Between 1910 and 1924, in his fantastically eventful years as a Chicagoan, Ben Hecht wrote enough for an entire career. And he was just getting started.
He worked for two newspapers (the Chicago Daily Journal and the Chicago Daily News), contributed to starry literary journals (Chicago’s Little Review and New York’s Smart Set), gave birth to novels and essays and plays containing thinly disguised, often excoriating portraits of friends, rivals, even in-laws.
He wrote silent movie scenarios, years before winning the very first screenwriting Academy Award, for the 1927 gangster drama “Underworld.”
He married, cheated, remarried. Like a sponge, he soaked up Chicago’s big parade of violent crime, wringing it out when the assignment required, as reportage, commentary or freely fictionalized urban mythology.
He had a habit of getting to know a place, romanticizing it, loving it. And then leaving it. The New Yorker magazine published his farewell-and-good-riddance to Chicago in 1925, a year after he and his second wife, Rose, moved from Chicago to Manhattan (and later to Nyack, on the Hudson River).
Culture in Chicago, he wrote, was just a “myth.” The city’s innate “cowardice,” provincialism and “herd-inspired ethics” were enough to drive a guy nuts.
Four years before his death, he took it all back.
“We were all fools to have left Chicago,” Hecht wrote in 1957. “It was a town to play in, a town where you could stay yourself, and where the hoots of the critics couldn’t frighten your style or drain your soul.”
Wherever he was, the man often cited as Hollywood’s supreme screenwriter for hire found new and surprising ways to complicate his career, his love life, his image. In critic and biographer Adina Hoffman’s words, Hecht was an “alloy” — “novelist and journalist, screenwriter and activist, and, perhaps most viscerally, American and Jew, no more, no less.”
Two new books on Hecht shed some fascinating light on this well-chronicled but often misunderstood 20th century media giant, who argued and wrestled with what Judaism meant to him long before the rise of Hitler. And long after.
Hoffman’s superb “Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures,” part of Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series of biographical portraits, accomplishes a great deal in a relatively compact form. It’s terrific on both Hecht’s prodigious output, sometimes credited, sometimes uncredited. It’s also sharp on Hecht’s lesser-known political and religious impulses and activities, as he agitated and raised money throughout most of the 1940s on behalf of Jewish statehood.
His pro-Zionist stance and support of the underground paramilitary Irgun movement, hugely controversial within mainstream American Jewish communities, put his newly awakened beliefs on the line. For four years, he was effectively boycotted by Hollywood; his repeated calls for violence against British-controlled Palestine led to a British ban on Hecht’s movies.
Published by Purdue University Press, Julian Gorbach’s “The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist” offers exhaustive detail about Hecht’s political and religious strains. The history makes for some painful reading. Also, there are moments when fact and fiction intertwine, as when Hecht puts the heat on LA-based mob boss Mickey Cohen to help finance Irgun activities, and Hecht can’t believe how much these wiseguys talk the way Hecht’s movie wiseguys talked.
In his lavishly imaginative autobiography “A Child of the Century,” Hecht wrote: “I had been no partisan of democracy in my earlier years … but now (by 1939) that it was the potential enemy of the German Police State I was its uncarping disciple. Thus, oddly, in addition to becoming a Jew in 1939 I became also an American — and remained one.”
Author Hoffman says she “doesn’t really buy that. I think he was a Jew all along, just less conscious of it. The fact that he started out his life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, speaking Yiddish, going to his aunt’s parties where all these famous Yiddish actors were hanging around … that must’ve been important to his sense of self. But for him, his Jewishness didn’t really become important until he felt compelled to respond to anti-Semitism.”
In his writings, improbably enough, Hecht is hard-pressed to recall any anti-Semitic bullying in his childhood. He was born in New York in 1893. His younger brother, Peter, came along four years later.
In the blur of his early years the family lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then the Bronx, Boston, Philadelphia and, briefly, before returning for a 14-year stay, Chicago.
In 1902, Racine, Wis. had a few dozen Jews among its population of nearly 30,000, though increased overseas migration increased those numbers substantially in the century’s first decade. The Hechts moved to Racine in 1903. Father Joseph and mother Sarah ran the Paris Fashion Shop downtown across from Monument Square, the epicenter of Fourth of July parades and other civic commemorations. This was a few blocks west of what Hecht called “the great sea, Lake Michigan.”
While attending Racine High School, Hecht wrote advertising copy for the family store and “dashed off advertising jingles to induce local purveyors of cigars and fuel oil to take out ads in school playbills,” according to the Hecht website benhechtbooks.net, maintained by Hecht scholar Florice Whyte Kovan. For a time, Hecht chaired the Racine High School Jest Committee.
