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 Living, Kiss of Death, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and Wuthering Heights, all the way back to the one that established him in Hollywood, his Oscar-winning original story for Josef von Sternberg’s gangster melodrama Underworld (1927). The films with his name on them represent only a portion of his work as the acknowledged master of lightning-fast script doctoring, notably a last-minute repair job on Gone with the Wind, undertaken without benefit of plowing through Margaret Mitchell’s doorstopper. In her sensitive and incisive biography, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, Adina Hoffman suggests he may have contributed to as many as 140 scripts: an impressive tally for someone who professed to regard movie writing as “work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle” and called movies themselves “one of the bad habits that corrupted our century.”
It would have been most interesting to have Hecht’s firsthand account of his collaborations with directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Victor Fleming, and William Wellman, but in his otherwise garrulous autobiography he limits himself to broad, largely dismissive comments on the work for which he will be best remembered. The most he acknowledges about his Hollywood work is that he had fun doing it; he enjoyed the company and found in movies a way to bankroll the writing he took more seriously.
From his perspective it must have been unimaginable that his voluminous literary production—novels, stories, plays, memoirs, impressionistic sketches of Chicago and New York, political polemics of world-changing intent—would largely go out of print, while a big swath of the movies he wrote continue to circulate, not just the award-winning prestige pictures but Lady of the Tropics with Hedy Lamarr, Let Freedom Ring with Nelson Eddy, and Queen of Outer Space with Zsa Zsa Gabor. Harder to find in decently restored form are some of the films he both wrote and directed, several with Charles MacArthur, and with a large assist from cinematographer Lee Garmes, who made up for Hecht’s near-total ignorance of filmmaking technique. Crime Without Passion (1934), The Scoundrel (1935), and the later Specter of the Rose (1946) are distinguished by exaggeration and preciousness that seem deliberately parodistic, laced by great gusts of verbal bravado that hold the attention against all odds. They have their bizarre outlying niche in the American film canon. But even here, enjoying something like full creative control, Hecht seems unable to take the whole enterprise of movie-making quite seriously.
However his work is judged, the shape of Hecht’s career and the lingering traces of his personality are fascinating in themselves, even acknowledging his gift for embellishing his own legend. His trajectory looks like a graph of impatient energy barging along through a succession of worlds, like an actor passing rapidly from role to role, and it is easy to get lost in the details of one quick change or another. A great virtue of Hoffman’s biography is to maintain a focus on the unity rather than the diversity of someone capable of such metamorphoses—to cut through the disparate bundle of credits and anecdotes—since “all these Hechts were, willy-nilly, one and the same.”
To boil down such a profuse, not to say verbose, career into so compact a volume was a challenge, but she has achieved much more than elegant concision. Alert to the wiles and intricacies of someone who savored his own contradictions, she makes contact with a living personality, creating a portrait both sympathetic and clear-eyed of a restless character who with stubborn determination left pieces of himself scattered over the times and places he passed through, as cynical newsman and impertinent modernist in Chicago, theatrical sensation in New York, best-selling novelist, and consummate go-to screenwriting maven in Hollywood.
Hoffman brilliantly encapsulates the crucial late turn of Hecht’s career, when he emerged as an outspoken voice for the rescue of European Jews and subsequently became the principal American propagandist for the right-wing underground organization Irgun Tzvai-Leumi in its militant campaign for a Jewish state in Palestine. This assumption of a public role surprised even Hecht. From his Chicago days on, he had cast himself as a detached observer of human absurdity and turpitude, terminally skeptical with regard to all causes and movements. He claimed more than once to have been indifferent to his Jewish identity before 1939 (“I had before then been only related to Jews”)—a hard assertion to credit, as Hoffman notes, from a child of Yiddish-speaking parents whose love for his extended family would be amply attested in A Child of the Century.
Once engaged, he committed all his skills and celebrity toward focusing American awareness on the ongoing genocide, reports of which had been relegated to the interior pages of leading newspapers—and which he had uncannily predicted in his short story “The Little Candle” (published in 1939 but written earlier), with its vision of the systematic murder of half a million Jews, a “great International Pogrom…the flower of a long and careful series of conferences among the thinkers of the countries involved.”1 His passionate and characteristically combative efforts pitted him against the inaction of the Roosevelt administration, the perceived temporizing of the American Jewish establishment, and the silence of American Jewish publishers, producers, and writers.
