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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ben Hecht (1893-1964)


American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, novelist, "the Shakespeare of Hollywood", who received screen credits, alone or in collaboration, for the stories or screenplays of some 70 films. As a prolific storyteller, Ben Hecht authored 35 books and created some of the most entertaining screenplays or plays, among them The Front Page with Charlie MacArthur (also filmed as His Girl Friday), Twentieth Century, Underworld, Notorious, The Scoundrel (as play All He Ever Loved), Some Like It Hot etc.

-"... But Sarastro was the true charlatan and one forgave him this. One even demanded it of him.
--Often, while listening his Mother Goose mysticism, his Munchausen adventures, his garbled and pompous chatter of genii, sylphs, and undines, I have grown annoyed at my own skepticism. How much more marvelous was the Marvelous Sarastro if one believed him? How much more entertaining this Arabian Night in which he lived, could one accept it with the heart of a child rather than the dull incredulity of a modern author." (from 'The Shadow' in The Collected Stories of Ben Hecht, 1945)

Ben Hecht was was born in New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His parents, Joseph Hecht, a garment worker, and Sarah Swernofsky, were born in Minsk, Belarus; they spoke Yiddish. Later the family moved to Chicago and then to Racine, Wisconsin, where Hecht attended high school. In Racine Joseph gained success as a desingner of women's clothes. (The Tenement Saga: The Lower East Side and Early Jewish American Writers by Sanford Sternlicht, 2004, p. 108)

Hecht read voraciously from an early age, from Poe to Dumas to Gorky, and in addition, at the age of 12, he performed as a circus acrobat. After a brief period at the University of Wisconsin, he moved to Chicago, where he worked as a reporter for Chicago Journal and Chicago Daily News. He also contributed to literary magazines, including the Little Review.

After World War I Hecht was sent by Chicago Daily News to Berlin to witness the revolutionary movements, these experiences gave him material for his first novel, Erik Dorn (1921). This book was drawn from his early unpublished manuscripts, Moise and Grimaces. The title character, Hecht's alter ego, is a journalist, who says: "There are two kinds of newspapermen – those who try to write poetry and those who try to drink themselves to death."

While in Berlin, Hecht became close friends with the artist George Grosz and was a guest of honour at a famous Data demonstration: a race of six typewriters and six sewing-machines, accompanied by a swearing contest. At the hotel Adlon, which was the headquarters of the American press, Hecht also showed his talents as a musician: "The host, whom everyone called Benny [Hecht], sat cross-legged on top of the piano playing "Everybody Shimmies Now" on a fiddle. His wife accompanied him. There was glasses everywhere and ashtrays filled to the brim with butts; on our table were Havanas, cigarettes, two long-necked Rhine-wine bottles on ice, a quarter-full bottle of Black & White and a bottle of Cognac. A gigantic tin near the piano was said to contain ship's biscuits... towards four in the morning Benny started to conduct the band, and taught the pianist to play ragtime." (George Grosz in A Small Yes and a Big No, 1982)

A daily column, 101 Afternoons in Chicago, later collected in a book, brought Hecht fame. He called Chicago "the pious, subnormal, fatheaded Rube town with the dirtiest streets in the world, the worst taste, the least manners, the most murdrers on earth." (The Damndest Radical: The Life and World of Ben Reitman, Chicago's Celebrated Social Reformer, Hobo King, and Whorehouse Physician by Roger A. Bruns, 2001, p. 230) By the early 1920s, he had established his reputation in the literary scene as a reporter, columnist, short story writer, and novelist. As a literary critic, he was passionately interested in Gide, Proust, and Nietzsche. He considered Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1868) to be the best novel of all times. Before 1921, Hecht admired Sherwood Anderson, but their friendship ended in a quarrel. Its cause was never clearly explained by either writer. Anderson was portrayed in Erik Dorn under the name Warren Lockwood, a middle-aged midwestern novelist, but in a favorable light.

Hecht left the News and founded in 1923 his own newspaper The Chicago Literary Times. New art and architecture fascinated him, and he published several articles about the aesthetics of urban environment. His enthusiasm bore a far resemblance to the ideas formulated in Marinetti's Manifesto of Futurism (1909). In an essay published in 1923, Hecht wrote about the Temple Building in Chicago at Clark and Washington Streets and saw the white body of the building "as delighting to our vanities as were the triumphal figures of gods and goddesses to the conquering legions returned to Rome." (from Rediscovering Ben Hecht, Volume 2: Art & Architecture on 1001 Afternoons, Ben Hecht and F.W. Kovan, Snickersnee Press, 2000). After two years, The Chicago Literary Times left Hecht penniless, and he moved to New York City. A telegram from the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, a kindred spirit, brought him to Hollywood, where he eventually became the highest-paid screenwriter in town. From then on Hecht divided his time between movie assignments and New York. Hecht wrote screenplays for Paramount at $50,000 to $125,000 a script. "Hollywood held this double lure for me, tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle," he sain in A Child of the Century (1954).

