Stewart Steven, former editor of the Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday, died earlier this month at the age of 68.
He started as a copy boy on the Manchester Guardian, landed a job as a reporter for the Oxford Mail, began political reporting for a London news agency, and rose to become one of the foremost figures in Fleet Street and a journalist of great conviction and professionalism.
I first met Stewart nearly 40 years ago when we both worked for the then highly successful Daily Express, selling over four million copies a day.
We became friends and remained so for the rest of his life. A friendship which survived and was enriched by the period when we were keen rivals.
He as editor of The Mail on Sunday and me as editor of his immediate target, the Sunday Express.
Stewart was, above all, a deeply caring human being and a passionate lover of his beautiful and talented wife, Inka, and her son Jack – whom he adopted – newspapers, politics, England, cricket, rugby, the arts and London in roughly that order.
Last November, when England won the Rugby World Cup, Stewart turned to Jack and said: “I am so proud of the team. Now I can die happy!?” The words were, sadly for his family and friends, only too prophetic.
Like Michael Howard, he never forgot his immigrant background and had a German mother who was passionate about bringing her son up to enjoy the benefits of her adopted country to which she had fled to escape the pogroms. She sent him to Mayfield College in Sussex where he rubbed shoulders with the sons of privileged families to whom the English way of life was a birthright.
Being an “outsider” merely drove Stewart to greater lengths, not only in the classroom but on the cricket field.
He was determined to shine at what was, to him, an arcane sport and succeeded beyond even his mother’s ambition.
In the early Sixties he met and fell deeply in love with Inka Sobieniewska, a half Russian, half Polish pop star who had a young son by her previous marriage.
Tall and glamorous, she represented everything that Stewart most admired and they married in 1965.
Inka’s career in pop was more successful in Europe than in Britain and she eventually retired from singing to take up painting. Her work is accepted as outstanding and her last exhibition was a series of powerful images reflecting the hardships of her early life and survival in the winter wastes of Russia and Poland.
Stewart had a great sense of humour, he was especially fond of jokes against himself. He once told my family how he had got back home very late one night from Fleet Street, when his household was fast asleep, to find a stew gently simmering on the stove. Delighted and hungry he ate it up – “tasty but a bit tough?” – and went to bed only to be woken in the morning by a scream from the kitchen that someone “had stolen the dog’s dinner!?” My children have never forgotten that anecdote and loved him for it.
Stewart was a hands-on editor, striding around his newspaper office in his signature red braces. He was a great spotter of young talent and was brave and fearless in his choice of stories and campaigns for his papers.
He wrote succinctly and well himself and published several well-received books.
The editorship of the fledgling Mail on Sunday was handed to him in 1982 and he was the chief architect of the success it enjoys today. He took over the Evening Standard in 1992, proving to be a campaigning editor who championed the cause of London and Londoners with a passion. The Man On The Clapham Omnibus was one of the many columns he founded, speaking out with the voice of the readers.
Among the causes he highlighted were the state of the NHS in London and the underprivileged in the East End. He also campaigned to save the A & E department at Bart’s Hospital, and was one of the first people to back the London Eye.
After leaving the Standard, Stewart tried to revive the fortunes of Punch magazine and then began a weekly column for The Mail on Sunday which was typically outspoken, controversial and well-informed. The last was published the day before he died.
His readers, his family and his friends will miss him.
Stewart’s funeral – family and friends welcome – will be this Friday (30 January) at 11 am at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and there will be a memorial service later in the year.
Donations rather than flowers to the Development Foundation, the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG.
Robin Esser, executive managing editor, Daily Mail