He never hesitated to take on powerful targets, as in his denunciation (in January 1941) of Joseph Kennedy’s hectoring efforts to persuade Jewish film producers that “anything the movies do to decry the horrors of Hitlerism will act as a boomerang and come back and knock over all the Jews.” A Flag Is Born (1946), the dramatic pageant he wrote as a fund-raiser for the Irgun, with Marlon Brando in his first starring role and music by Kurt Weill, was a hit on Broadway and on tour; proceeds from the production helped the Irgun purchase a disabled luxury yacht, which—sailing as the SS Ben Hecht—was used to transport some six hundred Jewish refugees to Palestine. Hecht’s inflammatory statements in support of the armed uprising against British rule led by Irgun commander Menachem Begin reached a peak in March 1947 in a notorious full-page newspaper ad titled “Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine,” which culminates in a paragraph Hoffman characterizes as “the most famous—or infamous—he ever wrote”: “Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank or 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.” In response, British film exhibitors instituted a boycott of his films, a distinction he found flattering until it nearly curtailed his Hollywood job prospects.
In the most bizarre episode of his career, he turned to the Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen for support in funding arms for the Irgun, in the process forming an odd comradeship with the sociopathic but admiring Cohen: a “pencil-outlaw” (as Hecht once defined himself) partnering with the real thing.2 The Irgun finally did not come to power in Israel (not for decades would its ideological descendants have their day), and Hecht never visited the new nation; a book project with Cohen came to nothing. Hecht went on with his usual professionalism, writing A Child of the Century, working with Marilyn Monroe as ghostwriter on an aborted memoir (published in 1974 as My Story), hosting his TV show until it was canceled as a bit too bold for its moment, and writing, as his last movie job, an unrealized adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
He had covered much ground to get to the era of James Bond. Born in 1893 to Russian immigrant parents on the Lower East Side, he was uprooted time and again as they moved westward, pursuing prosperity in the dressmaking trade, settling finally when Hecht was ten in Racine, Wisconsin. In his autobiography, the years in Racine acquire the idyllic aura of an American boyhood out of Twain or Tarkington, full of “hay rides, sleigh rides, bicycle rides, train rides, boat rides,” but with franker acknowledgment of an early and enthusiastic discovery of sex. (A diary kept in code announced: “Life is sin; I wish to live! I must sin!”) The most determining event, in his own telling, was his thirteenth birthday present from his father, four crates packed with books (Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Plutarch, Boswell, a History of the World in fifty-two volumes, The World’s Famous Orators in fifteen), books he kept for the rest of his life: “They still surround me at night, and I look at them tenderly and without thought as I fall asleep…. When there is only moonlight on them, they shine with mystic life. They are the only real ghosts.”
He read them all, but his bent was not scholarly; after graduating high school in 1910, he decamped from academia after three days in a summer program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A quick train ride took him into the first of the worlds he would make his own, as an apprentice newsman at the Chicago Daily Journal, the beginning of a long immersion in the city’s bottomless array of violence, corruption, and vice: “I haunted streets, studios, whore houses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, mad houses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls and bookshops.” In The Front Page, in the screenplays for Underworld and Scarface, in the gaudy tabloid poetry of the columns collected in A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (1922), he would make a myth of this Chicago as the capital of modernity, tough and lawless beyond imagining and half-crazy with its own dynamism, and of himself as the man who had seen it all, heard it all, experienced it all.
Adapting himself to the hardboiled scavenging tactics of the Chicago dailies, he broke in as a “picture snatcher,” purloining usable photos by any means necessary, and boasted of getting his start as a reporter by cooking up fake news stories along the lines of imaginary earthquakes and pirate raids, with fake photographs to back them up. His anecdotes about these concoctions may of course themselves be concoctions, but that would only be a further refinement of an amoral exuberance pitched neatly, in Hecht’s balancing act, between boyish fun and disillusioned cynicism. The cynicism deepened when he was shipped to Germany after the war’s end in 1918 to serve six months as an unlikely foreign correspondent, becoming a witness to Spartacist prisoners being led to execution at Berlin’s Moabit prison and to duplicitous political maneuvering that for him replicated Chicago’s gangster politics. Here he began to define himself as immune to causes and crusades; here too he caught a premonition of further killing to come.
