Review: 'The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist' by Julien Gorbach

A friend of terrorists and gangsters

Ben Hecht / Getty Images
July 28, 2019

Julien Gorbach's The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist is the second book to come out this year on the reporter, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, novelist, polemicist, and pioneer of the gangster movie and the screwball comedy. Hecht is a more remarkable character than any he created in his hugely successful Hollywood career. (Gorbach's book has received far less attention than the first biography, Adina Hoffman's Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, largely because she beat him to market.)

Gorbach's focus is different from that of any other Hecht biographer. All the others, including Hecht's own autobiography A Child of the Century, devote no more than a fifth of their space to Hecht's "Jewish period." Gorbach turns the customary allotment on its head, devoting four fifths of his biography to this phase of Hecht's life. The disproportion is warranted, both because the other aspects of Hecht's life have been well-covered by previous biographers and because, in the end, Hecht will be best remembered for his efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust and for his support of the Irgun, the underground organization in Palestine that deserves chief credit—as Winston Churchill himself attested—for driving the British from Palestine.

For most of his life Hecht was an assimilated Jew, indifferent although never hostile to his Jewish roots. Hecht wrote that he "turned into a Jew in 1939.… The German mass murder of the Jews, recently begun, brought my Jewishness to the surface." When he thought of the Jews being slaughtered in Europe, he thought of his own kin, cherishing the memories of his warm, Yiddish-speaking extended family, which "remained like a homeland in my heart."

As Hecht became more politically aware, he wrote columns for the newspaper PM. In one, titled "My Tribe Called Israel," Hecht said, "I write of Jews today, I who never knew himself as one before, because that part of me which is Jewish is under a violent and ape-like attack." It was these columns that caught the attention of Peter Bergson, who led a small group of Palestinian Jews recently arrived in the United States to build support for a Jewish army to fight Hitler. After some coaxing, Hecht joined their effort.

In 1942, as news of the slaughter of the Jews of Europe came in, the Bergson Group changed its focus to that of rescue. Hecht proved a masterful propagandist, producing material at a furious pace. "Had it not been for Hecht, news of the Final Solution would also have been virtually absent from mainstream American magazines," Gorbach writes.

When on Feb. 13, 1943, the New York Times reported that Romania was willing to transfer Jews for a fee, Hecht wrote a full-page ad that blared, "FOR SALE to Humanity / 70,000 Jews Guaranteed Human Beings at $50 a Piece."

Instead of rejoicing at this hugely talented, if unexpected ally, America's mainstream Jewish establishment, with Rabbi Stephen Wise in the forefront, reacted with outrage. Gorbach writes that Wise viewed Hecht and the Bergsonites "as irresponsible renegades whose cheap, inflammatory publicity stunts risked scuttling any real chance at rescue." Wise was so unhinged that he called Bergson "as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler."

Hecht would later write, "How could Jews, under a load of hate in the world, find time to hate each other?"

Hecht came up with the idea of creating a historical pageant—"a form of theater devoted to civic purpose that had been popular with Americans," explains Gorbach. On March 9, 1943, We Will Never Die was performed at Madison Square Garden. Written by Hecht, produced by Billy Rose, directed by Moss Hart, and with music by Kurt Weill, it attracted 40,000, a record at the venue. "When fifty thousand people came to buy tickets after the March 9 premiere had already sold out, the committee hastily organized a second, late-night show that evening," Gorbach writes.

The pageant featured a cast of thousands, famous Hollywood actors, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Two enormous tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments dominated the stage. It was billed as "a memorial service for the 2,000,000 European Jews massacred by the Nazis."

In Washington, Gorbach reports that the performance was attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, "six Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officers, some three hundred members of Congress, top military officials, and a large portion of the foreign diplomatic corps." The final performance, at the Hollywood Bowl, narrated by John Garfield, Burgess Meredith, and Yiddish actor Jacob Ben-Ami, attracted a total attendance of over 100,000.

To the pageant's creators it was not clear that their work had helped. "Actually, all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry," Weill said to Hecht walking down Fifth Avenue in New York after the tour ended, "which is not a unique accomplishment." Gorbach disputes this assessment, saying that the pageant generated press coverage and raised public awareness that may have pushed Roosevelt to form the War Refugee Board, "a decision that saved an estimated 200,000 lives."

Although Gorbach doesn't mention it, the Bergson Group also created a historical record, a counterpoint to the Jewish establishment narrative. Wise not only failed to do enough, he tried to prevent others from helping. During the worst event in Jewish history, Wise chose to play petty Zionist politics.

Unsurprisingly, Hecht was embittered by the experience. When in late 1943, the Bergson Group approached Hecht with a new cause—driving the British from Palestine and establishing a Jewish State—Hecht initially refused. What good would it do when "nearly all the world's Jews were on their knees to the British? All of them trying to whimper a nation into existence."

But the Irgun, which the Bergson Group represented, was not on its knees and within a few months Hecht had a change of heart. Hecht would receive secret messages about the underground organization's exploits, sometimes hidden in cigarette boxes: "I never read news with a more pounding heart. I had had no interest in Palestine ever becoming a homeland for Jews. Now I had, suddenly, interest in little else."

