In the early 1920s, Herman J. Mankiewicz (‘Mank’) and Ben Hecht were not very successful writers in New York. Then Mank ventured west, the first of what was to become an exodus of literary talent to the Hollywood movie studios. In 1925, Mank summoned Hecht to join him with an offer of $300 a week to write for Paramount Pictures: ‘Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.’ Hecht took his advice. Two years later he won the first Oscar for best story, for Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg (at that time screenwriting meant providing the scenario and captions for silent pictures). Mank’s younger brother, Joseph, followed four years later, also on a Paramount contract, and went on to write and direct movies including A Letter to Three Women and All about Eve, which won him two Oscars. Mank’s own career wasn’t quite so dazzling, but his work on the screenplay for Citizen Kane led to an Oscar, or half of one, and treatment in a movie about his own movie-making, Mank, which came out last year.
Hecht was by far the most successful of the three. Over the next quarter-century he wrote the screenplays for Scarface, Twentieth Century, William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Notorious, among very many others, and worked as a script doctor on movies including Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind and Roman Holiday. He helped create the gangster movie, the screwball comedy and film noir. Pauline Kael credited him with being responsible for half of the most enjoyable Hollywood movies; Jean- Luc Godard went further: Hecht, he said, ‘invented 80 per cent of what is used in Hollywood movies today’.
A Child of the Century, Hecht’s long, episodic, sprawling, picaresque, sardonic, bawdy, unreliable and intermittently riveting memoir, published in 1954, made a deep impression on me many years ago. ‘In suburban homes of the late 1950s within commuting distance of Manhattan,’ Geoffrey O’Brien wrote in the NYRB in 2019, ‘it was not unusual to come upon a paperback copy of Ben Hecht’s A Child of the Century.’ In suburban London homes in the early 1960s it was very unusual indeed. Hecht said he had managed to ‘anger the whole of Great Britain to the remarkable point of being officially boycotted (as if I were a one-man enemy country)’, and his memoir wasn’t published in the UK. The paperback I read must have been bought by my father when he visited America.
What struck me most at the time was Hecht’s account of his period as a Zionist activist in the 1940s (this, or at least his attitude towards British control of Palestine, had made him unpopular in Britain). My family milieu was very much North London professional-academic, and what was then called progressive. We were all admirers of Israel, as were the newspapers and magazines we read, the Guardian and the New Statesman. In the early 1960s, when I read Hecht’s memoir, the only support for Palestinians in the London press came from the romantic Tory Spectator, then edited by Ian Gilmour.
Hecht was born in 1894 on the Lower East Side to immigrant parents from the Pale of Settlement (in what is today Belarus). When he was ten, the family moved to Racine in Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan. They weren’t very devout and he had no particular sense of Jewish identity. Dropping out of the University of Wisconsin after three days, he walked straight into a newspaper job in Chicago. He learned there that ‘the leaders of causes were scoundrels. Morality was a farce full of murder, rapes and love nests. Swindlers ran the world and the devil sang everywhere. These discoveries filled me with a great joy.’ He describes his colleagues breaking into homes to steal pictures of murder victims, gives a detailed account of a public hanging, and without changing pace, introduces ‘the immortal Harry C’ who ‘futtered 25 whores in a single night in Minnie Shima’s House of All Nations. Reliable newspapermen had kept the score.’ Maybe so, although Norman Mailer said that Hecht was ‘never a writer to tell the truth when a concoction could put life in his prose’. In her new biography, Adina Hoffman claims he was ‘as voracious for words as he was for girls – which was saying a very great deal’. In 1915, he married Marie Armstrong, whom he described as the first ‘good woman’ he had known, though he soon left her and their young daughter for the journalist and actress Rose Caylor. They married in 1926 and remained together until his death in 1964.
At the end of the First World War, Hecht was sent to Europe as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. He saw in Germany, he later wrote, ‘all the inhumanity that I note today as history … except that I saw it then with a youthful delight for the preposterous.’ The brutal repression of the Spartacist revolt in early 1919 was less amusing. Hecht watched as more than two hundred manacled prisoners were marched to the Moabit prisons, and then heard them being machine-gunned. His dispatch was spiked by his editor: ‘Your surmises both wild dangerous to President Wilson’s work for just peace.’
Disenchanted with newspapers, Hecht moved to New York, where he hoped to become a real writer rather than a newspaperman. In his introduction to the new edition of A Child of the Century, David Denby compares him with Arthur Sullivan, who wanted to be the English Schumann and wrote many now forgotten symphonic works, while everyone remembers Patience and HMS Pinafore. Hecht didn’t become a great novelist or playwright, but he found that he excelled at screenwriting, which he despised. Although he made a great deal of money from the movies, he remained detached from Hollywood, living in Nyack, up the Hudson from New York City; when summoned to write or rewrite a screenplay, he and Rose would make a leisurely three-day journey to California by train in a private suite. He was a quick writer, able to finish a screenplay in a couple of weeks, and so never spent long on the West Coast. A Child of the Century doesn’t have much to say about the studios or the process of moviemaking or about Hollywood as a community, although his comments on its sexual mores have some resonance with the experiences of actresses today.
