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Hecht, Benlocked

(28 February 1894–18 April 1964)
  • Jeffrey Brown Martin

Ben Hecht

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114614).

Hecht, Ben (28 February 1894–18 April 1964), writer, was born on New York City’s Lower East Side, the son of Joseph Hecht, a tailor and designer of women’s dresses, and Sarah Swernofsky. Hecht attended schools in New York and later in Racine, Wisconsin, where the family moved when he was six. In 1910 he moved to Chicago and began working as a picture stealer (purloining victims’ pictures from family homes for use in the newspaper) and factotum for the Chicago Journal. Hecht was soon a successful full-time reporter working for the Journal and, after 1914, for the Chicago Daily News. Starting as a crime reporter, he soon extended the range of his writing into more artistic areas. With his impressionistic columns about urban life, his poems, his plays, and his satires, Hecht became part of artistic bohemian circles and an integral part of their revolt against nineteenth-century social and artistic gentility, which became known as the Chicago Literary Renaissance. In 1915 he married Marie Armstrong; they had one child. Hecht contributed to and helped edit Margaret Anderson’s avant-garde Little Review and in 1923 founded the Chicago Literary Times. Shortly after World War I he spent a year (1918–1919) as a correspondent for a syndicate headed by his paper in Berlin, where he discovered both European politics and European art movements such as German dadaism. Returning to Chicago, Hecht turned to more plays and novels. Some, such as the novel Erik Dorn (1921), displayed the influence of his European experience and reading through the decadent character of its artist hero and in its subjective point of view and exaggerated style.

Hecht’s reputation as an important and daring modernist writer grew with the publication of novels such as Gargoyles (1922) and collections of his newspaper columns and was solidified with the obscenity trial that resulted from seizure of his erotic psychopathic study Fantazius Mallare (1922). He was charged and convicted of sending obscene material through the mail. Hecht was disillusioned by this not only because he lost his case but because of his literary friends, only H. L. Mencken offered to come to his defense. He moved to New York in 1924, where he continued writing drama, fiction, and articles. In 1925 he married Rose Caylor, for whom he had left his first wife. Caylor and Hecht had one child. Hecht was often short of money, and when in 1926 his friend and fellow writer Herman Mankiewicz telegraphed an invitation to work in Hollywood: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. Three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around,” he went to Los Angeles. There he wrote a story about Chicago gangsters that became the basis for Josef Von Sternberg’s film Underworld (1927), for which Hecht received an Academy Award.

Hecht stayed in Hollywood only a short time before returning to New York. Over the course of his career Hecht would maintain homes and creative lives in both California, where, he contended, he went only to make money, and New York, which was the center of his artistic world. He thought of his fiction and plays as his important writing. His reputation today, however, rests largely on his screenwriting in the 1930s and 1940s, when the film industry was dominated by the studio system. And although he had success in almost every genre, including serious period literary adaptations such as Wuthering Heights (1939), his best work reflected the urban life he had known as a reporter on the streets of Chicago. Light, racy, energetic, and idiomatic, they shaped such distinctly American genres as screwball comedies (Design for Living [1933], The Twentieth Century [1934], Nothing Sacred [1937], It’s a Wonderful World [1939], and His Girl Friday [1940]) and crime and gangster films (Underworld, The Scarface [1932], and Kiss of Death [1947]) and defined the character of the reporter in both the newspaper film (The Front Page [1931]) and as an element in other films (Viva Villa [1934] and Angels over Broadway [1940]).

Hecht was a celebrity in Hollywood, an established author always irreverent toward his screenwork and his employers. His literary reputation and his reputation for quickness, creativity, and dependability made him popular with producers. He was often brought in to rewrite or rethink a script that was already in production, such as for David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Hecht reports that he worked for one week for $15,000 without having read Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Highly paid for his scripts, Hecht believed that his film work’s being less important or lasting than his other more literary endeavors allowed him an emotional distance in an industry where the writer had little final control over his work.

Hecht believed he could make more money and have more artistic freedom by remaining independent, and consequently he did not tie himself for long to any one studio. As a result he worked with almost all the major studios and many of the major directors of his era, including Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Sternberg, Lewis Milestone, William Wellman, William Wyler, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock. Altogether he wrote or contributed to well over seventy screenplays, including Gunga Din (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Shop around the Corner (1940), Roxie Hart (1942), Spellbound (1945), Gilda (1946), Notorious (1946), Monkey Business (1952), and Roman Holiday (1953).

