Ben Hecht always loved a good story. As a boy, the future screenwriter and columnist would stay up half the night reading books — not just any books, but Plutarch, Gibbon, and Graetz; Shakespeare, Dickens, and Mark Twain.
He also loved to write, something he discovered he could do at phenomenal speed as a newspaper reporter. It didn’t always matter whether stories were true. At the Chicago Journal he wrote a front-page story with the banner headline “Earthquake Rips Chicago.” It was accompanied by a photo of a gaping crevice in the earth — a trench which Hecht himself had dug. He helped promote a real-estate swindle that involved selling uninhabitable real estate in the Florida Keys. He couldn’t resist spinning a good yarn.
This memoir is chock full of great stories, replete with vignettes about Hecht’s experiences and the people he knew. The character sketches are particularly vivid and affectionate, especially his recollections of his own aunts and uncles on New York’s Lower East Side. His later reminiscences colorfully portray the vanished world of bordellos and speakeasies in Prohibition Chicago.
Hecht’s notes about society and politics are less memorable. Politics, he remarks, “breeds the lowest type of thinkers.” Hecht looks at a party and sees people “interested in nothings, congregating as human ornaments, glowing disciples of conformity,” an unoriginal observation albeit exquisitely expressed.
About motion pictures, he opines that “the persistent banality of the movies is due to the ‘vision’ of their manufacturers.” Hecht wrote the screenplays for sixty-five films, many of them classics for which he will forever be remembered. His contempt for his bosses may explain why, surprisingly, he says little here about his Hollywood years.
Hecht does talk about the extraordinary personalities he met there, many of whom he sketches in one quick, deft phrase. Ernst Lubitsch “loved rhythm and precision in his scripts.” There’s the “drawling fashion plate” Howard Hawks, “the witty and Boccaccian” Otto Preminger, the “aloof and poetical” Victor Fleming. These glimpses leave the reader wanting more.
Hecht never made much of being Jewish until he met three “Hebrew heroes” from Palestine, among them Peter Bergson (also known as Hillel Kook), in 1939. From then on, he writes, “I became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes.” Seeing the Nazi threat to Europe’s Jews, he staged elaborate pageants at Madison Square Garden urging U.S. entry into World War II to fight the Germans. Nonetheless, he lamented, “the Americanized Jews stayed silent.”
After the war, Bergson enlisted Hecht in another urgent Jewish cause: the Irgun’s efforts to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine despite the British ban on Jewish immigration. He had no patience for David Ben-Gurion’s diplomatic formalities with the British rulers of Palestine, preferring the Irgun’s guerrilla tactics for changing the facts on the ground. Ben-Gurion of course prevailed, and once again, Hecht’s hopes were dashed.
Yet those experiences utterly transformed Hecht. The cosmopolitan writer had become a proud Jew; the chronicler of the human condition had become a man of action. That’s not the ending you may have expected to his life story, but the clues were there all along. A Child of the Century is an entertaining and ultimately inspiring account of an extraordinary life.