For the Irgun, Hecht wrote another spectacle, A Flag is Born, which followed Holocaust survivors as they drifted through Europe searching for the Promised Land.

The play starred a 22-year-old Marlon Brando. "At some performances, when Brando started to yell 'When the six million were being burned and buried alive in the lime pits, where were you?,' Jewish girls got out of their seats and screamed from the aisles, convulsing in anguish and guilt," Gorbach writes. "One woman was so overcome by emotion that she shouted back at him, 'Where were you?'"

In gratitude to Hecht, the Irgunists used profits from A Flag is Born for a boat they named the SS Ben Hecht, which sailed from France on Dec. 27, 1946, with 600 refugees aboard. (It didn't make it through the British blockade and most of its passengers were interned in Cyprus.)

Hecht paid for his support of the Irgun. An advertisement in praise of the Irgun's anti-British actions he wrote in the spring of 1947 and which appeared in over a dozen newspapers titled "Letter to the Terrorists of Palestine" so infuriated the British that Britain's film association declared a boycott of Hecht's work. The ban cost him dearly in Hollywood, and he could only command a fraction of what he previously earned.

This blow was all the greater because of Hecht's contempt for the movies he wrote. He lived in Nyack, New York, and would make runs to Hollywood the way other people went to the bank. As the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood he'd make a huge sum for a few weeks work and spend it on his very expensive lifestyle until the proceeds ran out. It was symptomatic of how he felt about Hollywood that when he won the first-ever Academy Award for best original screenplay (for 1928's Underworld) he returned the statue ("receiving a prize for this piece of good hack work was annoying") and only accepted it grudgingly for use as a doorstop when Douglas Fairbanks sent it back to him. Ironically, Hecht's self-respect as an artist derived from his novels, largely unreadable today.

The chief weakness in this biography derives from Gorbach's discomfort—a discomfort that also mars Adina Hoffman's book—with Hecht's support of the Irgun, which, according to Gorbach, Hecht "proudly acknowledged to be terrorists and gangsters." The Irgunists, of course, were not gangsters, although it is fair to call them terrorists (if a world away from today's murderous variety). The Irgun's strategy, as outlined by its leader Menachem Begin, was to undermine Britain's moral authority to rule Palestine, targeting symbols of that authority, more often buildings and infrastructure than people.

The British had not only reneged on their promise to build a Jewish homeland but locked the gates of Palestine to Jews just as the Nazi juggernaut began its march across Europe. Even after the war they kept the gates locked against the survivors of the death camps. And the British were not going peacefully. Moralizing about the Irgun taking up arms against the British is like hand-wringing about George Washington’s men sniping at Redcoats instead of marching single file against them.

Gorbach simply does not know how to handle Hecht's Irgun period. He offers lengthy excerpts of a speech by Labor Zionist historian Ben Halpern, who describes the Irgun as fascists and their approach to violence as "Ben Hechtism." Although Gorbach doesn't say outright that he agrees with Halpern it's hard to see any other reason for including this over the top "analysis," which makes no contribution to understanding Hecht.

One can only surmise that it is Gorbach's problem with the Irgun that accounts for the most astonishing lacuna in a biography focusing on Hecht’s Jewish involvement—the absence of any discussion of Hecht's Perfidy.

Published in 1961, three years before Hecht's death, Perfidy is a detailed account of the 1954-55 Kastner trial, in which the State of Israel brought a libel suit on behalf of Rudolf Kastner, an official in the Trade and Industry Ministry, who during the war had headed the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee in Hungary.

Accused of libeling Kastner was an elderly Hungarian immigrant named Malchiel Greenwald, who had charged Kastner in a pamphlet of serving as a collaborator with the Nazis, "an indirect murderer of my dear people." More important, the Zionist leadership of Israel stands in the dock in Perfidy, accused of essentially fiddling while Jews burned, in Hecht's words, "mum on the slaughter and garrulous as geese on the needs of Zionism in Palestine."

The hero of the piece is the young attorney who defends Greenwald, Shmuel Tamir, who had served as an Irgun commander in Jerusalem.

Hecht is especially devastating on the Zionist leadership while the 800,000 Jews of Hungary were being murdered. Hecht notes that Ben-Gurion and others gave speech after speech without so much as a mention of the fate at that very moment of Hungarian Jews—of which they were fully aware. They had in fact cooperated with the British in the arrest and silencing of Joel Brand, the emissary who brought Eichmann's offer to trade Hungarian Jewry for 10,000 trucks. Ben Gurion, in those same speeches, was full of fire and venom against the Irgun for its battle against the British.

Gorbach instead devotes excessive space to his discussion of Hecht's relationship to Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen. Cohen had been attracted by the Irgun's militant tactics and helped arrange a major fundraiser for Hecht, who was grateful. Hecht, moreover, had a soft spot for gangsters going back to his first days as a reporter when he covered the exploits of local Chicago hoodlums.

While it's encouraging that two biographies on Hecht have come out this year, and Gorbach's is well worth reading, the definitive biography of Hecht has yet to be written. For those with time for only one book about Hecht, the choice is an easy one: The best book about Hecht is by Hecht—his autobiography, A Child of the Century.

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