My groping brain, no less than my little toe, is a mechanism in His evolution-busy hands.... [I’m] God’s incomplete child. – Ben Hecht
Ben Hecht knew that his “world” would judge him as “complete.”
There were his early days on a Grant Park bench chronicling Chicago’s mean streets in the 1920s, his initiation into the intelligentsia at New York’s Algonquin Round Table, the “Shakespeare of Hollywood” years, scripting somewhere between 70 and 140 credited and uncredited screenplays in almost as few hours. A few included Scarface, Notorious, Spellbound, Gunga Din, His Girl Friday, Nothing Sacred, Mutiny on the Bounty, Viva Villa, Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind (remedial), A Farewell to Arms, and early drafts of Casino Royale. He won the Oscar for Undercover (1927), and Scoundrel (1934).
Add some Broadway hits, several high toned literary magazines, a PR firm, pageants, and yes, Hecht knew that his world of Chicago-New York-Hollywood mega moguls and glitterati – would judge him as “complete.”
He also knew that they would be wrong. By his own reckoning, he was a great “hack” genius who straddled between selling out, and being a man of bold letters – and bolder consequence.
Make no mistake. The consequences were gargantuan. He broke literary taboos, bit the Hollywood hands that fed him the big bucks, and was spared the American (if not the British) Blacklist.
Ben Hecht was the most effective PR voice for Jews in 1930s and 40s America.
Most remarkable, he became the most effective PR voice for Jews in 1930s and 40s America, saving countless European Jews from “The fat necked [German] beasts,” and falling into fervent passion with Zionism – the Revisionist Zionism of the Irgun Tzevai Leumi.
But then there was the great fall out of passion with the mainstream leaders of the nascent Jewish State. Such is the fate of “God’s incomplete child.”
Meet Ben Hecht.
Ben Hecht’s Early Days
Born on New York’s Lower East Side on February 28, 1894, he was a son of Russian immigrants, Joseph and Sara Swernovsky, who within a few years settled in “middle America,” Racine, Wisconsin. Both worked in ladies wear. With dad manufacturing and traveling and mom selling, their precocious son did things his way. He read voraciously, was a violin prodigy by age ten, and two years later joined the circus.
Wait. Back up. A Jewish boy flinging and flying? His fellow boarders, circus folk, taught him to fly the trapeze with ease. At 12, Ben hit the road as an acrobat. He did graduate Racine High School, where he was to become its most illustrious alumnus.
In 1910, Hecht gave college a brief peek, but as he’d already “read the syllabus,” he headed for Chicago, where started his 10 plus years career as a journalist, first with the Chicago Journal, then the Chicago Daily News. Less than two years after his high school graduation, his muckraking poem about the Titanic disaster appeared on the front page of the Chicago Journal. Encouraged by Chicago’s literati, he started writing avant-garde plays and screenplays. The wild kid was flying at warp speed.
In 1919, after returning from Berlin where he spent a year as a foreign correspondent, he “talked” on Chicago’s wild side, in his daily column, “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” creating a new genre in journalism. “Hechtian” now meant crackling, taboo-breaking storytelling, rife with vivid observations of the urban scene, and the “human condition.” His grand intention was “To remove the mask from the world,” even if many were the product of his fertile imagination.
His first and most successful novel, Erik Dorn, the story of a newspaper editor, was Hecht’s entree into the world of the “a serious writer.” His “attack everything” mission pumped his rep as the enfant terrible of American letters and vaulted him into rarefied literary company, holding a treasured seat at New York’s Algonquin Round Table next to Thurber, Parker, and Herman Mankiewicz.
With the advent of talk film, Mankiewicz lured the boy wonder to Hollywood with a telegram:"Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots," adding, "Don't let this get around."
With his first success, the silent film Underworld, he soon became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He used his Oscar for Underworld, won at the first Academy Award ceremonies in 1929, as a doorstop. Yet, he also carped over the lack of honors and respect given to writers by an industry run by producers, “90% of whom” he described as “slow” and “ignorant.”