The Front Page (1928), was a comedy-drama set in Chicago. Hildy Johnson is a newspaper reporter. He has left his work, he is going to marry and move to New York. He visits the pressroom of Chicago Criminal Courts Building to bid his friends good-bye. Earl Williams, an escaped murderer, falls in through the window. Earl's stay of execution has been ignored by corrupt officials. Hildy plans to hide Williams with the help of Walter Burns, his managing editor, and expose the civic corruption. They are caught by the sheriff, but Hildy avoids arrest and prepares to leave for the railroad station. Walter presents him with his watch as a wedding gift. To keep Hildy on his staff, Walter wires New York claiming that Hildy stole the watch. (Produced New York, Times Square Theatre, August 14, 1928) - Several film adaptations, among them The Front Page (1931), dir. by Lewis Milestone, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brian; His Girl Friday (1940), dir. by Howard Hawks, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell; The Front Page (1974), dir. by Billy Wilder, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau; Switching Channels (1988), dir. by Ted Kotcheff, starring Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds.

"Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle. It gets him, however, more jobs. If his movie is bad it will attract only critical tut-tut for him. The producer, director and stars are the geniuses who get the hosannas when it's a hit. Theirs are also the heads that are mounted on spears when it's a flop." (Hecht in 'Let's Make the Hero a MacArthur,' The Penguin Book of Hollywood, ed. by Christopher Silvester, 1998)

In Hollywood Hecht wrote scripts often with Charles MacArthur, who had also started as a journalist. Their collaboration led among others to the musical Jumbo (with music by Richard Rogers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart), Ladies and Gentlemen, Fun To Be Free, and Swan Song. The pair received an Academy Award nomination for The Scoundrel (1935). Hecht himself won an Academy Award for Underworld (1927). In 1957, Hecht published a biography of his friend Charles MacArthur, entitled Charlie. Hecht also wrote scripts with Charles Lederer, with whom he developed what had been dubbed "the screwball comedy" genre. An example is the film Monkey Business (1952). While making this film, Hecht met Marilyn Monroe, and ghostwrote her autobiographical  magazine articles, which later were edited as a book, My Story (1974). (Marilyn: In Words and Pictures by Richard Havers & Richard Evans, 2017, p. 101)

With the director John Ford, who worked in the 1930s for Samuel Goldwyn, Hecht cooperated in The Hurricane (1937), an unlucky film project. When he first saw its footage, he said: "I think it stinks." Hecht wrote new dialogue scenes and Ford shot them. In Stagecoach (1939), one of Ford's most famous films, Hecht suggested that the character of Ringo (John Wayne in his breakthrough role) is "a kid out of prison."

"The only place I felt at home was in your heart. You were the only light that didn't go out on me." (from Angels Over Broadway, 1940)

To Angels Over Broadway  (1940) Hecht added his view about the war in Europe. Douglas Fairbanks Jr asks in his speech: "What happened to the Poles, the Finns, the Dutch? They're little guys. They didn't win...' Rita Hayworth replies, 'They will, some day.' Hecht's cooperation with Alfred Hitchcock started in Foreign Correspondent (1940), although Hecht's additions were uncredited. When Hitchcock was asked about the anti-Nazi and pro-Britain message of the film – United States was still 18 months away from the war  the director said that it was all the doing of Walter Wanger and Ben Hecht.

JONES: Keep those lights burning, cover them with steel, build them in with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them and, hello, America, hang on to your lights, they're the only lights in the world. (from Foreign Correspondent)

Spellbound (1945) was based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding. In the process of scripting, almost nothing of the novel was left except, remotely, the idea of the villain turning out to be the asylum director, who is of course mad. The eccentric Spanish painter Salvador Dali designed the famous dream sequences. The next film, Notorious (1946), was made with almost exactly the same team – David O. Selznick producing, Ben Hecht scripting, and Ingrid Bergman starring. The film was based on a Saturday Evening Post story called 'The Song of the Flame', which was further developed by Hitchcock and Hecht. When the script for The Paradine Case (1947) needed rewriting, Hecht was called in, but his additions were uncredited. Hitchcock would have liked Hecht to do script for Strangers on a Train (1951), but the author was otherwise occupied, and the director did get one of Hecht's assistants, Czenzi Ormonde to work with Raymond Chandler.

