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The Times (20/Apr/1964) - Obituary: Mr Ben Hecht

(c) The Times (20/Apr/1964)



Mr. Ben Hecht, the American author and one of the most highly paid scenario writers in Hollywood, died in New York on Saturday. He was 70.

The son of Joseph Heoht and Sarah Swernofsky, Jewish immigrants from Southern Russia, Ben Hecht was bom in New York on February 28, 1894. He had, it seems, an adventurous boyhood and was apparently for a short time a circus acrobat. He began a journalistic career with work for the Chicago Journal as early as 1910. while from 1914 until 1923 he was on the Chicago Daily News, the author of a daily column on the world war and then, after the armistice, in charge of the paper's Berlin office. Before that, however, he had made a start as playwright; a volume of short plays written in collaboration with Kenneth Sawyer Goodman appeared in 1912. He wrote his first novel in Berlin, Erik Dorn, a mocking, pessimistic piece of work, at once impressive and over-flamboyant in manner. Hecht was to continue to write novels from time to time over a good many years; specially characteristic, perhaps of his talent and temper, was A Jew In Love, published in 1930. But it was as a playwright that he made his mark, and it was by way of the theatre that he came very much into his own as an author and producer for Hollywood.

In 1928 The Front Page, written in collaboration with Charles MacArthur, proved a signal success on the New York stage. There was nothing particularly novel in this drama of the methods of "yellow" journalism in the United States, but the play was shrewdly put together and invigorated by crisp, taut dialogue. Transferred to the screen, it was a still more prodigious success. Hecht, still in association with Charles MacArthur, with whom he formed a film-producing company in 1934, was responsible for the scenario of an ingenious and intelligent film entitled Crime Without Passion (1934), and among later films of theirs that were out of the ordinary run of Hollywood productions were The Scoundrel, Angels Over Broadway, The Spectre of the Rose and Wuthering Heights. He also collaborated with Mr. Alfred Hitchcock in several films including Notorious and Spellbound. He had a genuine instinct for the cinema and a commanding talent for film dialogue.

Hecht's writing, which was prolific and uneven, breathed vitality and a ranting kind of gusto. Yet as he showed in a remarkable volume of five short stories, A Book of Miracles (published in Britain in 1940), he could draw on singularly rich reserves of rhetoric, wit, and fantasy as well as upon an impassioned religious preoccupation.

This racial and religious intensity of his lay at the bottom, no doubt, of his virulent attacks upon Britain during the concluding phase of the British mandate for Palestine. An indefatigably active Zionist, Hecht gave open and vehement support to the Jewish terrorists in Palestine, campaigning against the restrictions upon Jewish immigration into the country and against the British administration generally. As chairman of the "American League for a Free Palestine", he took a hand in traducing British motives and in helping to finance illegal immigration.

His first marriage, to Maria Armstrong, was dissolved in 1925; and he married in the same year Rose Caylor. There was a daughter of each marriage.