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.