From Hampstead to Gerry: Tributes to the former Ham&High editor from those who knew him
PUBLISHED: 12:17 09 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:10 09 May 2019
© Nigel Sutton
“There was this sort of, reverence, around Gerry. Everyone knew who he was, and as a child you would say ‘that’s the editor of the Ham&High’ when you saw him.”
A towering figure in Hampstead, Gerry Isaaman died last week aged 85. As long-time resident Sebastian Wocker described, he was known and admired by many.
A twin, he was born in Burnt Oak in December 1933. After being evacuated during the war to South Wales and Lincolnshire, he returned to London, eventually joining the Stoke Newington and Hackney Observer aged 16. Not long after, he joined the Ham&High as a reporter, working his way up to become editor in 1968.
Matthew Lewin, joined as a reporter in 1973 and went on to become Gerry's deputy and successor.
"Gerry had this unique vision of producing news of fantastic quality and at the same time reporting on the 'good things' in life," he said.
The Ham&High in that era was infamously the only local paper with "a foreign policy," according to the New York Times.
According to Liz Forgan, who started at the paper as a trainee reporter, and went on to help launch Channel 4 and lead the Guardian's Scott Trust, it was his willingness to expand on reporter's interests that led to this.
She said: "It was a national institution not only because it was a great paper but because Gerry hired well and let his staff pursue their ideas as well as his.
"It is why there was, far more about north Vietman (Chris Mullin), archaeology (Liz Sagues) and South Africa (Matthew Lewin) in the paper than its NW3 address would lead you to expect."
Ruth Gorb, who wrote features for the paper for more than 20 years called Gerry a "genius." He hired her to write the women's section in 1980. She said: "He was an extraordinary news man. He could find a story anywhere. He was tough, and expected the highest standards.
"He was such a strong presence, and it's sad he won't be there. I will miss him horribly."
The papers readers held him in high regard as well. Piers Plowright, who has lived in the village for eight decades said: "It was quite a dull paper until he came along. Then almost overnight it was full of news that you wanted to read."
Piers then used Gerry as inspiration for character Mike Nash in Radio 2's Waggoner's Walk, for which Gerry was a consultant.
During his editorship, Gerry introduced the Ham&High's diary column, Heathman. Picking up tit bits from the cafés, coffee shops and pubs of Hampstead, most notably The Flask, he produced a weekly page of interview and opinion.
Photographer Nigel Sutton, who began working for the paper in 1966, said: "He was the Ham&High. He knew everybody in Hampstead, was very tough but fantastic with his staff, and looked after them."
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Other former colleagues agree. Mr Lewin described him as a "fantastic mentor," while former reporter Christian Wolmar, who worked for the paper in the early 1970s, remembers his first day on the job was spent on strike as the whole paper, including Gerry, walked out over pay.
The former editor's ability to pick up a story came from his natural charisma and charm. Known as "Mr Hampstead", he was often seen smoking a cigar, walking down Perrin's Court from the Ham&High's offices.
91-year-old Hampstead local Rex Cowans often saw Gerry in the Coffee Cup talking to people for the paper, and described him as "a true professional."
Mr Lewin agreed, saying: "He knew everyone and everything about Hampstead. I've never seen anyone work a room like him."
Gerry retired in 1994 after nearly 40-years at the paper. In the same year he was awarded an OBE for services to journalism.
Living with his wife, Delphine, in Lyndhurst Road, he became a key part of Hampstead life.
He campaigned alongside the "magnificent seven" to save Burgh House from developers in 1979, and later Hampstead Town Hall, when Camden Council tried to sell it.
Burgh House paid tribute to his work to "save the house and create the wonderful community space." He was also patron of the Heath and Hampstead Society.
A lover of the arts, he was a trustee of the Camden Arts Centre.
Yet Gerry's passion for Camden extended beyond the newspages.
Former Lib Dem council leader Keith Moffat revealed Gerry met him after he won in 2006 to offer advice for life in leadership.
But many recall Gerry as an incredibly supportive boss, and the editor who launched 1000 careers.
Paul Waugh, HuffPost's executive politics editor began his career as a cub reporter before rising to become news editor. He still values the backing he got from Gerry.
"A few months in, I'd made a few mistakes. A few of the subs were wondering if I was up to it. He called me in, and said 'I think you have got something, so stick with it.' That was so reassuring. He looked after me, and I think it was because I was a working class kid like he was," he said.
Gerry is survived by his wife Delphine, son Dan, his daughter-in-law and a grandchild.
His funeral will take place at 11am on June 14 at Golders Green Cremetorium. His family have asked for no flowers, and donations to Phyllis Tuckwell.
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