A Child of the Century

  • Review
By – August 3, 2020

Ben Hecht always loved a good sto­ry. As a boy, the future screen­writer and colum­nist would stay up half the night read­ing books — not just any books, but Plutarch, Gib­bon, and Graetz; Shake­speare, Dick­ens, and Mark Twain.

He also loved to write, some­thing he dis­cov­ered he could do at phe­nom­e­nal speed as a news­pa­per reporter. It didn’t always mat­ter whether sto­ries were true. At the Chica­go Jour­nal he wrote a front-page sto­ry with the ban­ner head­line Earth­quake Rips Chica­go.” It was accom­pa­nied by a pho­to of a gap­ing crevice in the earth — a trench which Hecht him­self had dug. He helped pro­mote a real-estate swin­dle that involved sell­ing unin­hab­it­able real estate in the Flori­da Keys. He couldn’t resist spin­ning a good yarn.

This mem­oir is chock full of great sto­ries, replete with vignettes about Hecht’s expe­ri­ences and the peo­ple he knew. The char­ac­ter sketch­es are par­tic­u­lar­ly vivid and affec­tion­ate, espe­cial­ly his rec­ol­lec­tions of his own aunts and uncles on New York’s Low­er East Side. His lat­er rem­i­nis­cences col­or­ful­ly por­tray the van­ished world of bor­del­los and speakeasies in Pro­hi­bi­tion Chicago.

Hecht’s notes about soci­ety and pol­i­tics are less mem­o­rable. Pol­i­tics, he remarks, breeds the low­est type of thinkers.” Hecht looks at a par­ty and sees peo­ple inter­est­ed in noth­ings, con­gre­gat­ing as human orna­ments, glow­ing dis­ci­ples of con­for­mi­ty,” an uno­rig­i­nal obser­va­tion albeit exquis­ite­ly expressed.

About motion pic­tures, he opines that the per­sis­tent banal­i­ty of the movies is due to the vision’ of their man­u­fac­tur­ers.” Hecht wrote the screen­plays for six­ty-five films, many of them clas­sics for which he will for­ev­er be remem­bered. His con­tempt for his boss­es may explain why, sur­pris­ing­ly, he says lit­tle here about his Hol­ly­wood years.

Hecht does talk about the extra­or­di­nary per­son­al­i­ties he met there, many of whom he sketch­es in one quick, deft phrase. Ernst Lubitsch loved rhythm and pre­ci­sion in his scripts.” There’s the drawl­ing fash­ion plate” Howard Hawks, the wit­ty and Boc­cac­cian” Otto Pre­minger, the aloof and poet­i­cal” Vic­tor Flem­ing. These glimpses leave the read­er want­i­ng more.

Hecht nev­er made much of being Jew­ish until he met three Hebrew heroes” from Pales­tine, among them Peter Berg­son (also known as Hil­lel Kook), in 1939. From then on, he writes, I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jew­ish eyes.” See­ing the Nazi threat to Europe’s Jews, he staged elab­o­rate pageants at Madi­son Square Gar­den urg­ing U.S. entry into World War II to fight the Ger­mans. Nonethe­less, he lament­ed, the Amer­i­can­ized Jews stayed silent.”

After the war, Berg­son enlist­ed Hecht in anoth­er urgent Jew­ish cause: the Irgun’s efforts to smug­gle Holo­caust sur­vivors into Pales­tine despite the British ban on Jew­ish immi­gra­tion. He had no patience for David Ben-Gurion’s diplo­mat­ic for­mal­i­ties with the British rulers of Pales­tine, pre­fer­ring the Irgun’s guer­ril­la tac­tics for chang­ing the facts on the ground. Ben-Guri­on of course pre­vailed, and once again, Hecht’s hopes were dashed.

Yet those expe­ri­ences utter­ly trans­formed Hecht. The cos­mopoli­tan writer had become a proud Jew; the chron­i­cler of the human con­di­tion had become a man of action. That’s not the end­ing you may have expect­ed to his life sto­ry, but the clues were there all along. A Child of the Cen­tu­ry is an enter­tain­ing and ulti­mate­ly inspir­ing account of an extra­or­di­nary life.

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