Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures
by Adina Hoffman
Yale University Press
2019, 264 pp, $26
The great French film director Jean-Luc Godard called Ben Hecht a “genius” who “invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood today.” Israeli leader Menachem Begin, speaking at Hecht’s packed funeral in Manhattan in 1964, said Hecht not only “wrote stories…he made history.” Yet most modern American Jews have likely never heard of Hecht, despite his eminence as a playwright, best-selling novelist and screenwriter of a host of Hollywood film classics, including Scarface, Twentieth Century, The Front Page, Gunga Din and Notorious.
Hecht was also a pivotal figure in American Jewish history—in bringing the Holocaust to the attention of the American public in real time during the height of World War II, and in aiding one of the most extreme of Zionist underground groups in its violent campaign against British forces in Palestine, thus helping create the conditions for the birth of Israel.
Adina Hoffman’s richly informative new biography is part of the Yale University Press’s acclaimed Jewish Lives series of short interpretative biographies covering a wide range of Jewish figures, from authors to philosophers to politicians to entertainers. Her book is a fine introduction to a seminal figure in American Jewish culture and Hollywood’s first century. But like a large and powerful man crammed into a suit three sizes too small, Ben Hecht’s life is simply too robust and complicated to be shoehorned into 220 pages of text. It’s not Hoffman’s fault: She was commissioned to write, in effect, a one-act play about a life that merits a four-hour opera and a six-part HBO series.
Hecht grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, where his parents, who had arrived from Belarus as teenagers, moved from the sweatshops of New York. After graduating from high school and lasting just three days at the University of Wisconsin, he escaped to Chicago, where he worked as a police reporter for the Chicago Daily News, wrote short stories and novels and hobnobbed with literary figures such as Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. He acquired the sandpaper lingo, flexible ethics and hard-liquor habits of the city newsrooms, learned how to write fast and facile prose, spent six months reporting on the toxic chaos of post-World War I Berlin and dumped his young, well-off, non-Jewish first wife for Rose Caylor, a novelist who stuck with him for the rest of his life despite his self-confessed tendency to sleep with every attractive woman he met.
Perhaps the most important person he met in Chicago was Charles MacArthur, a fellow journalist with whom he would later team up to write the hit Broadway play The Front Page, their 1928 ode to the rough-and-tumble newspaper world in which they had come of age. It was a new kind of play—vulgar, quick-witted and vastly entertaining. “They took the corsets off American theater,” said Tennessee Williams, who said he learned how to write more honestly from Hecht and MacArthur’s enduring classic.
Hecht followed MacArthur to New York in the mid-1920s, hoping for a larger stage and new writing opportunities. The city was a revelation for Hecht, not just as a writer but as a Jew. In Racine and even Chicago, Hecht said later, he had considered himself “a Jew by accident,” but in New York he came to admire the vibrancy, wit and iconoclasm that Jewish artists and intellectuals contributed to mainstream urban culture. This was a club he aspired to belong to.
Two years later, he got a telegram from his pal Herman Mankiewicz, another former Chicago journalist, who had landed in Hollywood and discovered, as he put it to Hecht, that “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” Hecht quickly headed west.
Hollywood had a weakness for the loudest, fastest-talking and most self-assured personalities. Hecht was perfectly cast. “He had a considerable talent,” opined his friend and mentor H.L. Mencken, “but there was always something cheap and flashy about him.” Writers were generally considered interchangeable and more of a nuisance than a necessity, but Hecht spoke the vernacular and basked in the zeitgeist. He was soon the highest-paid screenwriter in town, and he won the first-ever Academy Award for best original story (for Underworld in 1929).
Hecht railed against the kind of mindless trash the studios often churned out, but he never neglected to cash his paychecks. “If we were not artists or thinkers or questioners, we were nimble and knowing artificers,” he’d later recall with defiant pride. “And we worked like hell. It is as hard to make a toilet seat as a castle window, even though the view is a bit different.”