Back in Chicago he was entering the literary circles where Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg were making themselves known. In the “flamboyantly self-destructive” and “defiantly undomesticated” poet Maxwell Bodenheim he found, in Hoffman’s words, “a fun-house mirror reflection of the far suaver, saner, and less needy Hecht—a grotesquely distorted version of what Hecht might have been, had he let himself run wild.” (The bond endured through decades, with versions of Bodenheim cropping up insistently in Hecht’s fiction, plays, and movie scripts, even as their paths diverged: by the time the alcoholic Bodenheim was murdered with his wife in a Bowery flophouse in 1954, Hecht’s best-selling memoir was appearing.) He published stories in Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review and H. L. Mencken’s The Smart Set, and in 1921 his first novel, Erik Dorn, was being guardedly praised by Mencken as “the spiritual knee-jerks of a genuine original.” (By 1924 Erik Dorn, whose long bouts of mordant self-analysis make tough going now, would form part of Horace Liveright’s prestigious Modern Library.)
In A Child of the Century he declares that he found in Chicago “a first understanding of myself—that I was in love with life,” and as he describes the city his words are a torrent of omnivorous observation. It’s a persuasive literary performance of unleashed gusto, but how persuaded is Hecht? At the outset of his memoir he has already sounded a very different note:
At the core of my living was a curious inability to live. I could seldom lose myself in anything I did or anything that happened. The books, plays, stories, movies I wrote; the causes to which I contributed and even helped lead left no ownership in me once I was done with them. They disappeared when they were completed.
The “Insatiable Lust for Life” proclaimed by his paperback publisher has as its other pole an intuition of hollowness, an insistent self-questioning.
To engage with Hecht is to enter into conversation with him, conversation as intricately shifting as his cannily multifarious personality. He is a journalist who gleefully admits to getting his start by fabricating stories, a memoirist who acknowledges the extreme defectiveness of his memory, a screenwriter who dismisses screenwriting as a base but lucrative calling, a novelist who reveres Dostoevsky and Conrad while boasting of dictating a successful potboiler (The Florentine Dagger) in thirty-six hours, a stylist who can assume any tone, from Zola to Huysmans to Mencken to Walter Winchell, while never quite settling on a voice singularly his own: he had so many to choose from. In his literary prose it is often difficult to distinguish between deliberate art and deliberate self-parody.
Of his early literary career Hoffman writes, “Words now poured out of him with an almost frightening force and pace.” The flow never abated. A catalogue raisonné of his total output would be a daunting prospect. Few people wrote faster or, by his own account, with such enjoyment. In one of many similar passages in A Child of the Century, he writes, “The appearance of words on paper delighted me as a new set of toys did in my childhood. I loved to form them, to watch sentences build, to see phrases come into existence and the mysterious architecture of thought raise its penciled sky line.” Nothing elicits more primal enthusiasm from Hecht than the subject of language, whether encountered in that crate of books in his boyhood, in the talk he picked up among the newsmen of Chicago (“the language of wandering scholars, of wit that had found no paper, of genius with wings of alcohol”), or the screenwriting in which he functioned as “an actor reciting lines in the private auditorium of his skull.”
Forget about Yeats’s “perfection of the life, or of the work”; with Hecht life and work were often messily intermeshed, and his own voice tangled up with those of others. He damaged his relations with Sherwood Anderson by putting a simplified version of him into Erik Dorn and turned his friend Max Bodenheim into a satiric caricature in the novel Count Bruga (1926), a favor Bodenheim returned in Duke Herring. Erik Dorn, dedicated to Hecht’s first wife, Marie, is centered on the love affair he began during its composition with Rose Caylor, whom he married in 1926, and to whom he stayed married and in great measure devoted while carrying on affairs of varying duration and intensity. Both Marie and Rose published lightly fictionalized accounts of their lives with Hecht, Marie’s My First Husband, by His First Wife, appearing in 1932, Rose’s The Woman on the Balcony in 1927. (Hoffman describes the experience of reading these books as “entertaining but more often sad…one feels trapped in an especially claustrophobic hall of mirrors.”)
In two of the movies he wrote and directed, Lionel Stander appears as a version of Bodenheim, spouting parodies of the poet’s verse, and in another of these films (the disastrous Soak the Rich) Hecht cast his then lover, the model Mimsi Taylor, in the lead. As Hoffman relates,
his affair with Mimsi Taylor had almost torpedoed his marriage, as he and his elegant young mistress had decamped for Ecuador…. When abroad, he started a play, To Quito and Back, about a washed-up, middle-aged novelist and screenwriter who decamps for Ecuador with his elegant young mistress.
