The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist

The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist (Paperback)

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The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist
Purdue University Press
6.00" x 9.00"

Book Description

2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist - Biography


Ben Hecht had seen his share of death-row psychopaths, crooked ward bosses, and Capone gun thugs by the time he had come of age as a crime reporter in gangland Chicago. His grim experience with what he called “the soul of man” gave him a kind of uncanny foresight a decade later, when a loose cannon named Adolf Hitler began to rise to power in central Europe.


In 1932, Hecht solidified his legend as "the Shakespeare of Hollywood" with his thriller Scarface, the Howard Hughes epic considered the gangster movie to end all gangster movies. But Hecht rebelled against his Jewish bosses at the movie studios when they refused to make films about the Nazi menace. Leveraging his talents and celebrity connections to orchestrate a spectacular one-man publicity campaign, he mobilized pressure on the Roosevelt administration for an Allied plan to rescue Europe’s Jews. Then after the war, Hecht became notorious, embracing the labels “gangster” and “terrorist” in partnering with the mobster Mickey Cohen to smuggle weapons to Palestine in the fight for a Jewish state.


The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist is a biography of a great twentieth century writer that treats his activism during the 1940s as the central drama of his life. It details the story of how Hecht earned admiration as a humanitarian and vilification as an extremist at this pivotal moment in history, about the origins of his beliefs in his varied experiences in American media, and about the consequences.


Who else but Hecht could have drawn the admiration of Ezra Pound, clowned around with Harpo Marx, written Notorious and Spellbound with Alfred Hitchcock, launched Marlon Brando’s career, ghosted Marilyn Monroe’s memoirs, hosted Jack Kerouac and Salvador Dalí on his television talk show, and plotted revolt with Menachem Begin? Any lover of modern history who follows this journey through the worlds of gangsters, reporters, Jazz Age artists, Hollywood stars, movie moguls, political radicals, and guerrilla fighters will never look at the twentieth century in the same way again.

Book Reviews

Publisher's Weekly

This meticulously researched biography . . . focuses on two aspects of writer Ben Hecht (1894–1964): his remarkable versatility—he produced journalism, novels, criticism, screenplays, plays, and memoirs—and his vocal support, prior to Israel’s founding, for a Jewish homeland. . . . Suggesting that Hecht’s self-conscious persona as a “tough Jew” equally shaped his literary output and political ideology, Gorbach leaves readers with a richly provocative and original take on an influential writer.



Library Journal

From the Twenties through the Fifties, Ben Hecht was a force of nature. An award winning playwright (The Front Page), prolific Hollywood screenwriter (The Unholy Night; Scarface; Notorious), journalist, and novelist, he seemed destined for posthumous fame. But ask today how many people recognize his name, or how often his books are read and the answer is few and seldom. Hecht’s political views were a litmus of his times. Progressing from cynic to critic of Adolf Hitler and then militant Zionist, he worked in the 1940s with gangster Mickey Cohen raising money to buy guns for the paramilitary organization Irgun in British occupied Jerusalem. Hecht’s support for the Irgun could easily be labeled fascist, but labels don’t fit well here. Journalist Gorbach (communications, Univ. of Hawaii, Manoa) traces Hecht’s views back to an old debate over human nature: are we amenable to reasoned argument (the Enlightenment view) or coerced to change only through force? Mainstream Zionism embraced the Enlightenment perspective. Hecht’s outlook was darker. VERDICT This thoughtful and thorough study of a largely forgotten writer will interest literary and film buffs and anyone curious about the debates going on in the Zionist community in the 1930s–40s.

About the Author(s):

Julien Gorbach

Julien Gorbach spent most of his ten years as a daily newspaper reporter on the police beat, covering drive-by shootings and murder trials, and publishing an investigative series on killings that remained unsolved because gangs had intimidated witnesses into silence. As a freelancer, he contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Time Out New York, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and the New Orleans Gambit, among other publications. He covered Hurricane Katrina for the Boston Globe. Gorbach earned a doctorate in media history at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2013 and is now an assistant professor in the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.