Ben Hecht: Fight­ing Words, Mov­ing Pictures

  • Review
By – May 13, 2019

Ben Hecht (1893 – 1964) was arguably the most mul­ti­fac­eted Amer­i­can writer of the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Some­thing of a boy won­der, Hecht began as a pro­lif­ic news­pa­per colum­nist in Chica­go and New York City, and then moved to Hol­ly­wood in 1927 where, accord­ing to film crit­ic Pauline Kael, he became the great­est Amer­i­can screen­writer.” Adi­na Hoffman’s con­cise biog­ra­phy has cap­tured Hecht in all his zani­ness and ver­sa­til­i­ty, and it is a splen­did addi­tion to the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty series of Jew­ish biographies.

Hecht won his first Acad­e­my Award for Best Orig­i­nal Sto­ry in 1929 for Under­world, and he worked on per­haps as many as one hun­dred and forty Hol­ly­wood films. These includ­ed Roman Hol­i­day, Gone With the Wind, Noto­ri­ous, Scar­face, His Girl Fri­day, Wuther­ing Heights, Stage­coach, A Farewell to Arms, Mon­key Busi­ness, and The Man With the Gold­en Arm. Hecht dis­dained Hol­ly­wood, how­ev­er, and believed he could have become a seri­ous writer had he not been seduced by its mate­r­i­al temp­ta­tions. The country’s movies, he said, were an erup­tion of trash that has lamed the Amer­i­can mind and retard­ed Amer­i­cans from becom­ing a cul­tured people.”

Hecht also wrote plays. The most suc­cess­ful was the Broad­way com­e­dy The Front Page (1928), which he com­posed with his close friend Charles MacArthur. In his spare time, Hecht wrote sev­er­al nov­els. The most cel­e­brat­ed was A Jew in Love (1931), for which he received no love from Jew­ish lead­ers. Hecht also wrote the best­selling mem­oir A Child of the Cen­tu­ry (1954).

For Hoff­man, an Amer­i­can writer who, since 1992, has spent much of her time in Jerusalem, the most inter­est­ing and impor­tant phase of Hecht’s life occurred dur­ing World War II — when, to the sur­prise of his clos­est friends and rel­a­tives, he became the lead­ing Amer­i­can spokesman for the mil­i­tant and ultra­na­tion­al­ist Zion­ism espoused by Peter Berg­son (Hil­lel Kook) and oth­er dis­ci­ples of Ze’ev Jabotin­sky. For Hecht, right-wing Zion­ism became the cause,” and he claimed that he became a Jew for the first time in 1939 when he looked on the world with Jew­ish eyes.”

Hecht’s new-found polit­i­cal pas­sion brought him into con­flict with Rab­bi Stephen S. Wise, the self-styled spokesman of Amer­i­can Jew­ry. The rab­bi abhorred Hecht’s attacks on the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion and resent­ed hav­ing to share the spot­light with this polit­i­cal upstart. Hecht, in turn, saw Wise as an admin­is­tra­tion toady and described him as a polit­i­cal fos­sil.” Hecht’s ani­mus toward Jew­ish estab­lish­ments extend­ed to Israel’s Labor Zion­ist lead­er­ship, and in 1961 he pub­lished Per­fidy, which was prompt­ed by the 1954 tri­al in Israel involv­ing the wartime activ­i­ties in Hun­gary of Rudolf Kast­ner. Hoff­man describes Per­fidy as a flam­boy­ant rhetor­i­cal shoot em up,” a book alive with the rage” that ani­mat­ed Hecht when it came to the Holo­caust. But the rage that Hecht direct­ed at the rulers of Israel (Hecht called them the Ben-Guri­on Klea­gles”) was unac­com­pa­nied by any famil­iar­i­ty with Israel’s his­to­ry and pol­i­tics. Hecht, Hoff­man con­cludes, seemed not to know that there were a great many things that he didn’t know.”

Hoff­man is unable to explain the roots of Hecht’s polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, just as the biog­ra­phers of Louis D. Bran­deis have been mys­ti­fied why a man who enjoyed con­sum­ing the hams his broth­er sent him every Christ­mas chose to become the most promi­nent and impor­tant Amer­i­can advo­cate of Zion­ism. These exam­ples demon­strates the truth of the adage that while America’s Jews might not have been a cho­sen peo­ple, they cer­tain­ly have been a choos­ing peo­ple in defin­ing their eth­nic and reli­gious iden­ti­ties — and their choic­es have been among the most inter­est­ing aspects of Amer­i­can Jew­ish history.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions