Alice Hecht, who died in New York City on Dec. 28, 2016, at age 67, after a 35-year career at the United Nations, was most well known there for her role as chief of protocol. Appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006, Hecht’s job was to guide presidents and popes to UN daises and to communicate and enforce the customs and niceties of diplomatic life inside the Secretariat, the core of the UN.
In an article Hecht wrote for a hospital publication in 2009, she described the mutually reinforcing regimes of diplomatic protocol and medical protocol as she juggled the chemotherapy sessions, wigs and uncertainty of breast cancer treatment while observing the intricate rules of procedure for heads of state.
“Diplomatic protocol and medical protocol formed a knot in my life. Having one helps me to the other with an ease that surprises everyone,” she wrote. “But while a medical protocol is ultimately about avoiding death, diplomatic protocol is all about the gentility of life.”
Hecht’s life at the UN wove between headquarters in New York and postings abroad, often in senior-management positions. While serving as the director of administration for the UN mission in Kosovo, from 2003 to 2006, she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Although terrified, she continued working, hiking and traveling, seeming to keep the disease at bay.
“She loved life more than anyone that I know and she made good use of every minute of her life,” said the UN Department of Public Information director, Hua Jiang, who worked with Hecht in Kosovo.
Hecht spent the previous decade, from 1992 to 2003, as the administrative chief of the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq — one of whom, Mark Silver, who lead the team in the early ’90s — became her second husband.
Hecht took particular interest during her off-hours in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad and described to the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York how she rescued some ancient scrolls written on deerskin, at the urging of the congregants, because “sometimes you take a risk in life.”
Her UN career began in 1974, working in the population division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs on demographic and sociological trends in Africa. She then worked in various offices concerned with economic and social policy on projects at UN headquarters and globally, including in Southeast Asia.
After her retirement in 2009, Hecht made a new career in training up-and-coming diplomats, government officials and UN staff members in protocol, mainly for Unitar, or the UN Institute of Training and Research. She was passionate about the classical arts and Middle East history and spent part of every year in Turkey, where her parents had met.
“For all of us who knew and loved Alice, she will be remembered for the stoic and uncomplaining way she dealt with the challenges of her long illness. Her qualities of intelligence, candor, dedication and love for life and her family will be deeply missed,” wrote Lowell Flanders, a former colleague in UN development.
Colleagues said that Hecht had a gift for applying flexibility and common sense when applying UN procedures, of which she had a deep knowledge.
“She was the definition of a public servant,” wrote Gay Rosenblum-Kumar on Facebook.
Johannes Mengesha, also a senior UN official who worked with Annan, posted on social media, “She was an amazing person with great courage.”
Hecht was born and educated in Brussels. Her family reflected the enforced diversity of Europe’s war against its Jewish communities. Each member of her family held a different passport, including her sister, Miriam. Her father, Arnold, had been an art dealer in Berlin who, as the Nazis closed in on Jewish residents, shipped his inventory to his mother in London and fled south to Istanbul, where the Turks were shifting allegiances from Axis powers to Allies.
After time spent in a prisoner-of-war camp in Anatolia, her father met Alice’s mother, Rita, who came from Baku, Azerbaijan. They moved to Brussels, where Alice was born in 1949. She ultimately graduated from Université Libre de Bruxelles, or Free University of Brussels.
Besides her husband, Hecht is survived by her son, Jonathan Salomons (from a previous marriage); her daughter-in-law, Rachel Kent; a grandson, Henry Salomons; stepchildren, David Silver and Rachel Long; and a granddaughter, Haleigh Huggins.