Ben Hecht, political activist, revealed in new biography

‘Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures’ by Adina Hoffman, 264 pages, $26, Yale University Press

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

The most recent biography in Yale University’s Jewish Lives series is “Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures,”written by Adina Hoffman, an award-winning essayist and biographer and former film critic for the American Prospect and the Jerusalem Post.

Previous Hecht biographies have focused primarily on his Hollywood screenwriting career. In a span of four decades, Hecht worked on about 200 movies, including such classics as “Scarface,” “The Front Page,” “Spellbound,” “Notorious,” “His Girl Friday” and “Gone With the Wind.”  

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, called him “the greatest American screenwriter,” and Jean-Luc Godard, noted French-Swiss director, called Hecht “a genius who invented 80% of what is used in Hollywood movies today.”

In her brief biography of Hecht, Hoffman accomplishes what the bulk of Hecht’s biographers have failed to do: emphasize his politics. In a book of 220 pages Hoffman allots 50 pages to Hecht’s film and theater career, and the remainder to his political activities. It is Hoffman’s willingness to explore Hecht’s foray into politics and his previously “unchartered Jewish side” that makes this biography different and interesting.

Hoffman conducted careful research, primarily at the Newberry Library in Chicago where Hecht’s papers are located. She studied numerous letters, telegrams, drafts of his work, photographs and a memoir that she said gave her deep insight and understanding of her subject. During his early journalism careerat the Chicago Daily News, Hecht carefully eschewed politics, once declaring that all politicians were corruptand that “do-gooders” should not be taken too seriously. Hecht’s metamorphosis is a major focus of Hoffman’s compelling biography.

As a result of her research at the Newberry, Hoffman had a better understanding of the history of the movie industry in the United States and the roles Jews played in its history. Most of the Hollywood studios were run by sons of immigrants from Eastern Europewho hesitated to identify themselves as Jews and were deeply concerned about anti-Semitic accusations that their ultimate goal was to control the country. Since many were German Jews, they hesitated to “take on Hitler” and had absolutely no interest in Zionism. Hecht, like many of his Hollywood friends, downplayed his Jewish roots until 1939 after Germany invaded Poland, the act that launched World War II. At that moment, Hoffman wrote of Hecht:

“It was as if Germany’s invasion of Poland had somehow altered his DNA. He not only separated himself from the Jewish movie moguls, he fiercely advocated helping Jews escape the atrocities of the coming Holocaust.”

In the early 1940s, a young Zionist Jew from Palestine, Peter Bergson, came to the United States to persuade Hecht to help him create a Jewish army against Hitler. Bergson was a member of the Irgun, a right-wing Zionist paramilitary organization founded during the British Mandate of Palestine in 1931. 

The Irgun carried out violent attacks on Arabs and the British in its campaign to establish a Jewish State. Although the Irgunwas opposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the State Department, Hecht became affiliated with this Revisionist Zionist movement. He eagerly helped Bergson and his followers raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their cause and went so far as to concur with the Irgun’swillingness to kill British soldiers. The British retaliated by banning Hecht’s pictures for four years.

This book leaves one major question unanswered: Why would a talented, well-known screenwriter cut short a career for activism? This question is never really answeredso the actual answer will have to be decided by the reader. 

In 1954, 10 years prior to his death, Hecht published his autobiography, “A Child of the Century,” devoting twice as many pages to his activism as to Hollywood. He never gave a reason and Hoffman can only speculate. The autobiography is where the author ends her last chapter.

The result of Hoffman’s determined research is a well-written, entertaining, succinct, unbiased book about a fearless Jewish American advocate, who was a multitalented individual who never considered himself a celebrity.