He was also politically detached. In the intensely partisan 1930s, he took no part, or even had much interest, in current affairs and didn’t mix with the Hollywood communists, most of whom were also screenwriters. Nor did he consider himself particularly Jewish, at least until 1939, when he ‘turned into a Jew’. That year he published A Book of Miracles, seven novellas about Jewish suffering and endurance. It opened with ‘The Little Candle’, which assumed that half a million Jews had already been massacred by the Germans. His publisher was alarmed by this ‘dreadful prophecy’, and one critic protested that he had gone too far: ‘Mr Hecht imagines that Europe actually decided to kill off the Jews – not many of them but all of them.’
Soon afterwards Hecht began writing a column for PM, a short-lived New York leftist paper, in which he warned of the horror facing European Jews and chastised American Jews for their timidity, or cowardice, in failing to speak out. One of his columns, in April 1941, was headlined: ‘My Tribe Is Called Israel.’ At this point, the US was still neutral, and Senator Gerald Nye could tell a Congressional committee that ‘if antisemitism exists in America, the Jews have themselves to blame.’ Hecht began to write and produce rousing pageants: Fun to Be Free, written with his frequent Hollywood partner Charles MacArthur, drew large audiences to Madison Square Garden shortly before Pearl Harbor, and starred Jack Benny, Betty Grable, Eddie Cantor, Ethel Merman and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, who tap-danced on Hitler’s coffin. Hecht also wrote propagandist radio plays and, in 1943, another pageant. We Will Never Die was dedicated to the ‘two million Jewish dead of Europe’ and told the story of the Jewish people from antiquity to the present. It was directed by Moss Hart, with a score by Kurt Weill, and had a choir of fifty rabbis, plus a cast of nearly five hundred, including the young Frank Sinatra. Huge audiences went to see it in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and the Hollywood Bowl. In Washington it was seen by Eleanor Roosevelt, who praised it in her newspaper column.
We Will Never Die led Hecht to Zionism, or at least to one wing of it. The movement had split in the early 1920s, less than four years after the Balfour Declaration, when Churchill (then colonial secretary) partitioned Palestine to create the Arab kingdom of Trans-Jordan, east of the river. Mainstream Zionists accepted this reluctantly; Vladimir Jabotinsky did not. He broke away to found a new group dedicated to rescinding or revising the partition – his supporters became known as Revisionists (the term is still in use today). He also formed the Betar, a uniformed youth group, which grew into the Irgun, an armed militia.
Although Hollywood had a Jewish drama of its own, Jewishness wasn’t openly expressed and Jewish themes were neither the subjects nor the subplots of films. Success couldn’t buy you access to country clubs and studios weren’t interested in ‘causes’. But Hecht has found his cause. His introduction came via Peter Bergson, the nom de guerre of Hillel Kook, who had come to America from Lithuania by way of Palestine. After Jabotinsky’s death in 1940, Kook formed a series of organisations to continue his work, including the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, although it wasn’t clear whether the army was intended to fight alongside the Allies or against the British in Palestine. The group’s members were denounced as undemocratic fanatics by the leadership of the American and World Jewish Congresses, but Hecht only became more vehement.
Along with his campaign to alert America, including Jewish America, to the catastrophe in Europe, Hecht was trying to gain support for a Jewish state. If the Jews managed to escape Europe, where should they go? Not to the US: Mrs Roosevelt may have been moved by We Will Never Die, but the policy of her husband’s administration remained the same. It harried the British about Palestine, wept crocodile tears over the war in Europe, and made sure that as few Jews as possible found refuge on American soil, while the State Department tried to conceal its efforts to keep them out in a remarkable display of official mendacity. In this respect, it was following American public opinion. Polls showed a strong vein of popular antisemitism and opposition to Jewish immigration.
If Hecht and his Revisionist friends were to find the rescued Jews a home in Palestine, it would be against the wishes of the Arab majority and what Hecht called ‘the sly British’, who were desperately trying to maintain order. In February 1944, the Irgun declared that it was at war with the British; a still more militant faction, the Lehi (known as the Stern Gang), pursued its own campaign of violence. As co-chairman of the American League for a Free Palestine – an ironical name in hindsight – Hecht was also an unofficial spokesman for the Stern Gang. When they assassinated Lord Moyne, the British minister of state for the Middle East, in Cairo in November 1944, Churchill denounced the assassins as ‘a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany’ and came close to forswearing his lifelong support for Zionism. Hecht’s response was to write a satirical play, performed at Carnegie Hall, mocking Churchill as a false friend to the Jews.
