Hecht, Ben, 1894-1964

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1893-02-28
Death 1964-04-18
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

The Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe was a Jewish activist group led by Peter H. Bergson and Ben Hecht, among others; founded in 1943, the group publicized the extermination of the Jewish people ongoing under Nazi reign in Europe and pressured the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to take measures to save Jewish refugees.

From the description of Correspondence to Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel, 1943, 1946. (University of Pennsylvania Library). WorldCat record id: 155863432

Chicago and New York journalist, novelist, and playwright; Hollywood screenwriter; and Jewish activist.

From the description of Ben Hecht papers, 1879-1983. (Newberry Library). WorldCat record id: 56617479

Ben Hecht, writer.

From the description of Homage to Winkelberg: typescript, 1957, October 24. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122517878

Journalist, playwright, script writer.

From the description of Reminiscences of Ben Hecht : oral history, 1959. (Columbia University In the City of New York). WorldCat record id: 122527680

Ben Hecht, playwright.

From the description of To Quito and back, n.d. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122616235

Ben Hecht, screenwriter.

From the description of Nothing sacred : screenplay, 1937, June 12 - 18. (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 60744775

Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894, in New York, New York. While he was a child, his family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where he met his “first mentor,” the trapeze artist Harry Costello. At age 14 Hecht joined Costello as a trapeze performer in his traveling show. Hecht had little formal education, but was a voracious reader. In 1910, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin; however, having already read the required books, he left within the first few days, feeling that the University “had nothing to teach him.” He moved to Chicago where a distant uncle assisted Hecht in obtaining a job at the Chicago Journal .

Hecht’s career as a journalist, first with the Chicago Journal (1910-1914) and later the Chicago Daily News (1914-1923), influenced much of his later writing. Chicago’s streets, jails, courtrooms, and citizenry provided ample inspiration for Hecht, who wrote vivid, authentic, though not always pleasant stories about the city, always seeking “to remove the mask from the world.” Following World War I, the Chicago Daily News sent Hecht to Berlin as foreign correspondent. After returning from Europe in 1920, he wrote a daily column for the Chicago Daily News entitled “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” The column was highly regarded and established a reporting model for the human interest story that was widely adopted by later journalists. Covici-McGee compiled a selection of these reports and published a book under the same name in 1922. Indeed, the success of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago overshadowed the release of his first novel in 1921, Erik Dorn . Hecht’s straightforward language and style of prose led to federal charges against him for using the mail to send obscene material, with officials branding his book Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (1922) as “lewd, obscene, and lascivious.”

During Chicago’s eruption of literary and artistic expression between 1912 and 1922, Hecht was well positioned as a writer and contributor to the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among his friends were authors and artists, including Stanislaus Szukalski, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Pascal Covici. Hecht was a frequent contributor to and literary critic for the influential art and literature magazine The Little Review, founded by Margaret Anderson. Between 1923 and 1924, Hecht published his own literature magazine, The Chicago Literary Times . “Attack everything” was the guiding philosophy for the publication and as its chief-and at times sole-contributor, Hecht did just that, commenting on a range of topics from literature to politics. During this time, Hecht published three more books: The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives (1923), Humpty Dumpty (1924), and The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare (1924).

Hecht enjoyed his greater success as a playwright. The Egotist was first produced on Broadway on December 25, 1922. At that time, Hecht reconnected with Charles MacArthur, a writer and journalist he knew in Chicago. The two men formed a life-long friendship and a successful creative partnership. Their collaborations include the plays The Front Page (1928), Twentieth Century (1932), and Jumbo (1935). In addition to their theater pieces, MacArthur and Hecht collaborated on screenplays and film projects. Their play The Front Page was adapted into a movie of the same title on three occasions (1931, 1945, and 1974) and helped establish the newspaper film genre.

In 1924, Hecht left his wife, Marie Armstrong, and their daughter, Edwina (Teddy), in Chicago and moved to New York City with writer Rose Caylor. Hecht and Marie divorced in 1925 and Caylor and Hecht married later that year. They had one daughter, Jenny. While living in New York, Hecht published eight books, including Count Bruga (1926), A Jew in Love (1931), A Book of Miracles (1939), Collected Short Stories (1943), and A Guide for the Bedeviled (1944). A Book of Miracles was Hecht’s most highly praised novel; however, most of his books were met with little critical or commercial success. In 1940 he joined the staff of the publication PM, where he wrote a column entitled “1001 Afternoons in New York.”

It was perhaps with feelings of personal ambivalence that Hecht returned to Hollywood in 1941 to write screenplays. He was prolific and financially successful, usually working on more than one screenplay at a time and often completing a screenplay in less than two weeks. He wrote and contributed-often uncredited-to over 80 screen stories and screenplays. In addition to six Academy Award nominations, Hecht was awarded the first ever Academy Award for Best Story for the film Underworld (1927/1928). In 1935 he received the same award for the film The Scoundrel . Hecht worked frequently with producers David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn and wrote or contributed to many classics of the Golden Age of Hollywood including Scarface (1932), Gone with the Wind (1939), Angels Over Broadway (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), A Farewell to Arms (1957), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).

After Hecht appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview television program on February 15, 1958, Wallace and his producer, Ted Yates, believed that Hecht’s demeanor and outspoken opinions were well-suited for his own television show. The Ben Hecht Show debuted the same year, but due to its controversial subject matter, was cancelled after twenty-two weeks.

Ben Hecht died in New York City on April 18, 1964.

From the guide to the Ben Hecht Collection, 1924-1958, undated, (The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center)

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Subjects:

  • Nazis--Drama
  • Dramatists, American--20th century--Sources
  • Motion picture authorship
  • Authors--Interviews
  • Dramatists
  • Dramatists, Hungarian--Fiction
  • World War, 1914-1918
  • Deception--Drama
  • Novelists, American--20th century
  • Authors, American--20th century
  • Drama (American)
  • Screenwriters--History--20th century--Sources
  • Motion picture plays
  • Man-woman relationships--Drama
  • Espionage, American--Drama
  • World War, 1939-1945--Jews
  • Women spies--Drama
  • Motion picture industry
  • War correspondents--History--20th century--Sources
  • Motion picture producers and directors

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Chicago (Ill.) (as recorded)
  • Germany--Berlin (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Palestine (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Brazil (as recorded)