Ben Hecht's Remarkable Speech at Slapsy Maxie’s

Tucked amid the Ben Hecht Papers at the Newberry Library in Chicago is an undated typescript of 21 pages, with a penciled heading: “Speech at dinner at Slapsy Maxie's, L.A., financed by Mickey Cohen.” Hecht was, of course, a fabled writer for stage and screen, Mickey Cohen was the notorious Los Angeles gangland boss (recently portrayed by Sean Penn in the movie Gangster Squad), and the speech, which has never before been published, is one of the most riveting and remarkable Jewish fundraising speeches ever delivered. What gives?

The outrageously prolific Hecht—writer of reportage, novels and short stories, Broadway theater and Hollywood movies, and eventually Jewish propaganda—was always attracted to outlaws. The first of his six or seven dozen produced (though not always credited) screenplays was Underworld, a 1927 silent film directed by the Austrian-Jewish immigrant Josef von Sternberg. In his freewheeling autobiography, A Child of the Century, Hecht wrote:

I made up a movie about a Chicago gunman and his moll called Feathers McCoy. As a newspaperman I had learned that nice people—the audience—love criminals . . . It was the first gangster movie to bedazzle the movie fans and there were no lies in it—except for a half-dozen sentimental touches introduced by its director.

Hecht won an Academy Award for Underworld, at the very first awards in 1929. (He was nominated five more times but never won another.) In 1932, he wrote Scarface for Howard Hawks, proudly claiming that “two Capone henchmen” showed up after midnight demanding assurance (which he disingenuously provided) that Scarface was not about “the great gangster.”

Meanwhile, Hecht had established his own reputation as a literary outlaw, notably with his novel A Jew in Love, a rapier-sharp vivisection of a contemptible book publisher named Jo Boshere, né Abe Nussbaum. Published in 1931, it sold some 50,000 copies and was voted best novel of the year by the senior class at New York's City College, but influential Jews accused Hecht of self-hatred. The New York Times quoted Rabbi Louis I. Newman, of the Reform Congregation Rodeph Sholom, as saying that the book was “an atrocious malignment of the Jew.”

In A Child of the Century, Hecht tossed off the fictional Boshere as “this worthless fellow, who cost me much trouble with Jews who do not like the word ‘Jew' used in a title.” Not quite. Hecht described one character as having “a face stamped with the hieroglyphic curl of the Hebrew alphabet” and elsewhere wrote of “that glandular degeneration that produces the Jew with the sausage face.” Writing for The Sentinel, a Chicago Jewish weekly, Bertha Loeb Lang wondered if Hecht was deliberately pandering to anti-Semites. Hecht, she wrote, “should seek something inspiring to wing his thoughts to higher realms.”

Such inspiration hit him hard in 1939, when Hecht, as he put it, “turned into a Jew.” As he recalled: “The German mass murder of the Jews, recently begun, had brought my Jewishness to the surface. I felt no grief or vicarious pain. I felt only a violence toward the German killers.” He put his furious pen to work in a daily column for P.M., the liberal New York newspaper, chastising “Americanized Jews” for their silence in the face of the growing massacre. In 1941 he wrote a column called “My Tribe Is Called Israel”: “My angry critics all write that they are proud of being Americans and of wearing carnations, and that they are sick to death of such efforts as mine to Judaize them and increase generally the Jew-consciousness of the world.”

Hecht's two-fisted polemic caught the eye of a young Palestinian Jew living in America: Hillel Kook, a nephew of the great Rav Kook who went by the nom de guerre Peter Bergson, so as not to embarrass his family. Bergson was a disciple of the late Revisionist leader Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who had died in New York exile in 1940. He enlisted Hecht in a campaign to fight Hitler and promote militant Zionism in America. Hecht churned out caustic newspaper ads about American and British indifference to the plight of the European Jews. He crafted the 1946 Zionist stage play A Flag Is Born, which drew large crowds and made so much money for the right-wing Irgun that they named a ship for him. (While illegally transporting 600 Holocaust survivors to Palestine, the S.S. Ben Hecht was intercepted by the British in March 1947; the refugees were detained in Cyprus, and crew members were jailed in the Acre prison.)

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