The play, an acting-out of Hecht’s midlife misgivings about his sellout to commercialism and his lack of political involvement, opened on Broadway to deservedly terrible reviews in 1937, by which time Hecht was back with Rose and on the verge of making his one great commitment to a cause.
He loved to collaborate and did much of his best work with others. The noise of newsrooms and story conferences was congenial to him, and as a champion talker he could thrive in such crowds. His fictional stand-in Erik Dorn had worried that he was more talker than thinker: “I sometimes feel that I live only in mirrors and that my thoughts exist only as they enter the heads of others.” Hecht was perhaps dangerously aware of how many people in his life, from doting aunts and wives and lovers to literary editors and movie producers and gangsters, had considered him a genius. Certainly he never lacked for listeners, and whatever self-doubts he entertained were balanced by the reserves of verbal invention he could always fall back on.
A Child of the Century, the most durable of his books, feels like a monument to that boundless capacity for talk. It’s a bit like the seamless speech of an inspired storyteller encountered in a barroom, who keeps you hooked as he slides from one thread to another: Let me tell you about women…. Let me tell you about the newspaper business…. Let me tell you about my uncle Joe…. Let me tell you where American culture went wrong…. Let me tell you about Jack Barrymore’s last days…. And have you read Gibbon? It hardly matters that what he asserts at one point he undermines at another, as if his mind were a screenplay he was continually polishing with all his accumulated art. He does go on, but it’s hard to turn aside from the palpable presence of the man at his typewriter, so resolute on continuing. You don’t want to leave him alone at his desk with no one with whom to share what has been bouncing around in his head for a lifetime.
He was first and last a creature of words, always at home in the act of writing, rapt in his final refuge. When he writes about his own compulsive productivity, it’s his life he’s summing up:
I feared idleness as some men fear a contagious disease…. Without a task to do, I became convinced I would expire of ennui.
It was this menace of ennui that propelled me into the theater and the movies…. From what was I fleeing—hiding? Perhaps from age and death. Or from bitter and untenable angers at the world. Or perhaps from other things. Whatever it was, I need never know. I kept too busy for it to catch up with me.
Hecht could supply words with equal readiness for a cause he believed in and a melodramatic contrivance he didn’t. His words bear the mark of his skill, but at what depth do they speak for him? It is the unspoken question that haunts his work.
His greatest talent was a supreme flair for ventriloquism. In The Front Page he unleashed a newsroom full of shouting, mocking, wisecracking voices, and the noise of it transformed American theater. The same gift was a bounty for filmmakers. Calls to arms, amorous rhapsodies, sardonic provocations, comical pomposity, impassioned defiance: he could inhabit them all as needed and may scarcely have reckoned how long the echoes would linger. However he disparaged—or at least pretended to disparage—what he was doing as he ran through those lines of dialogue “in the private auditorium of his skull,” the impersonality of assuming those countless movie roles was liberating.
Movie credits being what they are, we cannot always know who precisely did what in any given screenplay, but his signature is often hard to miss, whether it’s Joel McCrea broadcasting from London in the Blitz in Foreign Correspondent (“Hello, America! Hang on to your lights! They’re the only lights left in the world!”), Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living (declaring to her sometime lover that “it’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately I am no gentleman”), John Barrymore racked with self-pity in Twentieth Century (“I never thought I should sink so low as to become an actor”), Frank Fay as the nightclub emcee milking sympathy for the supposedly dying Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (“Drink your wine, laugh and applaud while this little doomed child sits saying goodbye to you”), or, in the most perfectly achieved of all his screenplays, Cary Grant as the government agent in Notorious, a conflicted and mistrustful lover in Hecht’s own image, finally blurting out to Ingrid Bergman, “I was a fat-headed guy full of pain.” Such phrases, detached from their creator, still carry their little freight of wonder, as Ben Hecht’s wandering spirit continues to speak through a myriad of different voices.
The story appeared in A Book of Miracles (Viking, 1939). ↩
Hecht’s political activities in the 1940s, and the way they interacted with those of others, defy brief summary. Hoffman’s excellent account can be supplemented by another recent and very useful study of Hecht, Julien Gorbach’s The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (Purdue University Press, 2019), a large portion of which is devoted to this period. ↩