The Noto­ri­ous Ben Hecht: Icon­o­clas­tic Writer and Mil­i­tant Zionist

By – June 17, 2019

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.

Discussion Questions

Look­ing back at Holo­caust-era his­to­ry is inevitably an exer­cise in ask­ing our­selves what would we have done if we’d lived at the time. Julien Gor­bach takes us on a moral jour­ney through the life of a leg­endary Hol­ly­wood screen­writer. Ben Hecht’s body of work in film, fic­tion and jour­nal­ism is astound­ing. He invent­ed whole movie gen­res like film noir and the gang­ster movie. He wrote the orig­i­nal Scar­face and the Hitch­cock movie, Noto­ri­ous, to name just two.

His ear­ly career as a Chica­go crime reporter instilled in Hecht both a cyn­i­cism about human nature and an under­stand­ing of crim­i­nal under­worlds. Those sen­si­bil­i­ties col­ored his under­stand­ing of the Nazi threat and of how Jews should respond. Even before the final solu­tion was hatched, Hecht’s 1939 novel­la, The Lit­tle Can­dle, pre­dict­ed an inter­na­tion­al pogrom” and a Fuhrer’s order to mur­der Europe’s Jews. It was derid­ed as fan­ta­sy. But his sobri­ety about Nazism drove him to break the silence of the Amer­i­can media about the per­se­cu­tion and, lat­er, the slaugh­ter of the Jews. His resolve to ensure Jews could pro­tect them­selves drew him to mil­i­tant Zion­ists like Peter Berg­son, and to enlist the help of gang­sters like Mick­ey Cohen in the fight for a Jew­ish state.

Hecht dis­avowed his generation’s faith in cul­tur­al plu­ral­ism and took a stand in the debate over how to guar­an­tee the vow of Nev­er Again.” Hecht read the war as proof that Jews could not sur­vive by the rules the world made nor could they rely on the world’s great democ­ra­cies. Lib­er­al Zion­ists believed in the rule of inter­na­tion­al law, while Hecht and the Irgun believed in the rule of the gun.”

Hecht wrote that he spoke as nei­ther a Jew, nor a pro­pa­gan­dist but as an hon­est writer who was walk­ing down the street one day when he bumped into his­to­ry.” Some­times events of his­to­ry knock at our door, Gorbach’s biog­ra­phy of Hecht prompts us to think crit­i­cal­ly about how we will answer.