In suburban homes of the late 1950s within commuting distance of Manhattan, it was not unusual to come upon a paperback copy of Ben Hecht’s A Child of the Century, a best-selling autobiography first published in 1954. As a child of the midcentury I was drawn to the title even if the book’s length (over six hundred pages of very small type) deterred any deeper acquaintance. Who was this child, and how could he carry the weight of a whole century? The paperback’s front cover described “a Bold, Buoyant Man With an Insatiable Lust for Life,” and the accompanying artwork jammed together images of a man in a rakishly tilted fedora with a phone to his ear, a teletype machine to his right, and a pile of copy on the desk in front of him, flanked by elegantly dressed couples dining and dancing, filmmakers in the midst of cameras and boom mikes, and the sprawling figure of a vaguely bohemian brunette whose bare legs occupied the foreground of the painting. It was adult life reduced to postage-stamp dimensions, evoking the aroma of cigar smoke, the clinking of ice in cocktail glasses, and a general air of feverish urgency: the wispy promises of life experiences either yet to come or departed irretrievably into a semimythical past.
In the conversation of my parents and their theater-going friends, Hecht popped up as a familiar, almost totemic presence. He was, or had once been, the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. With Charles MacArthur he had written The Front Page, a play whose once-shocking last line all could quote (“The sonofabitch stole my watch!”). He had written and directed, also with MacArthur, The Scoundrel, a movie starring Noël Coward that everyone fondly remembered seeing back in the 1930s, when it had apparently been a token of sophistication. He was still very much around, and for a time, beginning in 1958, could be found on television hosting The Ben Hecht Show, with guests ranging from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Jack Kerouac.
He had a celebrity transcending any particular accomplishment. Even his name, not to mention his author photo, had an aura of toughness more suggestive of a prizefighter than a litterateur. Here was someone who long ago—his career as a newspaperman began before World War I, and The Front Page had been the Broadway sensation of 1928—had imposed himself on the world on what seemed his own terms, and in the buttoned-down Eisenhower era kept on saying what he pleased.
Since Hecht’s death at seventy-one in 1964, his cultural presence has dwindled to his name—a name kept alive by the occasional revival of The Front Page and by the screenplay credits of scores of movies including Scarface, Notorious, Spellbound, Gunga Din, Design for…
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