On April 18, 1964, the screenwriter, novelist and militant Jewish activist Ben Hecht died. In his day, Hecht was Hollywood’s highest paid writer, and in addition to the 65 or so scripts for which he was credited – including “The Front Page” and Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” – there was an almost equally large number on which his name did not appear, for various reasons, including “Gone with the Wind” and “The Shop Around the Corner.”
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Though Hecht said he had zero interest in the Jewish religion, during the Holocaust, he became a vociferous advocate for the rescue of European Jewry; later, in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, he was an outspoken supporter of the armed struggle against the British government in Palestine.
Ben Hecht was born on February 28, 1894, in New York. His parents, Joseph Hecht and the former Sarah Swernofsky, were both Minsk-born Jews who had immigrated to the United States two years earlier.
When Ben was 6, the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where Joseph, a tailor and designer, became partner in a clothing factory, whose dresses Sarah sold in the “Paris Fashion Store.”
Hecht graduated from Racine High School in 1910, and although he began undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, he left after three days.
Moving to Chicago, he found a reporter’s job with the Chicago Journal. That was followed by employment at the Chicago Daily News, which sent him following World War I to be its correspondent in Berlin. He also pioneered what would today be called a “literary journalism” column, about the lives of “real” people in the big city.
Beginning during these Chicago years, and continuing throughout his life, Hecht made a distinction between his day job as a hired hand, for newspapers or movie studios, for example, and the “high” art he wrote in his free time – for example his 25 novels and 20 stage plays.
The News fired Hecht in 1923, after he was convicted on obscenity charges for his misanthropic novel “Fantazius Mallare,” and he moved to New York. There, in 1926, he received a letter from his screenwriter friend Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote encouraging him to join him in Hollywood: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around."
Success in Hollywood
Hecht received the first Oscar for screenwriting for his first credited screenplay, the 1927 gangster movie “Underworld.” (He received six writing nominations, and won twice, the second time being for “The Scoundrel,” in 1935.)
Hecht became indispensable in Hollywood, and earned up to $100,000 a picture. But he always claimed to lack any respect for the industry.
As early as 1939, Hecht was writing newspaper columns about the German persecution of Jews, and after he met Hillel Kook, he became increasingly focused on the events in Europe. Kook, aka Peter Bergson, had come to the U.S. to do Zionist recruiting, but soon shifted his efforts to trying to stir up outrage about the Holocaust. It was under his influence, said Hecht, that he "turned into a Jew."
It was Hecht who organized and wrote the 1943 spectacle “We Will Never Die,” and he also wrote the texts of a number of provocative ads that ran in newspapers about the need to rescue Jews – not that his or the Bergson Group’s efforts had much success on that front.
In the years preceding Israeli statehood, Hecht became a militant opponent of the British, for their refusal to admit Jewish refugees to Mandatory Palestine. When he wrote an open letter, in which he applauded the shooting and bombing and robbing of British forces there, he found himself the object of a four-year boycott by the British film industry. This made him very proud, but in order to keep working he had to write under a pseudonym – and cut his standard fee in half.
Hecht died of a heart attack at age 70. His final screenplay was an adaptation of the James Bond novel “Casino Royale,” by Ian Fleming. When it reached theaters three years later, it had been transformed from a straight spy thriller into a comedy send-up of the genre.