The director Howard Hawks worked with Hecht in several film projects. Scarface from 1932 was based on Hecht's story, in Viva Villa (1934), for which Hecht wrote the screenplay, Hawks worked uncredited. Twentieth Century (1934), written by Hecht and Charles McArthur, was directed and produced by Hawks. Other film projects included Barbary Coast (1935), His Girl Fiday (1940), The Outlaw (1943), The Thing from Another World (1951). While working with Viva Villa in Mexico Hecht had an affair with another woman, and when his wife Rose, showed up unannounced, the panicked author turned to Hawks. The director advised: "'You'd better be perfectly honest. Be a reporter and tell her the story of her husband who's down here with another woman and what's she going to do about it?' And he did and by God he got away with it... I think Ben amused me most when he got into a real bind. He enjoyed being the brunt of trouble, it kept him very busy thinking how to get out of it." (from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood by Todd McCarthy, 1997) In His Girl Friday Hawks could not use the writer – he was busy doing uncredited rewrites for Victor Fleming on Gone with the Wind, and preparing Angels over Broadway. The major change compared to the Broadway production was the sex change. Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) became the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant) - they had been married and divorced but Burns schemes to get Hildy back.

Hecht's criticism of British policies in Palestine and support of the Jewish resistance movement caused that his credits were removed from all films shown in England for some years. In his honor an illegal immigrant ship was named "Ben Hecht". A passionate believer in an independent Jewish state, Hecht advocated swift action to attain this. In A Guide for the Bedevilled  (1944) Hecht defended his views and gained many enemies. Later, in his book entitled Perfidy, Hecht acknowledged the death of his of Zionist dream – the work dealt with the events of the 'Dr Rudolf Kastner trial'. The accused, a lawyer and fanatical Zionist, collaborated with Adolf Eichmann during the war. Kastner left the members of his community, Hungarian Jews, in the hands of the Nazis because he felt that rescuing them would interfere with establishment of the state of Israel. Due to the politically charged subject, Hecht's book was banned in Israel. Kastner was assassinated in Tel Aviv by an Israeli undercover agent. Kenneth A. Alford and Theodore P. Savas have suggested in their book Nazi Millionaires: The Allied Search for Hidden SS Gold (2002) that the circumstances of Hecht's death were also suspicious.

Hecht was married twice, first in 1915 and after divorce in 1925. His daughter Jenny from his second marriage achieved success as an actress from the age of eight. She apparently was in Actors and Sin (1952) a 9-year-old girl who writes a steamy screenplay for a movie expected to became the next "Gone with the Wind." The film was written and directed by Hecht, but received bad reviews. "A depressing double bill," wrote Lindsay Anderson. The first movie that Kirk Douglas' the Bryna Company produced was The Indian Fighter (1955), based on the screenplay by Hecht and Frank Davis. The Indian Western, perhaps best remembered for Elsa Martinelli's bathing scene, did well and helped to launch other film projects for the company. Hecht died of a heart attack on April 19, 1964, while working on the script of Casino Royale (1967). Hecht received no screen credits. Among productions credited to other writers are Queen Christina, Gone With the Wind, Foreign Correspondent, The Outlaw, Lifeboat, Gilda, The Paradine Case, Rope, and Roman Holiday. Hawks bought the story for The Outlaw from Hecht, and began to develop the script with Jules Furthman. Eventually Howard Hughes took over the production and directed the film, starring Jane Russell and Jack Beutel.

Richard Corliss defined Hecht as the personification of Hollywood: "A jumble of talent, cynical and overpaid; most successful when he was least ambitious; often failing when he mistook sentimentality for seriousness, racy, superficial, vital and American," Corliss said in Talking Pictures (1974). (In Capra's Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Robert Riskin by Ian Scott, 2006, p. 12) Famously, Hecht used his Oscar as a doorstop. Acting out his reputation as  the enfant terrible of American letters, Hecht wrote to Hollywood's top executives a Christmas card, in which he said: "Good gentlemen who overpay / Me fifty times for every fart, / Who hand me statues when I bray / And hail my whinneying as Art – / I pick your pockets every day / But how you bastards break my heart." (The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz, 2015, pp. 189-190)

