Nelson Algren and Ben Hecht and Their Infamous Exchange of Insults

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.

An Outstanding New Biography of Nelson Algren

A few years ago, I saw Mary Wisniewski speak at one of those annual Nelson Algren Committee birthday celebrations that are nostalgically held at various locations in the old Polonia area of Chicago. An investigative reporter at Reuters at that time, and now a Chicago Tribune reporter, she spoke enthusiastically about a new Algren biography that she was working on. Now, Algren: A Life has just been published by Chicago Review Press, and it is the most definite biographical work on Algren since Bettina Drew’s Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side came out in 1989.
I thought Drew’s biography lacked a genuine feel of Chicago’s people and neighborhoods. It was well written and informative, but you just knew that the author was an outsider. Not so with Mary Wisniewski, whose father Mitchell was raised in Chicago’s Polonia of the 1940s and the 1950s and who is quoted in her book responding to the Polish characters in Algren’s Never Come Morning as saying “I didn’t know anybody like that” and “Those people are bums.”
In fact, Algren was more of a caricaturist and myth-maker in his fiction than a realist. He was a creative genius in so many ways, yet his novels lacked coherent plots, often leaving his readers unsatisfied at the end. There is no doubt that Algren wrote with passion and commitment, but many times his stories just seemed to break down. Yet his prose essay Chicago: City on the Make remains one of the greatest books ever written about Chicago.
Wisniewski’s biography of Algren is truly a labor of love, written with great respect of the man, yet exposing his frailties and flaws. As a truly talented investigative reporter, she knew where to find local sources to bring out new insights into the already well- charted waters of Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his financially disastrous dealings with Hollywood, and his addictive personality.
I wish that Wisniewski would have delved into Algren’s Jewish identity (or lack of) in more detail. How did it feel like for Algren to be a Jewish kid in his formative years growing up in a Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side? How did the adult Algren respond to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel?
Algren: A Life is one of the best biographies that I have read recently. Wisniewski really writes well and her research is presented in a crisp and most readable way. I highly recommend this book.

Meeting Algren


algren on steps

After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smackheads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Nelson Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen and talking to a tall blond named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and sipped from a glass half full of what looked like rye. The frames of his glasses were held together by Scotch Tape. He wore an unironed, plaid  shirt with mustard stains. Algren seemed like a caricature of one of his own characters.

A guy that I knew, an old beatnik named Bill Smith, who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on North State Street, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called “Lord Nelson.” Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and so Bill introduced me to him as a nice kid with literary pretensions.

Algren smiled at me knowingly and asked me if I wrote poetry or stories. I felt embarrassed because my entire literary output at that time was a few handwritten poems that I had never shared with anyone. I hardly considered myself a writer at all. I felt that Smith’s hyperbole had put me in an awkward situation with Algren. I reluctantly shared the subject matter of my poems with him, and he said to me to always remember the common man in my future writing.

I wanted to say something of more importance to Algren. Perhaps ask how he now felt about Simone de Beauvior, the French author with whom he had a bittersweet romance for many years.  Maybe I could express my empathy to him about how he got shorted by the Hollywood bigwigs on royalties for the film adaptations of the Man with the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side. But after a half minute of painful silence, Algren turned his attention back to Dottie, while I walked away into the smoke-filled living room looking for a drink.   


Algren Day in Chicago

algren on steps

Next Saturday (March 28) marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Algren. The Algren enthusiast here in Chicago can celebrate his birthday all day long. Beginning at 11:00 am, Algren’s book Never Come Morning, will be discussed at the Cliff Dwellers book club, meeting at 200 S. Michigan. Then one can head north to Lakeview (Algren would have hated the term “Wrigleyville”) and view Michael Caplan’s  fine documentary film, Algren, at the Music Box, located at 3733 N. Southport, at 2:00 pm, followed by a special birthday celebration. More festivities will take place that evening at the Bloomingdale Artists Building, 2418 W. Bloomingdale in Bucktown, where the Nelson Algren Committee will host Algren readings, music, and an homage to the love of Algren’s life, his very own “Frenchie,” Simone de Beauvoir.

