Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

From Literary Gadfly to Jewish Activist: The Political Transformation of Ben Hecht

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

From Literary Gadfly to Jewish Activist: The Political Transformation of Ben Hecht

Article excerpt

When Ben Hecht was six years old, he and his Tante (Aunt) Chasha went to the theater. A policeman on stage unfairly accused another actor of stealing, prompting an indignant Bennie Hecht to shout from the balcony that the policeman imprisoned the wrong man. Ushers brusquely escorted the boy and his aunt into the lobby. The annoyed manager requested an apology from Hecht's aunt. Tante Chasha hit him with her umbrella. "Remember what I tell you," she said to Bennie. "That's the right way to apologize." (1) Hecht remembered. He spent the next six decades flailing his enemies with a rhetorical umbrella.

After years of neglect, Ben Hecht's reputation is enjoying a revival, along with his plays. While Hecht's Pulitzer-Prize winning hit The Front Page and his breathless screen-doctoring of Gone With the Wind have remained popular, Broadway audiences have rediscovered Twentieth Century, which Hecht coauthored with his erstwhile partner Charles MacArthur. Meanwhile, the American Century Theater in Virginia recently restaged A Flag Is Born, Hecht's plea for Jewish statehood that helped raise over $1,000,000 in 1946. A 1990 biography by William MacAdams deemed Hecht "the most influential writer in the history of American movies, creating a new and exciting language for the screen at the same time that such writers as Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway were busy revitalizing the novel." (2) In 2002, the scholars David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff, in A Race against Death: Peter Bergson, America, and the Holocaust, praised "Hecht's flair for catchy slogans and eye-grabbing headlines" in the publicity campaign launched by Peter Bergson and his activist group, first to break the American silence about Germany's annihilation of European Jewry, and then to champion the creation of a Jewish state. Wyman and Medoff quoted Bergson's aide Yitshaq Ben-Ami, who claimed: "Our mission in the United States would not have attained the scope and intensity it did if not for Hecht's gifted pen. He had a compassionate heart, covered up by a short temper, a brutal frankness and an acid tongue. Once he decided right from wrong on any issue, he mobilized all his faculties to fight for his beliefs with righteous fury." (3)

"I think Ben Hecht's talent lay in his capacity to dramatize whatever it was that he touched," recalled Max Lerner, the venerable liberal who also worked with Bergson. "He could make a breakfast egg seem theatrical.... And by some merciful gift of history, Ben Hecht's talents became available for a cause like ours." (4) That dramatic flair was amply demonstrated in We Will Never Die--a 1943 pageant celebrating the Jewish contribution to civilization, which sold out Madison Square Garden twice before touring around the United States, and in A Flag Is Born, the 1946 play starring Marion Brando championing the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. A proud cynic who was denounced in the early 1930's as a self-hating Jew, Hecht himself was somewhat surprised to be working as a propagandist for Jewish causes. "I was an honest writer who was walking down the street one day when he bumped into history," Hecht would write in his memoirs, A Child of the Century.

At first glance it is difficult to reconcile Hecht the Hollywood bad boy and Hecht the Jewish crusader. His emergence in 1939 as a political propagandist for the Fight for Freedom committee, urging America's entry into World War II and the campaign to save the Jews of Europe, does seem anomalous. How could H. L. Mencken's fellow cynic in the fight against politicians, patriotism, and the "greedy little half-dead of the middle class" exhort America that it was "Fun to Be Free"? How could the man who viewed World War I as a diversion and the Great Depression as a party care about world events? How could the author of a novel replete with antisemitic stereotypes champion a Jewish cause? How could a thoroughly American, assimilated Jew find himself boycotted by the British for his advocacy of a Jewish state in Palestine? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.