Ben Hecht was one of the 20th century’s greatest scriptwriters for the silver screen. He wrote – or had a hand in writing – the scripts for iconic films including Scarface, Barbary Coast, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind. As Adina Hoffman, the author of this wonderful biography of Hecht, notes, “The list is ridiculous for its range and quality.”
Born in New York and raised in Wisconsin, Hecht emerged from Yiddish-speaking America, rejected “the ugliness of the Jewish ghetto” and – like many second-generation US Jews – dissolved into the great American dream of assimilationism. Dropping out of college, he contributed to small literary magazines and only began writing commercial material when he discovered that he continually lived beyond his means.
Hecht morphed into the archetypal “brash, cigar-chomping, wisecracking” Hollywood writer, and settled in Manhattan where he met different types of Jews “without accent and not remotely connected to tailoring.” He had “Jewish non-Jewish friends,” but as he put it, “I became a Jew in 1939, aged 46.”
Hecht’s second wife, Rose Caylor – originally from Vilna and able to recite chapters of Marx’s Das Kapital by heart – was instrumental in persuading Hecht to take up his pen on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. For Hecht, it was his Yiddish-speaking family “who were under attack by the German murderers and the sly British.”
In April 1941, he wrote an article titled “My Tribe is Called Israel,” and received a favorable response from Groucho Marx and other celebrities. But he also heard from Peter Bergson, aka the Jerusalem-born Hillel Kook, who had followed Jabotinsky to the US in 1940. Bergson worked with Hecht to awaken American citizens to what was happening in Europe. Together they published advertisements in national newspapers, including “The Ballad of the Doomed Jews of Europe,” printed on a full page in The New York Times in 1943.
“Four Million Jews waiting for death
Oh hang and burn but – quiet, Jews!
Don’t be bothersome; save your breath
The world is busy with other news.”
As the author remarks, Hecht’s aim was to shock and infuriate Jews – and he did not mind whom he offended. But for the established leadership, Hecht was the bad boy of American Jewry, the usurper of their rightful role. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the veteran communal leader, regarded Hecht’s activities as totally counterproductive, and thought he derailed any genuine diplomatic initiatives. He regarded Bergson “as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler.”
Hecht and Bergson’s major project was to stage a pageant in March 1943, titled “We Will Never Die,” with well-known actors such as Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson at Madison Square Garden. Hecht rounded up acculturated Jewish Hollywood to take part, and the event tapped deeply into the emotions of New York Jews – 40,000 came to see the solemn celebration of Jewish defiance. A week earlier, Hecht’s opponents had staged a similar event, structured in a conventional fashion to include speeches from communal luminaries Wise and Chaim Weizmann, a resolution to President Roosevelt, telegrams from dignitaries, and the blowing of the shofar. That affair attracted only half the number of attendees as Hecht’s moving extravaganza.
The pageant went on tour and thousands came to see it. Yet, as Hoffman records, Wise managed to block its appearance in Baltimore, Buffalo, Rochester and Kingston, New York.
Hecht was initially uninterested in Zionism, yet he made the transition to supporting Bergson’s American League for a Free Palestine and Menahem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi. In September 1946, Hecht staged A Flag is Born on Broadway. With music by Kurt Weill, it featured the 22-year-old unknown actor Marlon Brando as “the gaunt and grim looking young Jew, David.”
With proceeds from this project, the SS Abril was purchased and sailed from Staten Island to Marseille, where it picked up 625 displaced Jews, two reporters and a photographer. Out on the high sea, it turned toward Palestine – renamed as the SS Ben Hecht. Captured by the Royal Navy, the ship’s human cargo was sent to displaced persons camps in Cyprus.
In May 1947, The New York Times ran an advertisement sponsored by Hecht titled “Letter to the Terrorists in Palestine.”
“Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts,”
Hecht wrote in the inflammatory, full-page letter.
Hoffman describes this as “a verbal Molotov cocktail” designed to inflame emotions; even Bergson was unsure about publishing it. Hecht became public enemy number one in the British press, UK cinematographers banned any film with his name on it, and he became a pariah in Hollywood.
Remarkably, Hecht never visited Israel. Ariel Sharon was asked as prime minister to bring his bones to Israel in 2003 by former members of the Irgun – to no effect.
Hoffman has penned an absorbing book. Hecht’s message goes far beyond American Jewry: Remarkable words from a remarkable wordsmith.
Jerusalem Post 19 April 2019