The Return of Ben Hecht–40 Years After His Passing

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

This week marks 40 years since the death of Ben Hecht, the playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, and controversial political activist who struck the Jewish world like a hurricane during the 1940s.

Hecht’s name has been back in the news recently, thanks to the revival of two of his most famous plays and a spate of fresh scholarly interest in his 1940s political activism, including the publication of FBI memos wrongly accusing him of being a Communist.

Hecht, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, first rose to fame as a no-holds-barred journalist in Chicago. He went on to coauthor the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Front Page,” and became a Hollywood screenwriter, with credits that included the Oscar-winning “Underworld,” “Gone With the Wind,” and the first ‘screwball comedy,’ “Twentieth Century.” Last month, “Twentieth Century” was revived on Broadway, starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. During the course of his career, Hecht authored 25 books, 20 plays, 65 film scripts, and hundreds of articles. Film critic Judith Crist called him “the most prolific multimedia child of this century.”

As a young man, Hecht had shown no real interest in his Jewish heritage. But the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Europe’s Jews transformed him. First he joined the Fight for Freedom Committee, which advocated pre-emptive U.S. military action to oust Hitler. He wrote a fundraising pageant for the group, called “Fun to Be Free,” which drew more than 17,000 people to Madison Square Garden in 1941.

Hecht’s evolution from assimilation to activism is explored in an essay by Prof. Gil Troy, “The Transformation of Ben Hecht from Literary Gadfly to Political Activist,”which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the scholarly journal American Jewish History.

My own recent book, Militant Zionism in America: The Rise and Impact of the Jabotinsky Movement in the United States, reveals previously-classified documents showing that the FBI spied on the Bergson Group, the militant Jewish activists headed by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), with whom Hecht was associated. Memoranda authored by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover erroneously characterized Hecht as a “fellow traveler” and a “Communist Zionist.”

Hecht’s first project with the Bergson Group was “We Will Never Die,” a dramatic 1943 pageant to raise American public awareness of the Nazi genocide. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, it was staged at Madison Square Garden before audiences totaling more than 40,000, before traveling to Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, the Hollywood Bowl, and Washington D.C., where the audience included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, six Supreme Court justices and several hundred Members of Congress.

During the 1940s, the Bergson Group sponsored numerous full-page newspaper ads calling for U.S. action to rescue Jews from Hitler. The ads, many of them authored by Hecht, featured eye-catching headlines such as “Time Races Death: What Are We Waiting For?” and “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People–Men, Women, and Children–from Torture and Death?” “Our mission in the United States would not have attained the scope and intensity it did if not for Hecht’s gifted pen,” senior Bergson group activist Yitshaq Ben-Ami later wrote. “He had a compassionate heart, covered up by a short temper, a brutal frankness and an acid tongue.”

“Twentieth Century” is not the only Hecht play enjoying a revival. The American Century Theater, in Arlington, Virginia, which recreates classic American plays, has just launched its own production of “A Flag is Born,” Hecht’s 1946 play about Holocaust survivors and the need to establish a Jewish State. The original play starred Paul Muni, Celia Adler, and Marlon Brando, then just 22 years old and on the verge of stardom.

“A Flag is Born,” which the British press called “the most virulent anti-British play ever staged in the United States,” raised an estimated one million dollars, part of which was used by the Bergson Group to purchase a ship –named the S.S.Ben Hecht– to bring Holocaust survivors to Palestine in defiance of British immigration restrictions.

A planned performance of “Flag” at the Maryland Theater, in Baltimore, ran into trouble when Hecht discovered that the theater restricted African-Americans to the balcony. A last-minute pressure campaign by an alliance of the Bergson Group and the local NAACP brought down that racial barrier–the first time that blacks were able to sit freely in a Maryland theater. Exuberant NAACP leaders hailed the “tradition-shattering victory” and used it to help pave the way for the desegregation of other Baltimore theaters.

“I am proud that it was my play which terminated one of the most disgraceful practices of our country’s history,” Hecht declared after the opening performance in Baltimore. “The incident is forceful testimony to the proposition that to fight discrimination and injustice to one group of human beings affords protection to every other group.”

Forty years have passed since his death, but the legacy of Ben Hecht’s political passion and gifted pen continues to be felt.

April 2004