Who was Ben Hecht? Film buffs know him as the hugely successful Hollywood screenwriter responsible for classics like Scarface, His Girl Friday, and (yes) Hitchcock’s Notorious. Jewish history remembers Hecht for staging elaborate pageants to rally support for Jews trapped in Nazi-dominated Europe. But that’s not all — he was also a newspaper reporter, a novelist, and even a confidant of gangster Mickey Cohen.
Historian Julien Gorbach makes sense of this complicated figure in a way that no other biography does. He addresses how a self-described “un-Jewish Jew” devoted himself to the cause of ousting the British from Palestine in the 1940s, and how a Hollywood legend could befriend a ruthless outlaw.
The biographer provides valuable background and starts by showing how the young journalist was shaped by the corruption of Al Capone’s Chicago, and by the violent competition between its newspapers.
After he was lured to Hollywood, Hecht wrote a novel called A Jew in Love, which was widely criticized as “Jewish antisemitism.” But something changed after Kristallnacht in 1938. The next year he was moved to publish an uncannily prophetic story called, “The Little Candle,” which foretold “the extirpating of Jews. Jews murdered in Germany, Italy, Rumania, and Poland…butchered and decapitated.”
The time for action came when he met Peter Bergson, who organized the rescue of Jewish refugees from Europe. In response to America’s ignorance of the advancing Holocaust and lack of aid to refugees, Hecht staged rallies and pageants that featured Hollywood stars and attracted thousands of people.
Near the end of the war, Hecht and the Bergson Group shifted their strategy towards establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, paralleling the efforts of Irgun guerrilla fighters within Palestine. In 1946 Hecht created a new spectacle called A Flag is Born, starring a young Marlon Brando. He also enlisted the support of mob boss Mickey Cohen, who — along with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel — helped smuggle arms to the Irgun.
In a peculiar coda to Hecht’s adventurous life, he decided to write Cohen’s life story. Although that never materialized, he did write a memoir, several film scripts, and hosted a television talk show in New York before his death in 1964.Gorbach suggests that Hecht believed people are basically barbaric, which may explain the lifelong fascination with bold outlaws — and, perhaps, his fabricated news stories, his marital infidelities, the irreverence of his screenplays, the wartime activism with Peter Bergson, and his friendship with a gangster.Gorbach brings extraordinary insight into Hecht’s life, with rich context and in unparalleled depth.