Hecht’s Jewish Awakening
In pre-World War II America, with the Nazi scourge and anti-Semitism rising, Ben Hecht jumped into history. By the early 1930s, he accurately foretold the horrors that would occur in Hitler’s Germany.
By the early 1930s, he accurately foretold the horrors that would occur in Hitler’s Germany.
Indeed, Hecht had little interest in Jewish affairs until the Nazis seized power. After 1933, Hecht became increasingly invested in anti-Nazi activities. His play To Quito and Back (1937) reflected his evolving point of view.
I had before then been only related to Jews. In that year I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes. – Ben Hecht, speaking of 1939.
At the height of his fame and influence, Hecht, the “non-Jewish” Jew, became conscious of his Jewishness. Somewhat “perversely," he "turned into a Jew." He and wife Rose moved temporarily from their artistic haven in Nyack, New York, to the Lower East Side, where Jews lived without pretension. They “soaked up Yiddishkeit” – but refrained from “hanging out” with their neighbors. At haute gatherings, his sparkling repartee now included Yiddishisms, especially curses. His pals believed he was merely indulging yet another eccentricity.
It was far more. For the next ten years, perhaps more than any other luminary, Hecht publicized the atrocities in Europe, joined in the quest to rescue his fellow Jews, and fiercely supported the militant Irgun Tzevai Leumi, whose intent was to force Britain to turn Palestine into a permanent Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
As Hecht grew increasingly vociferous over the Nazi scourge, he realized his was a lonely voice. He turned his biting criticism toward his fellow "un-Judaized” Jews who rejected their identity for fear of being seated at the wrong table, and were ignorant or apathetic toward rising anti-Semitism and the plight of their fellow Jews. Pen poised, he wrote a column about the "German Jew phobia," lambasting Germany (“a nation with a chronic case of halitosis") and "American Jews who preened themselves ... striving to become world citizens rather than synagogue recluses.”
He joined "Fight for Freedom," whose mission was to bring the U.S. into the war against the Germans, and wrote columns urging a moral outcry over the fate of European Jewry.
It was a September 1941 meeting with Peter H. Bergson and the underground Irgun, the military arm of Revisionist Zionism, that gave shape to Hecht’s mission. Hecht created newspaper ads to incite the public. One read "For Sale To Humanity 70,000 Jews Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 A Piece" (New York Times, February 16, 1943). Most notable was his article “Remember Us” which is widely considered the first generally circulated article exposing Nazi atrocities.
Of these 6,000,000 Jews [of Europe], almost a third have already been massacred by Germans, Romanians and Hungarians, and the most conservative of scorekeepers estimate that before the war ends at least another third will have been done to death.– Remember Us
Also in 1943, "out of frustration over American policy and outrage at Hollywood's fear of
offending its European markets," he gathered luminaries Billy Rose, Ernst Lubitch, Kurt Weill, Moss Hart, and wrote a stirring pro-Jewish pageant, “We Will Never Die,” which was performed at Madison Square Garden. The pageant, that toured five cities and included a performance at the Hollywood bowl, became a centerpiece in the campaign to create an American rescue policy after the failure of the Bermuda Conference.
In 1944 Hecht published his controversial analysis of anti-Semitism, A Guide for the Bedeviled. He defended his views and gained many enemies.
After the war, he continued his propaganda and fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Bergson group, including penning another major pageant in 1946, A Flag is Born, about the establishment of the State of Israel. It raised more than $400,000 for the American League For a Free Palestine (which supported the Irgun) but encountered bitter opposition from Haganah supporters.
The British as well, banned his works during the late 1940s and early 50s, in response to Hecht’s criticism of British policies in Palestine and support of the Jewish resistance movement.
Hecht persisted, but conflict was brewing. The Irgun was unsanctioned, and opposed by mainstream Zionist leaders who believed policy of the young State must reside under one umbrella.
