Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Bookman in the Neighborhood: Ben Hecht's House

Nice Sign, Nice House

This was another episode of wandering around one delightful autumn morning in search of the perfect yard sale. And on a street, not too far from where I live, I found both a yard sale and one of these delightful little signs, which heralds an episode of distant Chicago history. This is one of those "Famous Person Lived Here!" signs. In Hyde Park alone, there must be a score of these, from Mayor Washington (whom we spoke of recently) to Clarence Darrow, to Enrico Fermi (one of my favorite signs!) And so here we have, on a small, somewhat secluded, and fairly quiet street, the former home of Ben Hecht, and one of these vertical memorials. "Ben Hecht?" you ask..."who's he!?" "And what does he have to do with books!?" Admittedly, I knew very little of Mr. Hecht and his illustrious life, but have come to find out that his importance was central to the American film scene and industry in the 20th century.

And perhaps more than just in the film industry. You see, Mr. Hecht (1894-1964), who was born in New York, moved to Chicago to work as a journalist and crime reporter. He'd done correspondent work in Berlin for the Chicago Daily News and also wrote a column "One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago," and made Hecht a highly influential Chicago voice.
Hecht was also a burgeoning playwright, and this eventually led him to write for film and Hollywood, where he made his, arguably, most lasting mark.

The two images of the sign above continue the narrative and accomplishments of Mr. Hecht's life and work. After moving into the Hollywood scene, his prolific pen earned him the honor and accolades of many film-goers and critics, crowning him with the moniker "the Shakespeare of Hollywood." Notably, he wrote "Angels Over Broadway," "Gunga Din," and Hitchcock's "Spellbound" and "Notorious."

Today, though, the things for which Mr. Hecht is probably less known are his commitments to Civil Rights and Zionism. He became actively involved in supporting the Allies during the Second World War, and attempted to raise awareness of the atrocities going on in Europe against the Jews, writing a play/pageant called "We Will Never Die" in 1943, at the very time of the mass exterminations going on in Europe. Hecht's activism led him to Zionist hopes and connections to early Zionist leaders like Menachem Begin. His ties to these early Zionists and comments and criticisms made of the British government earned him censorship in Great Britain--so no longer could his work be played in the UK. Mr. Hecht died at the age of 70 in New York, in 1964.

And all that came from walking to a yard sale one day! You know, I'd walked by that sign many times and never paid it any attention. But I'm glad I did this time. It's rather cliche to muster up a saying like "take time to smell the roses," but there is some conventional wisdom there. This sign of Mr. Hecht is nice, informative, interesting; and his house is nice, even quite stately and beautiful. I'm sure I could learn much more about the life and work of Mr. Ben Hecht, and I probably will one day. But I'm simply happy that I've now learned another nugget of local (and even national and international) history by merely stopping and reading a little sign. Keep your eyes open folks: even if you're not looking for interesting signs about history, at least you won't trip and fall. And maybe there'll be a yard sale nearby.


  1. Another interesting post. So much to learn!

  2. Hi Laura ..... Is this the house ...???? Jerry