Cad of the Century: Two New Biographies of Ben Hecht

IN 1978, archivists at the Newberry Library, where I work, received a phone call informing them that the apartment of Rose Hecht — the recently deceased wife of famed reporter, novelist, screenwriter, and political provocateur Ben Hecht — would be cleaned out in a weekend, and they had better get themselves to New York. According to the story I’ve been told, the Newberrians flew immediately out of Chicago and set to work in the Hecht apartment, filling up shipping boxes with letters, manuscripts, photographs, scripts, and much else. There was little time for discernment during this mad dash retrieval. Much later, while unpacking the boxes back at the library, they found some curious items: a pair of spectacles, a butter knife, a writing board, wallets, bookmarks, and a spatula with remnants of a fried egg. Call it archive fever.

Ben Hecht materials in box as shipped to the Newberry Library in 1978. Courtesy of the Newberry Library.

Sunk at the bottom of one box, heavy and bronze, was the Academy Award that Hecht won in 1928 for Underworld, a silent movie that drew upon Hecht’s experiences on the crime beat in Chicago, where he first learned how to write a story. Critics have claimed that Underworld marks the brilliant debut of the gangster film. But Hecht thought his script had been transformed into a melodramatic mess, and he only reluctantly allowed his name on the screen credits. In a stance of authorial integrity, he would refuse to allow his name to appear on countless other screenplays, even as he became a wildly prolific maker of Hollywood blockbusters. Holding Hecht’s Oscar, its base marked by dents and scratches, is one of the tactile pleasures of working in Hecht’s archive. Those marks tell a story about Hecht and his relationship to Hollywood: he used the nude male statuette as a doorstop.

What does it mean that Hecht resented his own genius at crafting scripts? This is one of the central questions that animates Adina Hoffman’s beautifully written Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, a concise but nuanced biography of a writer whose astonishing output and success as a commercial screenwriter never quite diminished his desire to write a “great” novel. Hecht lived an exuberant, madcap, bad-boy life, which Hoffman details with a gimlet eye. He wrote many novels, and none are great. “Hecht was among the very worst judges of his own talents,” Hoffman writes.

His talents, of course, were plentiful. Few artists can be said to have invented new genres with enduring influence over popular culture. Hecht did. From the late 1920s until his death in 1964, he wrote films that would define Hollywood’s signature forms: the screwball comedy, the newspaper drama, the film noir, and the gangster saga. He was tremendously skilled at writing movies for mass consumption, including classics like Scarface, The Front Page, Spellbound, and Design for Living, as well as un-credited hits like Gone with the Wind, A Star Is Born, and Roman Holiday. And, after 1939, he became quite effective at writing in yet another populist mode: political propaganda. Despite his desire for artistic immortality, Hecht wrote tirelessly for the present, wielding his pen, his fame, and his money to awaken Americans to the genocide in Europe and to rouse the Roosevelt administration to initiate rescue efforts.

Hecht’s political awakening and its consequences are at the heart of another recent book, Julien Gorbach’s The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist. Gorbach’s fine-grained biography is written for the Hecht specialist: a reader who seeks a detailed analysis of the author’s life, especially during and after World War II, when Hecht allied with the activist Peter Bergson and members of the underground Jewish paramilitary, the Irgun. Hecht’s affiliation with the right wing of the Zionist movement — and his efforts to raise money for the Jewish military — drew him to some unsavory characters, including Mickey Cohen, the Jewish crime boss of Los Angeles, whose biography Hecht took it upon himself to write (but never finished). Cohen turned up in 1947 to meet Hecht in a bulletproof limousine with a ring of henchmen, who never took off their hats. As Hecht put it, “They acted like people I made up.”

Hecht said that he “became a Jew in 1939.” Both Hoffman and Gorbach note that this claim is too easy and illuminate the rich and contradictory nature of their subject’s lifelong Jewish identity: his childhood in a Yiddish-speaking household in Racine, Wisconsin; his friendships with other Jewish writers (particularly the reckless, self-destructive poet Maxwell Bodenheim, whom Hecht met in Chicago); his brief return, in 1924, to the Jewish community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he had been born; and finally his formidable campaign to save the Jews of Europe. “I am so full of Jewish history,” Hecht wrote to Rose in the late 1930s, “that I feel a yamulka growing on my head.” The great strength of Hoffman’s biography is that she never loses sight of Hecht’s work, evaluating the films and writings with keen and revealing judgment. Gorbach makes a more theoretical argument, embedding Hecht, who was deeply suspicious of the Enlightenment belief in human progress, in the tradition of Romanticism. Hecht was able to see the horrors of the Holocaust earlier than most Americans — not because he had better access to the news but because he understood the darkness of the human condition.