A Literary Tour of Chicago’s Mean Streets

The “street-punk novel” is part and parcel of the Chicago literary tradition. Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning, which came out in 1941, chronicles the life and times of the Polish-American young hoodlum Bruno “Lefty” Bicek. Six years later, the African-American writer, Willard Motley, had his debut novel Knock on Any Door published, featuring the young Italian-American protagonist Nick Romano whose purpose in Motley’s words was to “live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.” Those same words could be applied to Mookie and J.C., the main characters in 47th Street Black, the 2003 debut novel of Bayo Ojikutu.

Mookie and J.C., like Bicek and Romano are killers. All are born into a tough world, where the streets are mean. Not only are all intent on mere surviving, but they all want to make something of themselves, to become “big shots” in the urban ghettos where they live. They are driven by money and status, living their own twisted version of the American dream.

The Cliff-Dwellers Book Club will be exploring the genre of the Chicago “street-punk novel” in three of our sessions this year. We begin by having Bayo Ojikutu as our guest on February 28 as he discusses 47th Street Black. Exactly a month later, on March 28 (Nelson Algren’s birthday), we will discuss Never Come Morning. On August 22, we will have a discussion of Knock on Any Door.

All these discussions are on Saturdays, beginning at 11:00 am. They take place at the Cliff Dwellers, at 200 South Michigan, directly across the street from the Art Institute. They go on for about an hour or so, often times continuing over lunch. For more information please email me at            

The Chicago Literary Renaissance

At the onset of the 20th century, Chicago had become the nation’s Second City, a Midwest Leviathan, a center of commerce and industry. The poet Carl Sandburg, born in downstate Galesburg, arrives in Chicago in 1912. He describes Chicago as “Hog Butcher for the World/Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler, / Stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders.”

Unbounded energies are released in Chicago in many different directions. One of which is the creative energies that result in the Chicago Literary Renaissance during the first quarter of the new century. The city’s Literary Renaissance is primarily fueled by two women publishers, Harriet Monroe and Margaret Anderson. A native Chicagoan, and a writer herself, Ms. Monroe established Poetry, a magazine totally dedicated to that particular literary form of expression, in 1912. Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay were frequent contributors, as well as countless others. Today, Poetry, in its 103th year, is going strong as ever.

Margaret Anderson, also a writer, leaves Indianapolis to come to the creative hub of Chicago. In 1914, she establishes a literary journal called The Little Review. Soon The Little Review publishes the early works of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Later on, excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses are published, for the first time in America, in the journal.

Chicago becomes a magnet drawing in creative geniuses to its bosom. Ben Hecht leaves his home in Racine, Wisconsin, and comes to town in 1910. Although making a living as a newspaper writer, Hecht begins his work as a playwright, teaming with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, in several one-act plays performed at Jane Addams’ Hull House. Years later, Hecht and Charles MacArthur write what I believe to be the most entertaining of Chicago plays,The Front Page. While living in Chicago, Hecht wrote several novels and numerous short stories, but his greatest writing, by far, were the 500 fictive pieces that appeared every day on the back page of the Daily News, which he called 1001 Afternoons in Chicago.

Edna Ferber leaves her newspaper job in Appleton, Wisconsin, and arrives in Chicago in 1909, eventually settling in the Windermere Apartments in Hyde Park. From this base in Chicago, she writes novels of the like of So Big (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1924), Cimarron, and Show Boat that make her the most prominent woman novelist of her time.

Sherwood Anderson comes to Chicago in 1912, after failing horribly in business back in his home state of Ohio. Deserting his wife and children, Anderson’s creative juices are unleashed in our “stormy, brawling and husky” city, and eventually he completes Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of interrelated fiction vignettes that is considered one of the masterpieces of American writing.

The Chicago Literary Renaissance eventually fades away as both Andersons, Hecht, Ferber, Sandburg and Hecht leave the city in the mid to late1920s. Harriet Monroe remains and continues publishing Poetry here in Chicago.