After the war ended, Irgun violence increased. In 1946, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was blown up, killing 91 people, while the Irgun and Sternists raided military bases and attacked trains, in a campaign modelled on the IRA’s in 1919-21 (Yitzhak Shamir, the Sternist leader who ordered Moyne’s assassination, used the code name ‘Michael’, in homage to Michael Collins). In May 1947, Hecht placed an advertisement in two New York newspapers, apostrophising the Irgun:
My brave friends … The Jews of America are with you. You are their champions. You are the grin they wear … Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British train sky high, or rob a British bank or let go with your guns and bombs at the British invaders and betrayers of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts.
It was headlined: ‘Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine.’ Weeks later, when the Irgun captured two British sergeants and hanged them as a reprisal for the execution of three Irgun fighters, reporters rang Hecht to ask if there was a holiday in his heart. Even Bergson thought the ad was too much, and was still less impressed when Hecht enlisted the help of Mickey Cohen, a well-known mobster. Herman Mankiewicz summed it up: ‘You see, six years ago Ben found out that he was a Jew, and now he behaves like a six-year-old Jew.’ Hecht continued his scriptwriting throughout. At the time the ad appeared, Notorious, with Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of a Nazi spy and Cary Grant as her handler, was showing in British cinemas.
Frantic efforts were now being made to smuggle Jews into Palestine. One of the boats intercepted by the Royal Navy was the Ben Hecht, bought with the proceeds of Hecht’s play A Flag Is Born, which opened on Broadway in 1946 with a cast including Paul Muni and Marlon Brando. After the United Nations proposed the partition of Palestine in late 1947, the Attlee government decided to leave the inhabitants to find a solution. In a bitter war, the Zionists – Israelis once the state was proclaimed in May 1948 – acquired four-fifths of Mandatory Palestine by force of arms, rather than the 55 per cent the UN had proposed, and drove out three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs. At the same time, the conflict that had been smouldering between the leader of the Jews in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, and the Revisionists intensified.
In June 1948 a ship, renamed the Altalena after one of Jabotinsky’s many pen-names, sailed towards Tel Aviv carrying arms for the Irgun. It had already tried to offload weapons at the village of Kfar Vitkin, but Ben-Gurion had refused entry. There was a stand-off, with fatalities on both sides, and Menachem Begin, the Irgun leader, ordered the Altalena to move on to Tel Aviv, where he had more supporters. What happened next is a story most Israelis, if few others, still know (Israeli columnists sometimes say that ‘the Palestinians need their Altalena moment’). Ben Gurion insisted on the absolute authority of the fledgling state and ordered the newly formed Israeli Defence Forces to open fire on the ship. In his memoir, Hecht relays the story as cinematic melodrama: ‘And in the bows of the Altalena,’ he writes, ‘stood Abrasha Stavsky,’ a formidable Revisionist organiser:
Stavsky remained standing where he was. But he turned his back to the shooting … with his back still turned to the firing squads with the Hebrew flag over their heads, [he] watched the Altalena burning … He went down full of Jewish bullets. But I’ll write no more of Palestine. I turned my back on it the same time Abrasha Stavsky did.
Hecht was as good as his word. He took no further part in the Zionist movement.
He remained staunch in his defence of it, however. When the UN representative Folke Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by Stern Gang gunmen three months later, Hecht told the press he was ‘an ass not worthy of so fine a death’, adding that if Palestine had been partitioned as Bernadotte had wanted, the new state would have been little more than ‘Miami Beach’. If only the arms from the Altalena had come ashore, Hecht wrote, they would have enabled ‘an army of victorious young Hebrews to sweep through Eretz-Israel and win the land on both sides of the Jordan! … an Irgun army of Israel’s youth would have swept into Trans-Jordan. It would have kicked over another half-dozen British-Arabian suburbs and established an Israel worth looking at.’ What he meant is that they could have completed the job begun in Jaffa, Lydda (now Lod) and elsewhere, by expelling all the Palestinian inhabitants.
By the time A Child of the Century appeared in 1954, this possibility had become remote. Even before the war, the word ‘fascist’ had been applied to Jabotinsky, the Revisionists and Irgun by their Zionist opponents; in 1947 Kurt Weill – Hecht’s composer for We Will Never Die – visited Palestine and wrote to his wife, Lotte Lenya, that Tel Aviv was ‘a very ugly city with a Jewish-fascist population that makes you vomit’. In late 1948, when Begin visited New York, a group of prominent Jews, including Einstein, Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook, published a letter in the New York Times comparing Begin’s Herut Party (the latest manifestation of Revisionism) with ‘Nazi and Fascist Parties … until recently they openly preached the doctrine of the Fascist state.’ Hecht died in 1964 at the age of seventy, depressed by the failure of his cause. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been. In 1977, Begin became prime minister of Israel. His successor was ‘Michael’, Yitzhak Shamir, the former leader of the Stern Gang.