Hecht produced and directed a number of his own films, including Angels over Broadway and Specter of the Rose (1946). He and Charles MacArthur had full control over four films they produced, wrote, and directed for Paramount in their Astoria, Long Island, studio in 1934 and 1935. Their emphasis was always on the literary aspects of the projects, and the results were mannered and not overly successful, although The Scoundrel (1935) did develop a cult following and won an Academy Award for Best Original Story.

Hecht wrote plays throughout his career. His first New York production was The Hero of Santa Maria, written with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman and produced by the Washington Square Players in 1917. His play The Egotist was produced on Broadway in 1922. His greatest success, however, came in his work with MacArthur. Hecht had a long and close collaboration with MacArthur, a fellow reporter from a rival Chicago paper with whom he became friends in New York. Hecht had a home on the Hudson River in Nyack, close to MacArthur’s. They shaped their shared memories of their days in Chicago newsrooms into their most successful play, The Front Page (1928), which firmly established the image of the reporter on stage and, through its numerous adaptations and imitations, on screen as well. The play remains an important and effective American comedy. Among their other stage collaborations was The Twentieth Century (1933), a send-up of the theatrical world, which has also endured through film adaptations and, more recently, revival as a stage musical (On the Twentieth Century [1978]).

Although Jewish, Hecht had never identified himself with Jewish causes. Some of his fictional characters had even been attacked as examples of Jewish self-loathing. His image of himself as an American and an artist who had shed his Jewish identity was radically altered by the growing anti-Semitism of the 1930s and then by German genocide of European Jewry and America’s unwillingness to combat it. During World War II Hecht became involved in attempts to publicize Hitler’s war against the Jews. These efforts led him to involvement in Zionist activities, principally as an American fundraiser and publicist for the Irgun (Menachem Begin’s Jewish underground in Palestine)—efforts he continued during Israel’s struggle for independence. He wrote pageants to promote these causes as he had for the general war effort, including Fun to Be Free (1939), We Will Never Die: A Memorial Service to the Two Million Jewish Dead in Europe (1943), and A Flag Is Born (1946). Because of his anti-British activities, his films were blacklisted for a period in the late 1940s.

In his later years Hecht wrote a number of memoirs and worked in the new medium of television. He died in his New York City apartment.

In many ways Hecht was “a child of the century,” a phrase he used as the title of his 1954 autobiography. He worked in several of the new mass media and helped to define them. His prolific work was in general critically well received and financially well rewarded. While he felt that his serious reputation rested on his novels and short stories, his lasting legacy appears to have been much more in the ephemeral and collaborative arts of film and theater. Through The Front Page on the stage and through many of his screenplays he helped give an “American voice” (urban, colloquial, and fast paced) to the performing arts, defining indigenous screwball comedy and crime genres and shaping our fictional image of the reporter—dogged, irreverent, and sentimental. Through his work and his much-publicized life he became the prototype for our image of the scriptwriter under the studio system. As critic Richard Corliss has put it, “Ben Hecht was the Hollywood screenwriter.”

Bibliography

Hecht’s papers are in the Newberry Library, Chicago. Few of Hecht’s many publications are now available. His novels are best represented by Erik Dorn (1921; repr. 1924), Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (1922; repr. 1978), and Humpty Dumpty (1924). His short stories appeared in two collections: The Collected Stories of Ben Hecht (1945) and A Treasury of Ben Hecht: Collected Stories and Other Writings (1959). For his newspaper writing, the best collection is 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (1922). A Guide for the Bedeviled (1944), a polemical attack on anti-Semitism, is Hecht at his vituperative best. The Front Page (1928; repr. 1950) is widely available in script form. His best memoir is A Child of the Century (1954; repr. 1985). Many of his screenplays, including early drafts, are often available at major film-study centers and in studio archives. The most recent biography of Hecht is William MacAdams’s anecdotal Ben Hecht: The Man behind the Legend (1990). More critical analysis is available in Doug Fetherling, The Five Lives of Ben Hecht (1977). Jeffrey Brown Martin, Ben Hecht: Hollywood Screenwriter (1985), assesses Hecht’s contribution as a screenwriter. Hecht’s work is also dealt with in a number of works devoted to Hollywood screenwriters, particularly Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures (1974). An obituary is in the New York Times, 19 Apr. 1964.