I highly recommend the recent movie Mank, which now can be found on Netflix. It is the story of the writer Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of the screenplay Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Before heading out to Hollywood, Mankiewicz had established himself as a much-acclaimed writer. Mank (as he was called by most of his friends) had been a foreign correspondent in Berlin for the Chicago Tribune, a drama critic for the New York Times, and the first regular drama critic for The New Yorker magazine. He battled alcoholism all his adult life.
He was lured to Hollywood by the money. In a hyperbolic telegram to Ben Hecht conveying to him an offer at a job as a screenwriter for Paramount, Mankiewicz asks him: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
If there is one fault in Mank, the movie, it is the limited role of Hecht, who is always seen in a talented group of screenwriters, but never one-on-one with Mankiewicz. They were close friends, and Hecht had the utmost admiration for Mankiewicz, whom he alone called Manky. Here is what Hecht wrote about Manky in his memoir, A Child of The Century:
“I have sat in a room filled with writers of every kind and there was only one to whom we listened—Manky”
“Beside Manky, the famous people among whom he buzzed all his life like a hornet or gadfly seemed pale-minded.”
Recently I have been reading vignettes from Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” a compilation of some of Hecht’s daily newspaper columns written in 1921 and 1922 for the Chicago Daily News. I keep on finding words and phrases from these near century old columns that have pretty much passed out of usage today in both conversation and writing. I would like to share ten of these and their meanings with you. How many of these are you familiar with?
ballyhoo- a noisy attention-getting demonstration or talk.
bounder- a man of objectionable social behavior.
bunk- insincere or foolish talk; nonsense.
four-flush- to make a false claim.
frowzy- having a slovenly appearance.
galumphing- moving with a clumsy heavy tread.
gewgaw- a showy trifle; trinket
his nobs- a man of importance, used in a derisively mocking way.
juniper juice- gin (the liquor).
wigwag- to make a signal (as by waving a hand or arm).
“ I have lived in a dozen worlds, as few writers do, and I have been different people in these worlds. I have enjoyed them as if I were a denizen and not a visiting exile.”
Preface to A Treasury of Ben Hecht (1945)
“ I have lived in other cities but been inside only one. I knew Chicago’s thirty-two feet of intestines. Only newspapermen ever achieve this bug-in-a-rug citizenship.”
A Child of the Century (1954)
“ I once wore all the windows of Chicago and all its doorways on a key ring. Saloons, mansions, alleys, courtrooms, depots, factories, hotels, police cells, the lake front, the roof tops and the sidewalks were my haberdashery.”
A Child of the Century (1954)
I am pleased to announce that once again I will be teaching a seminar on Ben Hecht’s book “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” at the Newberry Library in three Tuesday evening sessions, starting March 24 and ending April 7, from 5:45 to 7:45. The sixty-four incredibly imaginative sketches in the book capture the heart and soul of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape during the early 1920s. Online registration opens at 9 am (CST) on Tuesday, January 7 at http://www.newberry.org/seminar-schedule.
One of the least known aspects of Ben Hecht’s amazing career, was his stint as a host of a late-night television interview show which was only aired locally on the ABC network in New York City in 1958-59. It was produced by Mike Wallace, who already had a successful interview show running on ABC at that time. Hecht’s show was brilliant and controversial. He launched it with an interview with advertising executive Robert Foreman where Hecht described the television commercial as “the real poetry of our times.” Some of the other highlights of the show’s brief twenty-two episodes run included Hecht discussing humor with S.J. Perelman, movies with Mike Todd Jr., acting with Stella Adler, politics with Drew Pearson, and the Beat Generation with Jack Kerouac. I surfed the internet, and the only episode that I could find was the audio of the two-part Kerouac interview. Give yourself a treat and listen to it.
Recently, as I was doing research on my upcoming classes on Ben Hecht, I came across an interesting piece in the Chicago Tribune dated November 20, 1963, headlined “Hecht Attacks Algren Preface.” This was about Nelson Algren’s preface to Hecht’s 1921 novel “Erik Dorn” which had just been republished by the University of Chicago as part of its new series of novels during the “Chicago Literary Renaissance.”
Hecht had never read Algren’s preface before the book’s republication. In that preface Algren states the novel was a “deterioration of a naturalistic novel into a Grade B scenario.” One wonders why the University Chicago Press allowed this castigation of the book to go into the preface in the first place.
A peeved Hecht declined an invitation to a cocktail party hosted by the University of Chicago Press celebrating the new series by sending a telegram from New York stating that he had “no hankering to pose in your local festivities as a literary patsy.” Hecht went on to tell a reporter concerning Algren that “I have never read his works. I don’t have the faintest idea what he writes like. In this case he stinks.” Moreover, he viewed Algren as having a “Beverly Hillbilly kind of intellectuality.”
