When we think of Ben Hecht—and really, how many of us do? it’s because the college drop-out, turned Chicago Daily News reporter and then screenwriter personifies the early part of the 19th century. He was a war and crime journalist who went beyond writing and instead helped solve murder cases, along with the help of fellow newsman, Charlie MacArthur of the Chicago Examiner.
Indeed many people, including author Adina Hoffman know and love Hecht’s movies including such classics as Scarface, Twentieth Century, The Front Page and Notorious without even knowing his name.
“I worked as a film critic throughout the 90s, and it was only when I started to really involve myself in film history that I read Hecht’s memoir, A Child of the Century,” says Hoffman, author of the just released Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures (Yale University Press 2018; Amazon price $17.61), noting there is so much of Hecht’s DNA in the movies made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
But as Hoffman read more and more about Hecht, she realized there was more to him than a Jazz Age writer who overindulged in a variety of vices.
“I realized that his screenwriting was in some ways just the start of it,” says Hoffman, whose biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness was named one of the best twenty books of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review and won the UK’s 2010 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. “Maybe for him, it was the least of it. Hecht had multiple occupations—really preoccupations—and threw himself with gusto into being a journalist, novelist, playwright, a film director, producer, a memoirist, and Jewish activist, someone passionately engaged with the future of Palestine/Israel. I was fascinated by that multiplicity of his, by all the hats he managed to wear at once and with such incredible panache—even genius.”
Hoffman also deeply identified with Hecht’s desire to be involved in a serious if playful way with several realms at once and his having multiple job descriptions much as she does.
“At the same time, there are certain things that set Hecht apart from me in a very basic way: his political positions in terms of Israel/Palestine are approximately the opposite of my own, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge to write about someone with whom I strongly disagree on this front,” she says.
Though she’s spent much of her adult life living in Jerusalem, Hoffman did the majority of her research at The Newberry in Chicago which holds Hecht’s papers.
“He seems to have been friend or colleague or rhetorical sparring partner to or with almost anybody who was anybody in twentieth century culture,” says Hoffman. “I’d find myself in the course of a day reading these incredibly lively, funny letters and telegrams to and from everyone from David O. Selznick to Carl Sandburg, Menachem Begin, Katharine Hepburn, George Grosz, Sherwood Anderson, the gangster Mickey Cohen, Groucho Marx, and on and on. There are also marvelous photographs, drafts of his work, scrapbooks, objects—passports, pipes, letter openers, and even his first Oscar.”
Hoffman says one of the purposes of her book is for Hecht to be much better remembered than he is today.
“He was someone who played a central role in creating American popular culture as we know it, but he’s been almost completely forgotten,” she says. “I think people around Chicago and in the Midwest know more about him than most others. I got an awful lot of blank or confused looks when people would ask me what I was working on and I’d say a book about Ben Hecht. The full range of his accomplishment or accomplishments is something I’d like people to realize—and also the complex way that his Jewishness figured into the rest of it. Hecht claimed he ‘became a Jew in 1939’—which is to say, he became a Jew because of the Holocaust—but I totally disagree. Being Jewish was always a part of him, as was being American. And there was absolutely no contradiction in his being both things at once and in the most vital way.”
What: Author talk and book signing
When: Tuesday, February 19 at 6 pm
Where: Ruggles Hall, The Newberry, 60 West Walton St., Chicago, IL
Cost: Free and open to the public. Registration required.
FYI: (312) 943-9090; newberry.org