The Death of Hecht’s Zionist Dream
It was the June 1948 voyage of the Altalena, an Aliyah Bet ("illegal" immigration ship), that brought down the ship and Hecht’s involvement with Zionism. Hecht helped organize the Altalena’s mission to bring weapons and immigrants to Israel. The immigrants were allowed to disembark, along with most of the arms, but the new Israeli government insisted that the Irgun surrender the remaining weapons to the Israeli army. When they refused, the Israeli government sank the ship.
The man who had become arguably the most effective propagandist the Jewish state ever had, withdrew from Zionism after the Altalena affair. Later, in his highly controversial book Perfidy (1961), Hecht acknowledged the death of his of Zionist dream. Perfidy, a gripping polemic, accused left-wing Zionists of collaborating with the British and the Nazis in an effort to prevent Jewish statehood, while betraying European Jews during the Holocaust. The story centers on Zionist leader Dr. Rudolf Kastner’s (among others) failure to rescue Hungarian Jews.
In 1953, the issue was dealt with in a long libel trial in Israel, where, two years later, Kastner was disgraced. On appeal, the verdict was reversed by a split decision, but not before Kastner had been assassinated in 1957. Perfidy remains a highly-charged source of contention among Jews and helped fuel anti-Semitic accusations that we were responsible for our own demise. Hecht’s credibility was put on the line. Was he unmasking history or re-writing it? One thing was clear: Hecht not only fell seriously out of passion with Zionism, he would do so raging his contempt.
Ben Hecht longed to be uncompromised, yet was tormented by living a life of uneasy compromise. And perhaps, this is why today, his star has sunk below the horizon, his true greatness a bit obscured. The great sadness was his inability to either commit fully or fully accept “greatness incomplete.”
Everybody who works sells out, usually more than their minds – they sell out their souls, their character.... – Ben Hecht
Ben Hecht: A Star of David
Hecht did more to help Jewish Holocaust refugees and the nascent State of Israel than most American Jews at the time. He galvanized a Hollywood that, much like today, was reluctant to stand up for “messy” causes – especially Jewish ones.
Hecht did more to help Jewish Holocaust refugees and the nascent State of Israel than most American Jews at the time.
For what he did for those he brought to task, for his stand-up action on behalf of Jews and the creation of the state of Israel in a time of apathy, he was a true Star of David. Hecht may have been much like the brilliant, restless child who desperately wishes to see himself above the fray but is too blinded by his own illusions, and the lure of circus midway to move beyond it. The tragedy was in his inability to own it all: his true triumphs, and his self-defined “failures.”
He loathed the Hollywood “system;” yet despite his immense power, did little, beyond scathingcriticism and blame, to change it.
He wanted to be taken seriously; yet he never did write the Great American novel, and the rest just wasn’t enough for him.
He became conscious of his Jewishness; yet his fierce attraction to the militant Irgun, may have also been in part, a metaphor, a way of venting his own rage over “selling out” his talent.
And when the “craziness” settled, and the new nation, no longer maverick, knew it needed tomature; to embrace a “system” of diplomacy, he picked up his marbles and left in a huff, enraged, and again, bitterly disappointed.
In a memorable interview with Mike Wallace in 1958 (six years before Hecht’s death), the disillusionments of a lifetime are painfully evident. Hecht, the cynic, seemed tired, old. Throughout his self-contradictions, an embittered man emerged, as he bemoaned Uncle Sam, the studio bosses, the Hollywood “trash” he’d written at the mercy of idiots (save for a handful of films such as Wuthering Heights, The Scoundrel, Viva Villa).
When Wallace asked what being a Jew meant to Hecht, he replied: “No more than were I a Kentuckian.”
Like his old friend, Herman Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht died frustrated, and morose. He would never know that in 1964, at his funeral service at Temple Rodeph Shalom in New York City, among the eulogists was Menachem Begin, an early Irgun compatriot who was to become a future Prime Minister of Israel.
In Gunga Din, co-writers Ben Hecht and longtime partner, Charles MacArthur, ingeniously re-worked their play, The Front Page, which saw several incarnations, including a film of the same name, and His Girl Friday, and set the standard for creative "re-cycling."