Then Algren, who was never shy in verbal counterpunches, goes on to insult Hecht personally in an interview to a newspaper reporter opining that “He hasn’t done anything since ‘Erik Dorn’……. He’s made one or two movies and some awful bad ones.” Algren continues his invective on Hecht’s writing, “It wasn’t gas he ran out of, and surely it wasn’t brass. It was belief.” Jabbing the dagger a little deeper, Algren suggested that Hecht had showed a failure of nerves by “ducking out” of the cocktail party.
I am pleased to announce that I will be teaching a seminar on Ben Hecht’s book “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” at the Newberry Library in five Thursday evening sessions, starting February 15 and ending March 15, from 5:45 to 7:45. The sixty-four incredibly imaginative sketches in the book capture the heart and soul of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape during the early 1920s. There couldn’t be more of an appropriate venue to have this seminar, since the Hecht archives are housed at the Newberry, and Walnut and Dearborn, where the library is located, is designated “Honorary Ben Hecht Way” by the city of Chicago. For registration information go to http://www.newberry.org or call 312-255-3700.
Kudos to Chicago actor and playwright James Sherman for finally creating a dramatic rendition of aspects in the life of the American writer Ben Hecht. Sherman is currently performing in The Ben Hecht Show, a one man play that he wrote, at the Piven Theatre in Evanston. The aspect of Hecht’s life that Sherman mostly focuses on is the writer’s Jewishness, especially in relation to his efforts to aid Jews during and after the Holocaust and to his role as the chief American supporter and propagandist of the Irgun, an organization of Jews using acts of terror to force the British out of Palestine preceding the establishment of the state of Israel.
Perhaps no twentieth century literary figure was as multi-faceted as Hecht, who was a journalist, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and most famously a movie script writer. Yet in watching Sherman’s play we don’t really grasp the scope of Hecht’s prodigious talent. Lacking also are personal details of his life, especially the importance of his wife Rose in the advancement of his career.
Since Sherman decided to focus on Hecht and the Irgun, I wish he would have probed deeper into Hecht’s outrageous condoning of the violent acts against the British that resulted in Parliament banning his film work in Britain for five years. The play also did not mention Hecht’s vitriolic hatred of David Ben Gurion and his Labor Zionist colleagues for their part in the sinking of the Irgun ship Altalena and their willingness to negotiate with the Nazis over the fate of the Hungarian Jews.
Still, Sherman did a credible job in capturing Hecht’s passion for his cause. He is a splendid actor who met the challenge of a one man play with good heart and gusto. And Sherman is to be thanked for introducing the Chicago theater audience to an important aspect of Hecht’s incredible life.
It was a distinct pleasure chatting with Paul Dailing at the Studs Terkel weekend celebration at the University of Chicago. Paul is in the process of creating 1001 Chicago Afternoons, a contemporary version of the great Ben Hecht’s classic stories 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. Dailing loves the intelligent and evocative writing style of Hecht. “Hecht could blend elements of fact and fiction into his 1001 Afternoon in Chicago vignettes, and he didn’t really care about the distinction as long as they made good stories.”Indeed Hecht was known to take police blotter reports of actual crimes off the wire, and craft them into beautiful and highly stylistic journalistic pieces.
Dailing’s own pieces are shorter in length and completely non-fiction, yet they evoke Hecht’s style and voice in depicting the Chicago urban landscape. In “The Bunny” he writes ‘the city had begun its nightly shift from sun to streetlamp, making the train platform a brief slice of dark for the bundled masses. Out of the warming light pouring from the train, a hop through dark, then down into the headlights and storefronts and traffic signals below.” In “Starry, Starry Night” Dailing tells the reader that “I never realized how much the Chicago skyline looks like stars at night. Little dots of light from individual windows against a sea of smooth black glass-and-steel. Thousands of specks of light, varying brightnesses and colors.”
You can follow the progress of 1001 Chicago Afternoons at 1001chicago.com. New stories post on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
In 1921,the legendary Ben Hecht began writing a daily column for the Chicago Daily News. This column named “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” featured fictive sketches of Chicago’s bustling urban landscape at that time. A year later, 64 of these vignettes were compiled and published as a book with the same title. Beginning Tuesday morning, this coming June 3, I will be teaching a class in the Oakton Community College Emeritus Program about Hecht and this amazing book, with its incredible stories depicting ordinary Chicagoans in ordinary situations, but in Hecht’s most extraordinary literary style. In total, there will be four classes sessions, on Tuesday mornings at the Skokie campus from 10: am until 11:30 am, concluding on June 24. For more information go to http://www.oakton.edu/conted or feel free to comment to me on this blog.