For further reading: The Mechanical Angel by by D. Friede (1948); Between You and Me by L. Nizer (1948); Hanging on in Paradise by F. Guiles (1975); The Five Lives of Ben Hecht by Doug Fetherling (1977); Ben Hecht by J.B. Martin (1985); Writers in Hollywood by I. Hamilton (1990); Ben Hecht by William MacAdams (1990); Rediscovering Ben Hecht: Selling the Celluloid Serpent, ed. by Florine Whyte Kovan (1999); Rediscovering Ben Hecht, Volume II: Art and Architecture on 1001 Afternoons, ed. by Florice Whyte Kovan (2000); Writers in Hollywood 1915-1951 by Ian Hamilton (2011); 'Hecht, Ben' by Daniel Walden, in Encyclopedia of Jewish-American Literature, edited by Gloria L. Cronin and Alan L. Berger (2013) - See: Howard Hawks with whom Hecht also collaborated in several films - See also other writers working in Hollywood: Raymond Chandler in the 1940s, William Faulkner from the 1930s to the 1950s - For further information: Snickersnee Press (the most exhaustive web site on Ben Hecht) OR Ben Hecht Bibliography & Research

Selected works (screenplays alone or in collaboration, novels, non-fiction):

  • The "Wonder Hat, 1916 (play; with K.S. Goodman, pub. 1920)
  • Hero of Santa Maria, 1917 (play; with K.S. Goodman, pub. 1920)
  • The Master Poisoner, 1918 (published in Max Bodenheim's book of poems, Minna and Myself)
  • The Egoist, 1920 (play; with K.S. Goodman; pub. 1925)
  • Hand of Shiva, 1920 (play; with K.S. Goodman)
  • Erik Dorn, 1921 (fiction)
  • Fantazius Mallare, 1922 (fiction)
  • Gargoyles, 1922 (fiction)
  • 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1922 (fiction)
  • The Florentine Dagger, 1923 (fiction)
  • Tales of Chicago Streets, 1924
  • The Kingdom of Evil, 1924 (fiction)
  • Humpty Dumpty, 1924 (fiction)
  • Cutie, A Warm Mamma, 1924 (fiction; with M. Bodenheim)
  • The Wonder Hat, and Other One-Act Plays, 1925 (by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman; Ben Hecht)
  • The Stork, 1925 (play; from L. Foder)
  • Broken Necks, 1926 (fiction)
  • Count Bruga, 1926 (fiction)
  • The Unlovely Sin, and Other Stories of Desire's Pawns, 1927
  • Jazz, and Other Stories of Young Love, 1927
  • Infatuation: And Other Stories of Love's Misfits, 1927
  • The Sinister Sex; And Other Stories of Marriage, 1927
  • The Policewoman's Love-Hungry Daughter: And Other Stories of Chicago, 1927
  • Underworld, 1927 (screenplay)
  • The Man-Eating Tiger, 1927 (play; with Rose Caylor)
  • The Front Page, 1928 (play; with Charles Mc Arthur; filmed several times)
  • The Great Gabbo, 1929 (original story; screenplay by Hugh Herbert)
  • River Inn, 1930 (script)
  • The Unholy Garden, 1931 (script)
  • A Jew in Love, 1931 (fiction)
  • The Champion From Far Away, 1931 (fiction)
  • Scarface - The Shame of a Nation, 1932 (screenplay)
  • The Great Magoo, 1932 (play; pub. 1933)
  • Topaze, 1933 (script, based on Marcel Pagnol's play)
  • Design for Living, 1933 (from N. Coward's play)
  • Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!, 1933 (story; screenplay by S.N. Behrman)
  • Twentieth Century, 1934 (play with Charles McArthur; also filmed, adapted from the play The Napoleon of Broadway by Charles Bruce)
  • Crime Without Passion, 1934 (story: Caballero of the Law; screenplat by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur)
  • Viva Villa!, 1934 (screenplay)
  • The Scoundrel, 1935 (film from his own play All He Ever Loved)
  • Barbary Coast, 1935 (screenplay)
  • Actor's Blood, 1936 (fiction)
  • Soak the Rich, 1936 (screenplay; with Charles MacArthur)
  • Nothing Sacred, 1937 (screenplay)
  • Gunga Din, 1939 (screenplay, based on Rudyard Kipling's poem)
  • Wuthering Heights , 1939 (screenplay with Charles McArthur, novel Emily Brontë)
  • It's a Wonderful World, 1939 (screenplay)
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, 1939 (play; with Charles McArthur)