It’s often said that the Jews invented Hollywood. Almost all of the major studios were founded and run by the sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. But they weren’t like the modern, self-confident, high-profile American Jewish entrepreneurs we know and (sort of) love today. The original studio heads were for the most part painfully ambivalent about their Jewish identities and felt vulnerable to anti-Semitic accusations of plotting to take control of the country and its culture. They were not interested in Zionism nor particularly keen to take on Hitler and Nazism in the 1930s. Hecht, too, downplayed his Jewish roots until 1939, after the German invasion of Poland that launched World War II. Suddenly, at age 46, he came to see the world “with Jewish eyes,” as he put it. “It was as if Germany’s invasion of Poland had somehow altered his DNA,” Hoffman writes.
He started by joining the Fight for Freedom Committee, a progressive group that rallied support for beleaguered Britain and opposed the isolationist platform of aviation hero Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee. Hecht helped organize an October 1941 patriotic revue in New York featuring entertainers, baseball players and other celebrities to raise money for the cause. His work brought him to the attention of Peter Bergson, a charismatic 26-year-old Lithuanian-born Palestinian activist who came to the United States as an agent of Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the National Military Organization, led by Menachem Begin. Bergson, whose real name was Hillel Kook, met with Hecht and convinced him to become American co-chairman and spokesman for the group. It was a perfect marriage. Hecht loved the group’s energy, youth and dedication—they were, he said, “perfect Jews”—and they loved his commitment and his connections. He had “a voice that would catch America’s ear,” one of Bergson’s colleagues wrote, “a voice from outside the Jewish establishment, uninhibited by political and parochial interests.”
Hecht helped Bergson and his followers raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their cause. At one mass meeting in Hollywood in 1942, they raised $130,000. After a brief Associated Press story in November 1942 reported the claim by Rabbi Stephen Wise, founder of the American Jewish Congress, that two million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had been exterminated, Bergson and Hecht redoubled their efforts.
Hecht rallied famous, well-connected friends such as theater impresario Billy Rose, playwright Moss Hart and composer Kurt Weill and organized a star-studded pageant at Madison Square Garden in March 1943 attended by 40,000 people. More than 100,000 people saw the pageant in performances around the country. They raised thousands for refugee relief efforts, but the larger goal was to raise public awareness and sympathy for the plight of European Jewry.
Hecht also waged a bitter war of words with Wise, David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and other mainstream Jewish leaders, whom he derided as “sell-outs” to the Zionist cause. Wise and his allies, who favored a less inflammatory and more cooperative, behind-the-scenes approach in dealing with President Roosevelt, his advisers and military strategists, managed to block Hecht’s show from being staged in five other cities.
When Begin’s organization reopened the revolt against British rule in Palestine in February 1944, Hecht supported him with money and rhetoric. Hecht wrote and helped stage a new pageant, a piece of pro-Irgun propaganda that opened in New York in September 1946 and featured a young Marlon Brando in a supporting role. It was supposed to play Broadway for four weeks but lasted several months and again toured the country, raising close to $1 million. Some of that money went for a creaky old German luxury boat that picked up 625 displaced Jews from France and tried to get them to Palestine. On the way, the boat was rechristened the SS Ben Hecht.
Hecht publicly celebrated the Irgun’s willingness to kill British soldiers. “Every time you…let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts,” he proclaimed in a full-page ad that ran in several New York newspapers. The British in turn branded him the “number one Britain hater of the United States,” and his movies were banned there for four years. With typical swagger, he called it “the best press notice I had ever received.”
Some of his old friends didn’t care for his strident rhetoric and endorsement of terrorist attacks on British forces. “It’s very simple,” Herman Mankiewicz reportedly said. “Six years ago Ben found out that he was a Jew, and now he behaves like a six-year-old Jew.”
Hecht never set foot in Israel, either before or after independence. But it’s no exaggeration to say he helped redefine what it means to be an American Jew, creating with his own life the template for a combative, self-assured, high-profile figure who emerged from the ashes of the war determined to loudly assert his support for a Jewish homeland and his right to be treated as a full, dues-paying member of American society, rather than as a barely tolerated house guest.
Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author whose latest book is High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.