Posted: September 7th, 2021
DONALD ZEC, one of the greatest Daily Mirror journalists – and a long-time member of the AMP – has died aged 102 [September 6, 2021].
Announcing his death, nephew Rob Cowan said he “died in the early hours of this morning, 1.45 to be exact, having asked for ice cream some 2.45 hours earlier. Only Donald!”
In an era where Hollywood stars were splash news, Donald Zec, as the Mirror’s showbiz writer, consistently scooped the rest of Fleet Street as he schmoozed the big names. In the 50s and 60s, when the Mirror was the world’s biggest-selling paper, if stars wanted to talk, they talked to him.
As Matt Roper, Mirror feature writer said: “And until this week, when he died aged 102, the man who went sailing with Humphrey Bogart, joined John and Yoko on their honeymoon protest bed and had the Beatles round for tea was one of the last journalistic links to the golden age of Hollywood.”
Born in London’s Marylebone in March 1919, Donald’s father was a Jewish tailor from Ukraine who arrived in England before the First World War, then shortened the family surname from Zecanovskya to Zec. One of nine daughters and two sons, Donald’s elder brother Philip Zec (1909–1983) also found fame on the Daily Mirror, as a towering wartime cartoonist and one-time Sunday Pictorial editor.
Donald having failed in his ambition to become a professional violinist, he got a job as a copy boy at the Evening Standard before legendary Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp gave him a three-day trial at the paper’s Manchester offices. Interviewed by Michael Freedland in 2009, Donald recalled: “I was so embarrassingly bad that no one had the courage to tell me, so I stayed for 40 years.”
After the Second World War, when he served with the London Irish Rifles, Donald was appointed crime correspondent, when he famously had tea with the “Acid Bath Murderer”, serial killer John George Haigh, hours before he was arrested. They met in 1948 in the Onslow Court Hotel in Kensington, from where the serial killer had lured his last victim, a rich widow, to her gruesome end. “The police were already outside the hotel when he poured the tea saying, ‘Shall I be Mum?’”, Donald recalled. “I had tea with him knowing that the police had evidence that he not only killed people, but drank their blood.”
From crime, Donald became a royal correspondent, which he said he “thought was a natural progression”. More scoops were to come thanks to a mole in the Buckingham Palace boiler room who revealed details of the birth of Prince Charles, and how he had been told to put six hot water bottles in the Queen’s coach so she could keep warm on the way to Westminster Abbey for her coronation.
He then became the Mirror’s entertainment reporter and Hollywood correspondent. In September, 1963 he was one of the first journalists to profile a new Liverpool group called The Beatles, in a double-paged spread entitled “Four frenzied Little Lord Fauntleroys who are making £5,000 every week”. He described the band members as “four cheeky-looking kids with stone-age hair styles, who know their amps and ohms if not their Beethoven”.
Donald recalled how, on his first trip to Hollywood, he’d only just checked in at a Beverly Hills hotel when Humphrey Bogart called his room from the desk downstairs, scolding him for not getting in touch as soon as he had arrived. He then spent the weekend on the star’s yacht with Lauren Bacall and other Hollywood stars.
Donald also struck up a close friendship with Marilyn Monroe, for whom he was a shoulder to cry on during her marital woes. Unaware of the time difference between London and California, she would sometimes phone him to talk in the early hours of the morning. He later remembered how, as he flew with Monroe from Los Angeles to Phoenix, Arizona, where she was filming Bus Stop, she turned down the airline food saying she needed to watch her figure. “My response: ‘You eat, Marilyn, I’ll watch your figure’ – induced a playful slap on my arm.”
On another occasion, he arrived at a London hotel to meet Cary Grant to find the Hollywood legend washing ladies panties in the bathroom. “I wear these for comfort and economy,” he explained, “and they dry in minutes.” Soon Donald was befriending stars on both sides of the Atlantic.
His son Paul, 81, said: “He was an incredible man who had a great zest for life. Within minutes of meeting people he’d have them laughing. He was wonderful, bright and funny right up to the end. Dad was young in spirit and annoyed about his old age. But even in his 90s, he made those around him feel young.
“I remember him introducing me to stars at film premieres and bringing famous friends like Shirley MacLaine and Cary Grant back to our flat. But he was more interested in just being the best dad. His whole family adored him, but we always had to coax the stories out of him.”
Donald’s niece, Patricia Kershaw, 81, remembers one of the only times she remembers her uncle starstruck. “He went to interview Liz Taylor and she wasn’t up yet. She answered the door just out of bed with her nighty on, he said she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.”
Donald also turned his pen on major political figures such as Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, and US president Ronald Reagan.
In 1970 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to journalism.
He didn’t get on well with every celebrity. Sinatra sent him a telegraph when he once wrote something critical of him, saying, “I thought you were my friend, but as of this morning, you blew it.”
And Mario Lanza, whom he “had neglected to flatter one week”, once sent him three dozen toilet rolls with the message: “Dear Donald, these foolish things remind me of you. Love Mario.”
Donald wrote several books, including biographies of Hollywood stars, and the Queen Mother, and his own memoir in 2003, Put the Knife in Gently: Memoirs of a Life with Legends.
When his wife of 66 years Frances died in 2006, Donald decided to take up painting as a way of coping with her loss. It was yet another thing he excelled at, and in 2013 he won a prestigious Hugh Casson Prize for drawing. Well into his 90s, Donald also started taking piano lessons, learning Brahms and Beethoven as a tribute to his pianist wife.
Friend Howard Jacobson remembered going to his 100th birthday party. “He didn’t intend to give speeches, then ended up giving three. He has a fluency a man a quarter of his age would kill for. His comic timing is still perfect. But there is a weight in his words that wasn’t there in 1955. The weight of grief, of experience touched by love.
“If you didn’t know how he’d earned his living you’d guess teaching philosophy at Oxford, not making Marilyn laugh in Beverly Hills.”
In one of his last interviews Donald was asked about death. “I don’t give the old rascal a thought,” he quipped. “I’m inspired by the words of the great actor George Burns who said: ‘You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.’”
(With acknowledgements to Matt Roper)
With thanks to Tony Patey, who added: “Required reading for rookies in the early 60s – Kemsley Manual of Journalism, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, Pitman’s Shorthand Instructor, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop – and Donald Zec and Cassandra in the Mirror.”
Peter Thompson: “I loved working with Donald – he was very funny and totally professional but also terribly insecure. I once praised an article he had written on Joan Collins for the Sunday Mirror.
‘You don’t like it,’ he said.
‘No, no, it really is wonderful, Donald.’
‘What don’t you like about it?’
He was about 95 when I had lunch in Soho with him, Geoff Goodman and John Parker. Although he’d lived to that great age, he never seemed to get any older. Donald composed many great lines but he reserved possibly the greatest for Lee Marvin: ‘Man cannot live by dread alone.’
Deborah Thomas: “Don Zec was an institution. Such a shock. It was a privilege to work on the DM at the same time as Don. His writing was always a masterclass.”
Ray Weaver: “A remarkable man. A legend in his lifetime.”
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