Ben Hecht 1894–-1964
American screenwriter, dramatist, novelist, short story writer, journalist, autobiographer, biographer, and author of children's books.
Associated with both the Chicago literary renaissance and the Algonquin Round Table following World War I, Hecht later distinguished himself as the co-author of the popular play The Front Page. He also became the noted screenwriter of many classic films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious and Spellbound, as well as Scarface, Gunga Din, and Nothing Sacred. Hecht's work received critical praise for its realistic and snappy dialogue, often credited to his formative years as a Chicago journalist covering the city's colorful underground of gangsters, gamblers, pool hustlers, and prostitutes. Hecht later confessed to fabricating many of his stories as a journalist, which were collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His writing for the cinema earned him several Academy Award nominations, including two wins for Underworld and The Scoundrel.
Hecht was born in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father worked as a tailor and moved the family to Chicago when Hecht was six. Four years later the family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, so that Hecht's father could open a dress design shop. Hecht attended the University of Wisconsin for three days before abandoning higher education. He worked briefly as an acrobat in a circus before moving to Chicago. When he was seventeen Hecht began writing for the Chicago Daily Journal. He then worked as a columnist for the Chicago Daily News. During this period Hecht associated with other writers of the Chicago literary renaissance, including Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Maxwell Bodenheim, and Vachel Lindsay, and contributed stories to Margaret Anderson's Little Review. Heavily influenced by German Dadaism and French symbolism, Hecht also wrote several novels and edited the Chicago Literary Times. When the momentum of the Chicago literary renaissance slowed, Hecht moved to New York City, where he became affiliated with the Algonquin Round Table writers, including Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Herman Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz, who abandoned New York City to become a successful screenwriter, later wired Hecht: “Will You Accept Three Hundred Per Week to Work for Paramount Pictures? All Expenses Paid. The Three Hundred Is Peanuts. Millions Are to Be Grabbed Out Here and Your Competition Is Idiots. Don't Let This Get Around.” Hecht's first screenplay was Underworld for director Joseph von Sternberg, which earned Hecht his first Academy Award. In the 1930s Hecht earned a thousand dollars a day for his screenwriting, and he is rumored to have written the first draft of the screenplay for the film Gone with the Wind without ever having read the book. During and after World War II, Hecht became increasingly concerned with Zionist issues, particularly the Jewish Irgun, whose stated goal was to remove the British from Palestine. Because of his beliefs, Hecht's films were blacklisted in the United Kingdom, causing film producers to withhold his name from the credits and pay him considerably less money. In the 1950s Hecht hosted his own short-lived television program on which he discussed current events and cultural issues. He died of a heart attack in 1964.
Many of Hecht's best, albeit fabricated, journalistic pieces are collected in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. His newsroom experience benefited him further when he wrote his tremendously popular play with Charles MacArthur, The Front Page, which was often revived onstage and adapted for the screen three times. His first novel, Erik Dorn, displays the influence of James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and European Dadaist writers and concerns the spiritual malaise of post-World War I American society. His experimental satirical novel, Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath, enjoyed a degree of notoriety when it was declared obscene and banned by a federal court; noted attorney Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended the case. Hecht also published a sequel, The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare. Other novels by Hecht include the mysteries The Florentine Dagger: A Novel for Amateur Detectives and Count Bruga. But it was as a screenwriter and coauthor of The Front Page that Hecht was best known. His work for director Howard Hawks includes the screenplay for Scarface, and he wrote three films directed by Alfred Hitchcock: Notorious, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. He also adapted such works of literature as Gunga Din, A Farewell to Arms, and Wuthering Heights, and wrote the comedies Roman Holiday, Topaze, Monkey Business, and Her Husband's Affairs.