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In his new book The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (Purdue University Press March 2019), Julien Gorbach examines the life of great twentieth-century screenwriter, playwright, and activist Ben Hecht.

Gorbach treats Hecht’s activism during the 1940s as the central drama of his life. His new book details the story of how Hecht earned admiration as a humanitarian and vilification as an extremist at this pivotal moment in history, about the origins of his beliefs in his varied experiences in American media, and about the consequences.

Read on to see our discussion with the author about Hecht’s life, career, and legacy.

 


 

Q. Who was Ben Hecht and why is he significant?

Julien Gorbach: Ben Hecht was a legendary screenwriter, who was also known for breaking the silence in the American media about the Holocaust, and for his militant Zionism. He invented the gangster movie and wrote classics like Scarface, Gone with the Wind and Hitchcock’s Notorious. Hecht was a prolific reporter, novelist, and Broadway playwright. During the Holocaust and the struggle to establish the state of Israel, he was a major force as a propagandist. He became notorious, because of his inflammatory rhetoric and his partnership with Mickey Cohen, a Jewish gangster. Together they smuggled weapons to Palestine in the struggle for a Jewish state.

The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (March 2019

 

Q. How did Hecht find himself in the newspaper business, and what was the Chicago School of journalism?

Gorbach: He was introduced to the business through his uncle and quickly took to the work. I think it’s too simplistic to just dismiss Hecht as a cynic, though he was certainly influenced by the hardboiled attitude of other newshounds in his early days chasing stories. Reporters would do anything for a story and, given the fierce competition for scoops, would concoct more than a few. But Hecht’s cynical style ultimately reflected a strain of Romanticism. It was a dark view common among those who came of age during the Great War, the so-called Lost Generation. Like many who lived through the carnage of those years, Hecht developed a grim view of human nature and he looked back at the liberal Enlightenment-era optimism about mankind as naïve.

 

Q. How was he later influenced by the intellectuals, poets, writers he met in New York? Was The Front Page his breakthrough?

Gorbach: He came into himself as a dramatist in New York. In the 1920s one way to prove yourself was to write a blockbuster novel. Another way was to have a hit on Broadway, which is what Hecht and other friends of the Algonquin Roundtable crowd did. But New York was publicity-oriented, and Hecht found the city more superficial than Chicago. He famously said that he and his friends “were fools to have left Chicago,” but he knew most Midwest writers had to go to New York for their careers. The Front Page was a huge hit and made him famous. At about the same time, his 1927 movie Underworld launched the gangster movie craze, and he won Best Original Story for it at the first Academy Awards in 1929.

 

Q. How did Hecht get to Hollywood?

Gorbach: Hecht’s first hit movie was silent. When the talkies came in, writers were in demand. There’s the famous story about the telegram he received from Herman Mankiewicz, who said there were “millions to be grabbed out here, and the only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” For writers, Hollywood was almost too good to be true.

 

Q. What happened to Hecht’s artistic ambitions and political ideals in Hollywood?

Gorbach: He once said: “We didn’t write movies. We shouted them into existence.” This wasn’t so far off. The writer’s room was a kind of clubhouse, especially since so many of Hecht’s friends from New York also came to Hollywood. He did feel compromised as a writer in Hollywood, so why did he keep at it? The truth is that Hecht was polyamorous—a skirt-chaser. He liked women and ran around with many. His playboy lifestyle ended up getting a bit out of hand, and reached a point where he had a lot of work to do just to make ends meet, keeping up his lavish life with his wife and his affairs. He wrote some great movies but also doctored scripts, doing many uncredited, piecemeal jobs under the table. His time was not spent on novels, which back then, especially, was considered the only real measure of great writers. And he did reach a breaking point, when his personal crises with his marriage and career and the global situation with Hitler all kind of came together at the same time.

 

Q. How was Hecht prescient about the Final Solution?

Gorbach: Hecht wrote “The Little Candle,” a short story, after Kristallnacht occurred in 1938. No one took from the event that there would be a genocide. That was beyond the imagination, or as the historian Deborah Lipstadt put it in the title of a book, Beyond Belief. But Hecht’s short story vividly describes the Holocaust. Critics said it was a powerful story but Hecht had an insane idea—that the Germans would actually kill a half million Jews.

Julien Gorbach

 

Q. How did Pauline Kael establish Hecht as a screenwriting legend?

Gorbach: That emerged because of her debate with Andrew Sarris. The 1960s Sarris/Kael debate made film a serious art form for critical consideration. A major question was who is the true author of a film, the “auteur” or the writer? Kael said it was the screenwriter and pointed to Hecht’s groundbreaking contributions, saying artists like him made the movies great.

 

Q. How might Hecht be reassessed as a writer with a political legacy?

Gorbach: He remains a politically controversial figure, but his significance is his message, which remains especially important now, in the days of the Trump administration. All of Hecht’s work as a writer and an activist is shot through with his concerns about the “soul of man,” which is so fundamental to all the questions we face today about democracy. If we want to remain liberal and democratic, we have to remember what liberalism and democracy are about. We rely on people to be good, but why does the United States also tilt the playing field, for example, by favoring rural people over urban people with our Electoral College and Senate systems? What are the implications for democracy if people don’t turn out to be as good as we expect them to be, or aren’t as good in the ways we expect them to be? What are the implications of our darker nature, our tribalism for example, for our free press and our social media? What are the implications for our ideas of rights, like the Second Amendment, or for our treatment of immigrants and people of different backgrounds? Are we reckoning with the dark side of human nature realistically in our foreign policy, in the way we talk about questions of war and peace? What does our treatment of the environment, and other species, tell us of our nature? These questions are still wide open, and in Hecht’s day, there was more room for error about them. With nuclear weapons, climate change, and the other issues that we confront now, the stakes have gotten much higher.

 

Q. Do you feel a revival is due of his works in a play or movie festival? How might The Notorious Ben Hecht introduce new audiences to a writer in some ways ahead of his time?

Gorbach: This is in a way three books rolled into one. It tells the story of his Jewish activism, and the implications of that story for Israel, America and Jews everywhere today. It’s the story of a great writer who has never been properly understood or appreciated. And finally, it’s the story of “a child of the century,” a kind of wild tour through all these worlds of the last 100 years—Capone’s Chicago, New York in the ‘20s, Hollywood, World War II, etc. But altogether this is just one big story of an extraordinary life, with an appropriately dramatic arc and ending. I think when people read the story and learn who he is, they’ll appreciate him. But they’ll also understand and appreciate the message that he has for us today. In this book, you can hear him speaking to us, now.

 


The Notorious Ben Hecht is now available. Check out a free preview of the book.

Get 30% off when you order directly from the Purdue University Press website and enter the code “PURDUE30” at checkout.