Ben Hecht: Hero of Israel and the Holocaust
F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Two new biographies — Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures and Julien Gorbach’s The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist — show that Fitzgerald was sometimes wrong.
Born on the Lower East Side in 1893, Ben Hecht soon moved with his family to Racine, Wisconsin, a small city with few Jews, and eventually ran away to Chicago. As a novice reporter for The Chicago Daily News, he learned not only the newspaper business, but what H. L. Mencken called the new “American language” — a blend of immigrant and black idioms, working-class slang, and the argot of the criminal underground. He also served a year as an American reporter in post-World War I Berlin.
After a decade in Jazz Age New York, Hecht left for the Hollywood of the new talking pictures, on the recommendation of a fellow writer who assured him that “there are millions to be grabbed and the only competition is idiots.” Hecht became one of the most successful screenwriters of the 1930s. His play The Front Page also became a Broadway hit and Hollywood movie success. He virtually invented the underworld genre, winning the first Academy Award in writing for his screenplay for Underworld (1927).
Though he never uprooted himself for Paris, the youthful Hecht was a bohemian, sharing the expatriate generation’s disdain for what Mencken called “the American booboisie.” His novel, A Jew in Love (1931), was a satire of American Jewish males’ sexual mores, and was a precursor of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Hecht was a “muscular Jew,” intolerant of weakness, yet his novel sometimes hints at ambivalent self-hating Jewishness.
A new, politically serious Ben Hecht emerged after the Nazis came to power. Hecht joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League (HANL). The League organized a campaign targeting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which failed, and a successful boycott of the Hollywood tour by Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. The League also battled racial segregation, winning the support of prominent African-Americans, including W. E. B. Du Bois. Local Nazis plotted to assassinate its leaders.
Hecht joked that he “became a Jew” only in 1939. This was just around the time he met Peter Bergson, the alias of Hillel Kook, a leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground militia in Palestine, which politically adhered to Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism. From 1937 to 1940, the Irgun organized unauthorized immigration to Palestine, then shifted to creating a Jewish Brigade to fight Hitler. In 1942, they changed emphasis to an all-out campaign to save European Jewry.
Combining Bergson’s clear-eyed view of the Jewish catastrophe with Hecht’s American media savvy, the two made a terrific team battling evasions and hypocrisy about the Holocaust. Hecht designed a publicity blitz using full-page newspaper ads, celebrity endorsements, mass rallies, and 1943’s Orthodox rabbi march on Washington, as well as We Will Never Die, Hecht’s star-studded pageant at Madison Square Garden. He also lobbied for the Roosevelt administration’s creation of the War Refugee Board.
There followed Hecht’s 1946 play, A Flag is Born, featuring Paul Muni and an unknown Marlon Brando, who played Tevya, a Treblinka survivor, who cries out about how the Nazis “made a garbage pile of my people.”
Proceeds helped finance the purchase of a ship, renamed the SS Ben Hecht, which made a 1947 voyage to Israel with 800 survivors. The ship was intercepted on the way to Palestine by the British, and the passengers were interned in Cyprus.
Hecht continued to support the Irgun’s violent campaign against the British until Israel’s independence. He was boycotted in the UK.
Both these biographies document Hecht’s vital role in challenging America to recognize the Holocaust, and Jews’ right to a state of their own. But Hoffman reads back into the Bergson-Hecht era too much of her anti-Netanyahu animus.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of ‘From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans’ (Africa World Press, 2015).