A leading American journalist and playwright, Ben Hecht (1894-1964) became Hollywood's most prolific and sought-after scriptwriter of his time.
Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894, in New York City, although he grew up and attended school in Racine, Wisconsin, where his mother owned a store. On graduation from high school, he worked as an acrobat and then owned and managed a theater.
In 1910 he went to Chicago, where he got a job as a reporter for the Chicago Journal. At the time there were seven news-gathering organizations in the city, so the competition was cutthroat. Hecht proved himself one of the best at getting exclusives, although his methods were at least unorthodox. On one occasion he was sent by his city editor to get a photograph of a girl who had joined in a suicide pact with a married clergyman; of course, reporters from other newspapers had been given the same order. But the dead girl's mother and brothers barricaded themselves in their home and refused to have anything to do with the press. The newsmen waited all day with no developments, and the others left. Noticing that the family had lit a fire in their fireplace, Hecht secured a ladder and some boards, climbed up onto the roof, put the boards over the top of the chimney, waited until the resultant smoke had driven the residents from the house, dashed inside, and grabbed a photo.
But at the same time as he was establishing himself as one of the wilder members of a wild journalistic fraternity, Hecht had hopes of making a reputation as a serious writer. Among the literary figures he met and befriended were the leaders of the "Chicago Renaissance," Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Vincent Star-rett. He began to publish short stories in Margaret Anderson's The Little Review, the voice of the movement.
In 1914 he moved from the Chicago Journal to the Chicago Daily News, where he stayed for nine years, with a brief interval (1918-1919) spent as a correspondent in Berlin. It was during these years that he began to publish vignettes about Chicagoans, mostly the dispossessed and the downtrodden. These pieces purported to be about real people, but in his autobiography Hecht later confessed: "It was not my talents as a news gatherer that I offered my paper but a sudden fearless flowering as a fictioneer. … I made them all up."
Many of these pieces were anthologized in his first collection, One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago (1922), but by that time his reputation had been solidly established by his novel Erik Dorn, the first of 11. Published to wide acclaim in 1921 and soon snapped up for inclusion in the prestigious Modern Library, Erik Dorn, the story of a newspaper editor and his loves, now seems sentimental romanticism more like 1891 than 1921. Hecht published many more volumes of short stories and sketches (a total of 17), and his early reputation as a litterateur rested principally on them.
He also had aspirations as a playwright, completing The Egotist in 1922, and began to write screenplays, winning an Academy Award in 1927 for Underworld.
In 1928 he joined with fellow Chicago newsman Charles MacArthur (later the husband of Helen Hayes) to compose one of the major American plays of the 20th century, The Front Page. The plot concerns an addled leftist condemned to death for murder who escapes on the eve of his execution and hides in the pressroom of the Chicago jail. While an emissary from the governor seeks to deliver a commutation, the venal mayor and the sheriff hope to deliver the escapee dead to ensure their re-election. The subplot involves a reporter who is about to marry and leave for a lucrative public relations job in New York and his city editor, who wants to keep him in Chicago.
Yet the whole play is really about the Chicago newspaper business and, in an epilogue often appended to published versions, Hecht and MacArthur wrote that their intention had been to expose "inequities, double dealings, chicaneries and immoralities which … we knew so well," but that they had ended up with "a Valentine thrown to the past, a Ballad … full of Heimweh and Love."
It was very much a drame à clef, with the mayor based on a combination of Fred Busse and William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson, Jr.; the hapless leftist, Earl Williams, based on Terrible Tommy O'Connor who, sentenced to hang in 1921, escaped and was never recaptured; Hildy, the reporter, on Hilding Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who rose from copyboy to top reporter; and Walter Burns, the city editor, on Walter C. Howey, for whom MacArthur had worked on the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Herald and Examiner. Other acquaintances of the two show up in minor roles: Roy Benzinger of the Chicago Evening American appears as Bensinger, the hygiene-conscious reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
The great success of this play led its authors to Hollywood, where Hecht became the top script writer of the 1930s and 1940s. He won a second Oscar for The Scoundrel in 1935 and was nominated for four others: Viva Villa in 1934, Wuthering Heightsin 1939, Angels over Broadway in 1940, and Notorious in 1946.
It is actually impossible to assess the totality of Hecht's work in the movies because so many of the films turned out in Hollywood's Golden Age were the result of collaboration, with one writer providing the script idea, another preparing the treatment, and two or three or four others writing the screenplay. Hecht showed his versatility by working on everything from gangster stories like Scarface (1932) and Kiss of Death (1947) to sophisticated comedy like Design for Living (1933) to arrant sentimentalism like The Miracle of the Bells (1948). He himself said that he was involved in more than 70 films, but he kept no close count and the total may well have been more than that. He never felt, however, that cinema was a significant art. In his autobiography he wrote: "I can understand the literary critic's shyness toward me. It is difficult to praise a novelist or a thinker who keeps popping up as the author of innumerable movie melodramas."
It was in 1939, at the height of his fame and influence, that Hecht became conscious of his Jewishness and began a fight which lasted for nine years to help found the state of Israel. As he put it: "I had before then been only related to Jews. In that year I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes."
At that time he joined "Fight for Freedom," a group dedicated to taking the United States into the war against the Germans, and later began a column for the now-defunct New York newspaper P.M., urging a moral outcry against the fate of European Jewry.
In 1941 he became a supporter of and fund-raiser for Irgun Tzevai Leumi, the most militant of the groups in Palestine trying to force Great Britain to turn that nation into a Jewish homeland. So successful was he in his efforts that the British declared a boycott against him and his work.
In 1943 in the Reader's Digest he published the article "Remember Us," the first generally circulated exposéof what was happening to the Jews under the Nazis, and in that same year, working with Kurt Weill and Billy Rose, he staged the pageant "We Will Never Die" on Jewish indomitability at Madison Square Garden in New York.
After the state of Israel was established, he became one of its foremost supporters in America and raised funds for the young nation until his death. He continued to write films and, in print, turned more to non-fiction. Ben Hecht died on April 18, 1964.
Further Reading on Ben Hecht
Hecht's autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954) is the best source, although it is rambling and unfocussed. Other autobiographical works include Gaily, Gaily (1963) and Letters from Bohemia (1964). The best biography is The Five Lives of Ben Hecht by Doug Fetherling (1977), which includes as complete a filmography as readers are ever likely to get. Also worth mentioning is The Novels of Ben Hecht by Ronald M. Roberts (1970), although now few would agree that the subject merits a book.
Additional Biography Sources
Fetherling, Doug, The five lives of Ben Hecht, Toronto: Lester and Orpen, 1977.
Hecht, Ben, The Ben Hecht show: impolitic observations from the freest thinker of 1950s television, Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1993.
Hecht, Ben, A child of the century, New York: Primus, 1985, 1982.
Hecht, Ben, A thousand and one afternoons in Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
MacAdams, William, Ben Hecht: a biography, New York: Barricade Books, 1995.
MacAdams, William, Ben Hecht: the man behind the legend, New York: Scribner, 1990.
Martin, Jeffrey Brown, Ben Hecht, Hollywood screenwriter, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1985.