Hecht’s fellow Chicago Daily News writer Carl Sandburg once wrote a poem calling Hecht “a Jewish Huck Finn.” In Racine, he sailed a homemade boat on Lake Michigan. He holed up in his attic bedroom, in a boarding house filled with retired circus performers, reading book after book. He and his brother toured with a trapeze act one summer. The house, no longer there, was at 838 Lake Ave., overlooking the lake.
It was a childhood of wild contrasts between “the early parts of his life on the Lower East Side, and then this very pastoral, capital-R Romantic middle-American life in Racine,” Hoffman notes.
After graduating high school, Hecht attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For three days. Three was enough. Chicago was next.
Gorbach’s book provides good general background about the corruption, venality, political self-interest and journalistic competition in Chicago around the time Hecht arrived in 1910.
A decade earlier, William Randolph Hearst hired a Chicago West Sider, Max Annenberg, to “organize crews of ‘sluggers’ to strong-arm newsboys into ditching stacks of rival newspapers,” Gorbach writes. “What started with knives and brickbat brawls between gangs of neighborhood toughs evolved in shooting sprees that claimed the lives of newsboys and residents alike. It became a three-way war, as the top dailies fought each other, and all sides attacked organized labor.”
According to one figure, 27 newsboys were killed between 1910 and 1913. A good (or bad) number of Prohibition-era gangsters “trained as gunmen in the circulation wars,” writes Gorbach.
Hecht learned fast. First he worked as a “picture chaser,” stealing photographs of crime victims right under the noses of distraught family members. Soon, not always but sometimes, he was writing fake news — fabricated news accounts of pirate ships on Lake Michigan, or earthquakes near the shore.
Then he learned his craft and took it more seriously. “He was a Chicago writer his whole life,” Hoffman says, “even though was he only there 14 years. What he produced when he was there was important. But it’s what he did with Chicago after he left that really matters.”
Such as? Such as co-writing “The Front Page” with fellow Chicago-to-New York transplant Charles MacArthur. Such as dreaming up the movie “Underworld” and contributing heavily to “Scarface.”
“He created the vocabulary for the movie gangster,” says Hoffman.
A speedy and versatile writer — “as adjustable as a zipper,” he once described his Hollywood skill set — he received an invaluable screenwriting tip early on, before the movies even talked, from friend and fellow newspaper alum Herman J. Mankiewicz, who went on to co-write “Citizen Kane” with director Orson Welles.
“The hero,” Mankiewicz wrote, “as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end.”
Hecht himself drew charges of gangsterism soon enough. Well-established as Hollywood’s ace screenwriter, with everything from “Scarface” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Gunga Din” behind him, he undertook a column for New York’s liberal daily PM (financed by Chicago’s Marshall Field III) as America found itself on the precipice of world war. His columns called out the Nazi rampage, and called out American isolationists.
One night in 1941, over drinks at the 21 Club, Hecht met with Palestinian activist Peter H. Bergson (real name: Hillel Kook). Bergson admired Hecht’s nerve and commitment to the Jewish cause. Bergson talked to Hecht about his organization, the Jewish Army Committee, allied with the militant underground Zionist movement.
Soon Hecht was proudly writing “propaganda” (his word) for the cause, raising money, twisting famous arms in Hollywood for support. In 1946, with composer Kurt Weill, Hecht helped put together the Broadway production “A Flag is Born,” a plea for Jewish statehood starring “Scarface” legend Paul Muni and a newcomer from Nebraska, Marlon Brando.
As Hoffman writes in her book: “Hitler turned him into a Jewish radical.” And “Hecht was one of the first Americans to sound the public alarm about the Holocaust, as it was unfolding.”
His star faded as a screenwriter. But in his life’s third act (he died in 1964, a couple of days after finishing his script, never filmed, for “Casino Royale”) Hecht stayed eternally busy. He hosted an interview show on TV. He poured his life, his ever-changing version of it, into autobiographical works and other writings.
At the time of his death he was working on a stage musical, scheduled to try out in Chicago. It was about Chicago in the early, grubby, gangster years of the century. One of the titles he was playing with was, in fact, “Chicago.”
In a 1958 TV interview with Mike Wallace, Hecht despaired a bit. “Maybe out of 70,” he said, “I’ve written about eight or nine movies that I could tolerate if I were a member of the audience.”
He didn’t include Hitchcock’s “Notorious,” recently reissued in a swank new Criterion Collection edition. He should have. It’s pure Ben Hecht: half romantic, half cynical, with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant offering unmatched rapport, full of secrets, equally matched in both intelligence and knowing wit.
One line in particular could not possibly have been written by anyone other than Hecht. The scene is a sidewalk café in Rio, down where the Nazis hide. Bergman’s taunting the man she’s in love with, the American agent Grant, who has convinced her to prostitute herself in order to infiltrate a nest of Nazi vipers.
Scared of me? Bergman asks Grant, idly, her face revealing a dozen things at once.
“I’ve always been scared of women,” he replies. “But I get over it.”
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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