Indeed, American newspapers throughout the 1930s reported on the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, although these articles were often buried on the inside pages. Americans learned about the Nazi plan to murder all the Jews of Europe in November 1942, a fact that is clearly documented in the current exhibition Americans and the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many Americans dismissed these reports, unwilling or unable to accept the horrifying truth. Gorbach writes that “[h]ad it not been for Hecht, news of the Final Solution would also have been virtually absent from mainstream American magazines.” This is not right, nor is Gorbach’s claim that Hecht’s articles about the Final Solution in February 1943 “constituted the only substantive coverage to appear in mass-circulation magazines.” Yet Hecht certainly was a heroic truth-teller who demanded that his country act decisively during modern history’s blackest hour.

Gorbach is right about Hecht’s moral vision: he never believed in humanity’s essential goodness. His political provocations were meant to trigger our baser impulses of shame, fear, sentimentality, and anger. His most compelling cinematic characters are corrupt and seamy, as was his very first great love — the city of Chicago. Both Hoffman and Gorbach trace a political through-line from Hecht’s heady days as a Chicago journalist to his Jewish radicalism. When Hecht hopped a train in 1910 from small-town Wisconsin to Chicago at age 17, he was ready to stake his claim as a writer. The literary scene he found would include Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, and many others who came up in the hardscrabble newsrooms of Chicago papers. Hecht soaked up the idioms and styles of a Midwestern metropolis booming with immigrants and migrants. In his columns for the Chicago Daily News, he emerged as a modern flâneur, mining the city for stories of everyday people — criminals, fishermen, prostitutes, and clerks. “[T]he city was nothing more nor less than a vast, broken mirror giving him back garbled images of himself,” Hoffman surmises vividly. Which is to say, Hecht’s greatest subject was himself. The columns became A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, published in the annus mirabilis of modernism, 1922, and they are, to my mind, the best thing he ever wrote.

Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson in Chicago, circa 1916. Courtesy of the Newberry Library.

Hecht’s life took shape in a world thick with “great men” and riddled with casual, persistent misogyny. Consider the atmosphere of the male-only, German-American restaurant Schlogl’s, where Hecht gathered with the newspaper set in Chicago; his collaboration with Charles MacArthur, a roguish Knight of Algonquin Round Table; and his embrace of the “tough Jews” of the Zionist campaign. But significantly, at the very start of his career, he found the truest expression of “Art” in a woman. In 1914, Margaret Anderson launched the Little Review, a periodical of literature, politics, and culture, out of the Fine Arts Building in Chicago. “I remember its beginning and my own beginnings as almost identical,” Hecht would write later in life. A bohemian tastemaker and mesmerizing presence, Anderson cultivated a life of radical experiment, publishing work by avant-garde poets, feminists, anarchists, and cubists. She affixed an epigraph on the masthead of the Little Review: “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste.” Or with the law, for that matter. She would later publish the first 13 chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses and be convicted of obscenity. Hecht was a little bit in love with Margaret Anderson, who published his early writing, and she remained to him an exemplary flame of artistic conviction. But he was nothing like her. Screenwriting is an art of compromise.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the greatest American screenwriter came out of Chicago, a city that invented a version of modernism that was more mainstream, if no less original, than what was coming out of Paris, London, and New York. Hecht’s mature writing was meant to shock but never repel a mainstream audience. His skills were honed through collaborative work with directors, producers, designers, actors, and other screenwriters. He was not an auteur with a singular vision. He rarely worked alone.

Collaboration activated Hecht’s creative genius, which is why Rose Hecht’s minor role in both biographies feels wrong. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Rose advised Hecht for decades, particularly on A Child of the Century, his hefty 654-page memoir, which he began writing as early as 1929 and published in 1954. Philosophical, punchy, and peppered with riveting anecdotes, the memoir is, according to Hoffman, an example of Hecht’s finest prose. How did Rose contribute? What were her motivations? And how did she negotiate her husband’s numerous and flagrant affairs?

When Rose first formed a relationship with her future husband around 1920 in the offices of the Chicago Daily News, where she was a reporter, he was already married to a woman named Marie Armstrong, with whom he had a young daughter. Hecht was bold enough to suggest to Rose and Marie that they split time with him. Neither agreed. In the mid-1930s, when Hecht ran off to Ecuador with the actress Mimsi Taylor, Rose “won Ben back,” Hoffman tells us, with a passionate letter expressing her faith in him. How is it possible, I wondered, that Hecht was not the one winning back Rose? How can we understand the constraints that defined her choices? And most importantly, how did she maintain the clarity to preserve her husband’s richly revealing archive? Both Hoffman and Gorbach, of course, worked extensively in Hecht’s papers at the Newberry, where you can discern the influence of Rose Hecht’s hand in her husband’s work. She deserves much more attention and perhaps her own biography, through which we might see the whole woman.

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Liesl Olson is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the literary history of Chicago, Chicago Renaissance: The Midwest and Modernism (Yale University Press, 2017).

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