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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 854

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This is the grave of Ben Hecht.

Born in New York City in 1894, Hecht grew up as part of the Jewish working class. His parents were both immigrants who worked in the garment trade like so many other recent immigrants from eastern Europe. The family was slightly unusual in that they left New York while Ben was still a child and moved to Racine, Wisconsin. Not sure why. His father may have been a traveling salesman but in any case was not at home much and his mother managed a department store in Racine. Anyway, Hecht was interested in literature and acting and performance from the time he was a young boy. He was seen as a violin prodigy by the time he was 10 and then by the time he was 12, performed as an acrobat in a circus. He graduated from high school in 1910 and went to the University of Wisconsin. That lasted for….three days. He forgot about college and instead moved to Chicago to work as a journalist and have fun. He had spent a bunch of time down there as a kid in the summers so he knew the town.

Hecht was almost immediately successful as a journalist. Funny and witty, he could work a room. He became especially known for his crime reporting. By 1918, he was the war correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Daily News. His pioneering daily column, started in 1921, “One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” was an enormously popular undertaking that focused on the intrepid reporter interpreting the crazy stories of the city for the general public. He did this for two years and then started his own newspaper.

All of this led to significant literary ambitions and by the 1930s, Hecht was pursuing these full-time. He had always written plays, going back to at least 1914. His novel Erik Dorn, about his time in Berlin, was published in 1921, though not to great acclaim evidently. He and his good friend from the Chicago newsrooms Charles MacArthur began working on plays together. They decided to move to New York to see if they could make it work. They did, with the fantastic The Front Page, which started on Broadway in 1928 before being made into a film in 1931, the first of many adaptations. That convinced both of them to go to Hollywood. There, Hecht became perhaps the most successful screenwriter of the next two decades, sometimes with MacArthur, sometimes solo. He had started writing screenplays in 1927, for Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld. He was pissed at Von Sternberg for changing a line in the script and briefly demanded his name be taken off the credits, but he changed his mind. Good move, since he won the first ever Oscar for Best Screenplay. Then of course there was The Front Page. He wrote Howard Hawks’ great film Scarface in 1932 and then Twentieth Century for Hawks (with MacArthur) in 1934. This was just great dialogue, the most classic of the early talking period. He went to write Viva Villa (directed by Hawks) in 1934, Barbary Coast (Hawks) in 1935, Nothing Sacred (William Wellman) in 1938, Gunga Din (George Stevens) in 1939, Wuthering Heights (William Wyler) in 1939, It’s A Wonderful World (W.S. Van Dyke) in 1939, Angels over Broadway (directed by Hecht himself) in 1940, Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock) in 1945, Notorious (Hitchcock) in 1946, and Monkey Business (Hawks) in 1952. Moreover, he worked on a lot of scripts where he received no credit, including Gone With the Wind, The Shop Around the Corner, Foreign Correspondent, His Girl Friday (a rework of The Front Page), The Sun Also Rises, Casino Royale, and a lot of other movies. So, yeah I guess that’s a run of important films!

Now, Hecht believed that Hollywood had ruined him. In a sense, this is probably true. He did not ever write a great novel or play, outside of The Front Page. He knew why–he could make so much money so fast writing screenplays that why would he not do that? He decamped for Hollywood for a couple of months each year, wrote a couple of screenplays, earn tens of thousands of dollars, and live the high life in New York. Sounds pretty good to me actually. In addition to winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1927, he also won for The Scoundrel in 1935 and was nominated for Viva Villa in 1934, Wuthering Heights in 1939, Angels over Broadway in 1940, and Notorious in 1946. Something called The Seventh Veil won in 1946 and while I know nothing about it, I have trouble believing it a better script than my favorite Hitchcock film.

In 1954, Hecht published his autobiography. A Child of the Century was released to huge acclaim, perhaps more than anything he had done in decades. Because of the medium in which he worked, Hecht didn’t get the kind of serious literary attention that he would have if he hadn’t written for Hollywood. So this autobiography, reminding the world of just how skilled he was with words, led to a reassessment of his value in his late life. Among his other projects late in life was ghostwriting Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography. Not published until 1974, it’s a pretty sketchy account of her life. Hecht believed she was lying to him about nearly everything.

Hecht also engaged in a good bit of political activism. Although he claimed to have never experienced anti-Semitism (it’s really hard to see how this is true), he was active in a lot of anti-racist causes, including organizing campaigns against the KKK while he was still working on the Chicago papers in the 1920s. He worked with Black artists and journalists in Chicago openly, promoting their work in his columns. He also wrote The Negro Soldier for Frank Capra as part of the World War II national propaganda effort. For years, he was an entirely secular Jew with no interest in Zionism, which he seems to have seen as backward. But like many American Jews, World War II changed his perspective on these issues and he became an ardent Zionist after the war. He became so ardent that he wrote openly encouraging Jewish violence against both Palestinian and the British and wrote a play starring Marlon Brando lionizing the Jewish underground effort in the Middle East, donating all the proceeds to getting Jews from Europe to Palestine. This all had a real impact on his career, leading British film worker unions to refuse to show or distribute any film he worked on. This is part of the reason he wrote without credit a lot after World War II. The money mattered more to him than the credit.

When Hecht died in 1964, Menachem Begin came to the U.S. to speak at his funeral. Hecht was 71 years old when he died.

Ben Hecht is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

This grave post was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other winners of Best Screenplay, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Brackett, who won in 1950 for Sunset Boulevard and 1953 for Titanic, is in Saratoga Springs, New York. Budd Schulberg, who won in 1954 for On the Waterfront, is in Westhampton, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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