  • Some Like It Hot, 1939 (play The Great Magoo)
  • The Book of Miracles, 1939 (fiction)
  • His Girl Friday, 1940 (original play The Front Page)
  • Angels Over Broadway, 1940 (also co-dir., prod.)
  • Fun to be Free, 1941 (play)
  • 1001 Afternoons in New York, 1941
  • Lilly Of The Valley, 1942 (play)
  • China Girl, 1942 (script)
  • The Black Swan, 1942 (screenplay, with Seton I. Miller, based on the novel by Rafael Sabatini)
  • Miracle in the Rain, 1943 (novella; in The Saturday Evening Post)
  • A Tribute to Gallantry, 1943 (play)
  • I Hate Actors!, 1944 (fiction; as Hollywood Mystery, 1946)
  • A Guide for the Bedevilled, 1944 (C. Scribner's Sons)
  • The Common Man, 1944 (play)
  • The Collected Stories of Ben Hecht, 1945
  • Watchtower over Tomorrow, 1945 (script)
  • Spellbound, 1945 (screenplay with Angus MacPhail; based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by Francis Beeding, pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer and Hilary Aidan St George Saunders, dir. by Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Specter of the Rose, 1946 (script)
  • A Flag Is Born, 1946 (play)
  • Notorious, 1946 (screenplay, inspired by the short story 'The Song of the Dragon' by John Taintor Foote, film dir. by Alfred Hitchcock. Killer lines: a cynical Alicia - Ingrid Bergman - says to Devlin - Cary Grant: 'There is nothing like a love song to give you a good laugh.' When they arrive in Rio, she berates Devlin's lack of faith in her: 'Why don't you give that copper's brain of yours a rest? Every time you look at me, I can see it dwelling over its slogans. "Once a crook, always a crook". "Once a tramp, always a tramp". Go on. You can hold my hand, I won't blackmail you for it afterwards.')
  • Ride the Pink Horse, 1947 (script)
  • Her Husband's Affairs, 1947 (script)
  • Concerning a Woman of Sin and Other Stories, 1947 (fiction)
  • The Cat That Jumped Out of the Story, 1947 (fiction)
  • The Miracle of the Bells, 1948
  • Whirlpool, 1950 (screenplay)
  • Actors and Sin, 1951 (screenplay)
  • Monkey Business, 1952 (screenplay)
  • A Child of the Century, 1954 (autobiography)
  • The Indian Fighter, 1955 (screenplay with Frank Davis)
  • The Iron Petticoat, 1956 (screenplay)
  • Miracle in the Rain, 1956 (screenplay from his own novel)
  • Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur, 1957
  • A Farewell to Arms, 1957 (screenplay)
  • Legend of the Lost, 1957 (screenplay)
  • The Fiend Who Walked the West, 1958 (screenplay from his Kiss of Death)
  • Simon, 1958 (screenplay, from Brecht and L. Feuchtwanger)
  • Winkelberg, 1958 (play)
  • Queen of Outer Space, 1958 (screenplay)
  • The Sensualists, 1959 (fiction)
  • A Treasury Of Ben Hecht: Collected Stories And Other Writings, 1959
  • Perfidy, 1961 (nonfiction)
  • Simon, 1962 (play)
  • Jumbo, 1962 (screenplay based on his play)
  • Gaily, Gaily, 1963 (autobiography)
  • The Magnificent Showman, 1964 (screenplay)
  • In the Midst of Death, 1964 (fiction)
  • Letters from Bohemia, 1964 (nonfiction)
  • My Story, 1974 (with Marilyn Monroe, reprinted in 2000)
  • The Ben Hecht Show: Impolitic Observations from the Freest Thinker of 1950s Television, 1992 (edited and adapted by Bret Primack; with a foreword by Mike Wallace)
  • Rediscovering Ben Hecht, Volume 1: Selling the Celluloid Serpent, 1999 (edited by Florice Whyte Kovan)
  • Rediscovering Ben Hecht, Volume 2: Art and Architecture on 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 2000 (edited by F.W. Kovan)
  • Art & Architecture on 1001 Afternoons in Chicago: Essays and Tall Tales of Artists and the Cityscape of the 1920s, 2002 (book & commentary by F.W. Kovan)
  • 101 Hard-to-Find Stories by Ben Hecht. Vol. 1 2008 (Snickersnee Press)
  • Hard-to-Find Ben Hecht Stories, Vol. 2, 2010 (Snickersnee Press)

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