oistrakh), immigrants from Odessa. His brother Philip, nine years older, was one of the leading cartoonists of the Second World War. When his drawing of a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a wooden plank in an oil-saturated sea and captioned “The price of petrol has been increased by one penny” appeared, the government threatened to shut down the Daily Mirror for sedition.

Zec told of his father’s burden providing for such a large family, receiving regular buff envelopes, final demands and threats of eviction. It was a burden he did not want his sons to endure. “One day he called me into his cutting room. ‘Sit down. Now watch.’ Slowly he threaded a few stitches along a seam. ‘You see how straight they are? Put on the thimble, you do it.’ My hands trembled. The result was a disaster. He poked me in the chest. ‘Very hard, isn’t it? You don’t like it? Don’t be a tailor. Study.’ ”

On Friday nights his father dressed up in black jacket and striped trousers, and waxed his moustache. “He looked like Toscanini,” his son recalled. Zec himself was a self-described child-prodigy violinist and once performed at the old Crystal Palace before it burnt down, “an overreaction if ever there was one”.

He was educated at Upton House School, Hackney, but left at 14 using his considerable chutzpah to find work as a negotiator for a dubious estate agent. He then sold advertising for Floor Coverings Review (“that was a pulse-quickener”) before becoming a messenger boy on the Evening Standard. He cut his teeth on the Londoner’s Diary, working with contributors including Michael Foot, Malcolm Muggeridge and Harold Nicolson, before being promoted to the “racing room”, which took him on visits to stud farms where he “learnt more about sex than anything my prolific father was prepared to impart”.

Still not a bona-fide reporter, he decided to take his chance at the Daily Mirror. His first assignment was covering a nightclub fire in Soho, clacking out 200 words that began with the turgid introduction: “Firemen were called to extinguish a blaze”. His news editor declared, “This is shit”, before handing it to an old hand who showed him the ropes: “Clad only in her scanties, a blonde, 22-year-old nightclub hostess climbed along a 30ft parapet in a Soho fire last night to rescue her pet cat Timothy.” As Zec observed in the British Journalism Review: “Here, in a single sentence of slick hyperbole, were all the elements of popular journalism — sex, heroism, drama and pet-worship.”

When war broke out in 1939 he was called up to the London Irish Rifles, “appropriate for the grandson of a Talmudic scholar”, he noted.

On one occasion he was asked to play his violin at a regimental concert and he thought he had found the perfect place to practise: the camp kitchen. Unfortunately it was occupied by the regimental butcher, a former felon. When Zec was halfway through playing the song Black Eyes, the butcher emerged from behind a hanging carcass and persuaded him to stop, his request rendered more emphatic by the carving knife he was holding to Zec’s throat.

For his first guard duty Zec carried a rifle that bore a label saying “for display purposes only”. He heard someone approaching and called out: “Identify yourself, friend or foe?” “Friend,” replied the commanding officer, congratulating the young squaddie on his drill and asking his name. “I told him Zec. ‘That’s unfortunate,’ he replied. ‘None of us is going to survive this war and because your name begins with a Z, you’re going to be at the bottom of the war memorial’.”

He did survive and, after the war, returned to the Daily Mirror, which sent him to Manchester, where he lodged in rooms above a dancing school whose principal, a “formidable brunette of uncertain vintage”, was also his landlady and took a shine to this cub reporter. One evening she offered him a dance lesson on the house. “I did not care to foxtrot. Not with Madam,” he recalled.

By then he was already married to Frances Krivine and their union was to prove long and happy. She died in 2006 and he is survived by their son, Paul; one of his nephews is Rob Cowan, the Classic FM broadcaster.

Zec remained with Mirror until 1972, when he suffered a heart attack. This time he did not return and instead took up writing biographies including those of the Queen Mother, Sophia Loren and Barbra Streisand, who he deemed “very difficult”.

He continued playing the violin into his eighties, but when that became too strenuous he switched to the piano, sight-reading Bach and Chopin. He kept writing, in verse as well as prose, and took up painting with oils and later on his iPad, winning The Oldie magazine’s award for artists over 60.

Turning 99, he compared himself to a cricketer nervously “needing only one to reach that most cherished objective in the game, a century, a ton”.

Though he had interviewed Grace Kelly and Jayne Mansfield, and had been on Bogart’s yacht with Lauren Bacall, Zec maintained that the actress he was closest to was Monroe, recalling how in 1956 they were on a flight together when one of the engines caught fire. While he was contemplating how he might file his scoop if the aircraft managed to land safely, they discussed the “story”. Eventually she scribbled a note for him: “Here lies Marilyn Monroe, 38-23-36.”

Donald Zec OBE, journalist, was born on March 12, 1919. He died on September 6, 2021, aged 102

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre