Called "the Shakespeare of Hollywood", he received screen credits, alone or in collaboration, for the stories or screenplays of some seventy films and as a prolific storyteller, authored thirty-five books and created some of the most entertaining screenplays and plays in America. Film historian Richard Corliss called him "the" Hollywood screenwriter, someone who "personified Hollywood itself." The Dictionary of Literary Biography - American Screenwriters calls him "one of the most successful screenwriters in the history of motion pictures."
He was the first screenwriter to receive an Academy Award for Original Screenplay, for the movie Underworld (1927). The number of screenplays he wrote or worked on that are now considered classics is, according to Chicago's Newberry Library, "astounding," and included films such as, Scarface (1932), The Front Page, Twentieth Century (1934), Barbary Coast (1935), Nothing Sacred (1937),Some Like It Hot, Gone with the Wind, Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights, (all 1939), His Girl Friday (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious(1946), Monkey Business, A Farewell to Arms (1957), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and Casino Royale (released posthumously, in 1967). He also provided story ideas for such films as Stagecoach (1939). In 1940, he wrote, produced, and directed, Angels Over Broadway, which was nominated for Best Screenplay. In total, six of his movie screenplays were nominated for Academy Awards, with two winning.
He became an active Zionist shortly before the Holocaust began in Germany, and as a result wrote articles and plays about the plight of European Jews, such as, We Will Never Die in 1943 and A Flag is Born in 1946. Of his seventy to ninety screenplays, he wrote many anonymously to avoid the British boycott of his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The boycott was a response to Hecht's active support of paramilitary action against British forces in Palestine and sabotaging British property there (see below), during which time a supply ship to Palestine was named the S. S. Ben Hecht.
He could produce a screenplay in two weeks and, according to his autobiography, never spent more than eight weeks on a script. Yet he was still able to produce mostly rich, well-plotted, and witty screenplays. His scripts included virtually every movie genre: adventures, musicals, and impassioned romances, but ultimately, he was best known for two specific types of film: crime thrillers and screwball comedies. Despite his success, however, he disliked the effect that movies were having on the theater, American cultural standards, and on his own creativity.
Hecht was born in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Hecht’s father, Joseph Hecht, was a garment worker whose specialty was cutting cloth to patterns. He and his future wife, Sarah Swernofsky, had immigrated to the Lower East Side from Minsk, Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire. The family language was Yiddish. The Hechts married on the Lower East Side in 1892 and Ben was born the next year.
The family moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where Ben attended high school. When Hecht was in his early teens he would spend the summers with an uncle in Chicago. On the road much of the time, his father did not have much effect on Hecht’s childhood, and his mother was busy managing the store outlet in downtown Racine. Film author Scott Siegal wrote, "He was considered a child prodigy at age ten, seemingly on his way to a career as a concert violinist, but two years later was performing as a circus acrobat.".
After graduating from high school in 1910, at age sixteen Hecht moved to Chicago, running away to live there permanently. He lived with relatives, and started a career in journalism. He found work as a reporter, first for the Chicago Journal, and later with the Chicago Daily News. He was an excellent reporter who worked on several Chicago papers. After World War I, Hecht was sent to cover Berlin for the Chicago Daily News. There he wrote his first and most successful novel, Erik Dorn (1921). It was a sensational debut for Hecht as a serious writer.
The 1969 movie, Gaily, Gaily, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Beau Bridges as "Ben Harvey", was based on his life during his early years working as a reporter in Chicago. The film was nominated for three Oscars. The story was taken from a portion of his autobiography, A Child of the Century.
From 1918 to 1919 Hecht served as war correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Daily News. According to Siegel, "Besides being a war reporter, he was noted for being a tough crime reporter while also becoming known in Chicago literary circles.".
In 1921, Hecht inaugurated a Daily News column called, One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago. While it lasted, the column was enormously influential. His editor, Henry Justin Smith, later said it represented a new concept in journalism:
- "the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter. His was to be the lens throwing city life into new colors, his the microscope revealing its contortions in life and death."
While at the Chicago Daily News, Hecht famously broke the 1921 "Ragged Stranger Murder Case" story, about the murder of Carl Wanderer's wife, which led to the trial and execution of war hero Carl Wanderer. In Chicago, he also met and befriended Maxwell Bodenheim, an American poet and novelist, known as the King of Greenwich Village Bohemians, and with whom he became a lifelong friend.
After concluding One Thousand and One Afternoons, Hecht went on to produce novels, plays, screenplays, and memoirs, but none of these eclipsed his early success in finding the stuff of literature in city life. Recalling that period, Hecht wrote, "I haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops. I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fit belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me."
Beginning with a series of one-acts in 1914, he began writing plays. His first full-length play was, The Egotist, and it was produced in New York in 1922. While living in Chicago, he met fellow reporter Charles MacArthur and together they moved to New York to collaborate on their play, The Front Page. It was widely acclaimed and had a successful run on Broadway of 281 performances, beginning August,1928. In 1931 it was turned into a successful film, which was nominated for three Oscars.
Novelist and short-story writer
Besides working as reporter in Chicago, "he also contributed to literary magazines including the Little Review. After World War I he was sent by the Chicago Daily News to Berlin to witness the revolutionary movements, which gave him the material for his first novel, Erik Dorn (1921). ... A daily column he wrote, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, was later collected into a book, and brought Hecht fame." These works enhanced his reputation in the literary scene as a reporter, columnist, short story writer, and novelist. After leaving the News in 1923 he started his own newspaper, The Chicago Literary Times.
According to biographer, author Eddy Applegate, "Hecht read voraciously the works of Gautier, Adelaide, Mallarmé, and Verlaine, and developed a style that was extraordinary and imaginative. The use of metaphor, imagery, and vivid phrases made his writing distinct... again and again Hecht showed an uncanny ability to picture the strange jumble of events in strokes as vivid and touching as the brushmarks of a novelist."
"Ben Hecht was the enfant terrible of American letters in the first half of the twentieth century," wrote author Sanford Sternlicht. "If Hecht was consistently opposed to anything, it was to censorship of literature, art, and film by either the government or self-appointed guardians of public morality." He adds, "Even though he never attended college, Hecht became a successful novelist, playwright, journalist, and screenwriter. His star has sunk below the horizon now, but in his own lifetime Hecht became one of the most famous American literary and entertainment figures..."
Eventually Hecht became associated with the writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Maxwell Bodenheim, Carl Sandburg, andPascal Covici. He knew Margaret Anderson and contributed to her Little Review, the magazine of the Chicago "literary renaissance," and to Smart Set.
A Child of the Century
In 1954 Hecht published his autobiography, A Child of the Century, which, according to literary critic Robert Schmuhl, "received such extensive critical acclaim that his literary reputation improved markedly during the last decade of his life... Hecht's vibrant and candid memoir of more than six hundred pages restored him to the stature of a serious and significant American writer." Novelist Saul Bellowcommented about the book for the New York Times: "His manners are not always nice, but then nice manners do not always make interesting autobiographies, and this autobiography has the merit of being intensely interesting... If he is occasionally slick, he is also independent, forthright, and original. Among the pussycats who write of social issues today he roars like an old-fashioned lion."
Ghostwriting Marilyn Monroe's biography
Besides working on novels and short stories (see book list), he has been credited with ghostwriting books, including Marilyn Monroe's autobiography My Story. "The reprint of Marilyn Monroe's memoir, My Story, in the year 2000, by Cooper Square Press, correctly credits Ben Hecht as an author, ending a period of almost fifty years in which Hecht's role was denied...Hecht himself publicly denied writing it until much later..."
According to Monroe biographer, Sarah Churchwell, Monroe was "persuaded to capitalize on her newfound celebrity by beginning an autobiography. It was born out of a collaboration with journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht, hired as a ghostwriter..." :77 Churchwell adds that the truths in her story were highly selective. "Hecht reported to his editor during the interviews that he was sometimes sure Marilyn was fabricating. He explained, 'When I say lying, I mean she isn’t telling the truth. I don’t think so much that she is trying to deceive me as that she is a fantasizer.'"
Film historian Richard Corliss writes that "Ben Hecht was the Hollywood screenwriter...[and] it can be said without too much exaggeration that Hecht personifies Hollywood itself." Movie columnist Pauline Kael added that "between them, Hecht and Jules Furthman wrote most of the best American talkies.":5 His movie career can be defined by about twenty credited screenplays he wrote for Hawks, Hitchcock, Hathaway, Lubitsch, Wellman, Sternberg, and himself. He wrote many of those with his two regular collaborators,Charles MacArthur and Charles Lederer.
While living in New York in 1926, he received a telegram from screenwriter friend Herman J. Mankiewicz, who had recently moved to Los Angeles. "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots", it read. "Don't let this get around." As a writer in need of money, he traveled to Hollywood as Mankiewicz suggested.
Working in Hollywood
He arrived in Los Angeles and began his career at the beginning of the sound era by writing the story for Josef von Sternberg's gangster movie Underworld in 1927. For that first screenplay and story he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in Hollywood's first Academy award ceremony. Soon afterward, he became the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood..." Hecht spent from two to twelve weeks in Hollywood each year, "during which he earned enough money (his record was $100,000 in one month, for two screenplays) to live on for the rest of the year in New York, where he did what he considered his serious writing," writes film historian Carol Easton.:173 Nonetheless, later in his career, "he was a writer who liked to think that his genius had been stifled by Hollywood and by its dreadful habit of giving him so much money."
Yet his income was as much a result of his skill as a writer as well as his early jobs with newspapers. As film historians Mast and Kawin wrote, "The newspaper reporters often seemed like gangsters who had accidentally ended up behind a typewriter rather than a tommy gun; they talked and acted as rough as the crooks their assignments forced them to cover... It is no accident that Ben Hecht, the greatest screenwriter of rapid-fire, flavorful tough talk, as well as a major comic playwright, wrote gangster pictures, prison pictures, and newspaper pictures."
Hecht became one of Hollywood's most prolific screenwriters, able to write a full screenplay in two to eight weeks. According to Samuel Goldwyn biographer, Carol Easton, in 1931, with his writing partner Charles MacArthur, he "knocked out The Unholy Garden in twelve hours. Hecht subsequently received a fan letter from producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr.:
- 'After reading your magnificent script, Mr. Goldwyn and I both wish to go on record with the statement that if The Unholy Garden isn't the finest motion picture Samuel Goldwyn has ever produced, the fault will be entirely ours. You have done your part superbly." It was produced exactly as written, and "became one of the biggest, yet funniest, bombs ever made by a studio.
Censorship, profit, and art
Despite his monetary success, however, Hecht always kept Hollywood at arms's length. According to film historian Gregory Black, "he did not consider his work for the movies serioius art; it was more a means of replenishing his bank account. When his work was finished, he retreated to New York."
At least part of the reason for this was due to the industry's system of censorship. Black writes, "as Mankiewicz, Selznick, and Hecht knew all too well, much of the blame for the failure of the movies to deal more frankly and honestly with life, lay with a rigid censorship imposed on the industry . . . [and] on the content of films during its golden era of studio production." Because the costs of production and distribution were so high, the primary "goal of the studios was profit, not art. . .[and] fearful of losing any segment of their audiences, the studios either carefully avoided controversial topics or presented them in a way that evaded larger issues," thereby creating only 'harmless entertainment' ".
According to historian David Thomson, "to their own minds, Herman Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht both died morose and frustrated. Neither of them had written the great books they believed possible."
- In an interview with director Howard Hawks, with whom Hecht worked on many films, Scott Breivold elicited comments on the way they often worked:
- Breivold. Could you explain how the day-to-day writing goes on a script?
- Hawks. "Well, when Hecht and MacArthur and I used to work on a script, we’d sit in a room and work for two hours and then we’d play backgammon for an hour. Then we’d start again and one of us would be one character and one would be another character. We’d read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could."
- According to film historian Virginia Wexman, "David Selznick had a flair for the dramatic, and no one knew that better than Ben Hecht. The two collaborated on some of Hollywood’s biggest hits – movies like Gone With the Wind and Notorious and Duel in the Sun – and often enough the making of those films was as rife with conflict as the films themselves..."
Nothing Sacred is probably the "most famous of all the Carole Lombard films next to My Man Godfrey," wrote movie historian James Harvey. And it impressed people at the time with its evident ambition ... "and Selznick determined to make the classiest of all screwball comedies, turned to Lombard as a necessity, but also to Ben Hecht, nearly the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood at the time, especially for comedy. ... it was also the first screwball comedy to lay apparent claim to larger satiric meanings, to make scathing observations about American life and society."
In an interview with Irene Selznick, ex-wife of producer David O. Selznick, she discussed the other leading screenwriters of that time:
- "They all aspired to be Ben. The resourcefulness of his mind, his vitality were so enormous. His knowledge. His talent and ambition. He could tear through things, and he tore through life. They'd see this prodigious output of Ben's, and they'd think, 'Oh, hell, I'm a bum.' I think it must have been devastating. Ben did it to MacArthur, who died in time to save his reputation. And I'd hate to have been Herman [Mankiewicz], caught between Kaufman and Hecht."
According to James Harvey, Ernst Lubitsch felt uneasy in the world of playwright Noël Coward. "If Coward could write his play for three particular actors, he reasoned to an interviewer, why couldn’t it be rewritten for three others? It was at this point … that he turned to Ben Hecht...to work with him on the screenplay for Design for Living." It was the only Lubitsch-Hecht collaboration. Harvey adds, "Though Lubitsch must have been reassured by Hecht’s taking the job. No writer in Hollywood had better credentials in the tough, slangy, specifically American style that Lubitsch wanted to impart to the Coward play. And together they transformed it."
Styles of writing
According to Siegel, "The talkie era put writers like Hecht at a premium because they could write dialogue in the quirky, idiosyncratic style of the common man. Hecht, in particular, was wonderful with slang, and he peppered his films with the argot of the streets. He also had a lively sense of humor and an uncanny ability to ground even the most outrageous stories successfully with credible, fast-paced plots." "Ben Hecht," his friend Budd Schulberg wrote many years ago, "seemed the personification of the writer at the top of his game, the top of his world, not gnawing at doubting himself as great writers were said to do, but with every word and every gesture indicating the animal pleasure he took in writing well."
"Movies," Hecht was to recall, "were seldom written. In 1927 they were yelled into existence in conferences that kept going in saloons, brothels, and all-night poker games. Movie sets roared with arguments and organ music."
He was best known for two specific and contrasting types of film: crime thrillers and screwball comedies. Among crime thrillers, Hecht was responsible for such films as The Unholy Night (1929), the classic Scarface (1932), and Hitchcock's Notorious. Among his comedies, there were The Front Page, which led to many remakes, Noël Coward's Design for Living (1933), Twentieth Century, Nothing Sacred, and Howard Hawks's Monkey Business (1952).
Film historian Richard Corliss wrote, "it is his crisp, frenetic, sensational prose and dialogue style that elevates his work above that of the dozens of other reporters who streamed west to cover and exploit Hollywood's biggest 'story': the talkie revolution.
He married Marie Armstrong in 1915, when he was twenty-one years of age, and they had a daughter, Edwina, who became actress Edwina Armstrong. He was divorced a decade later, by 1925. He married Rose Caylor that same year, and they remained married until Hecht's death in 1964. In 1943, they had a daughter Jenny Hecht, who also became an actress. She died of a drug overdose in March 1971, at age twenty-seven.