“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Ben Hecht might be best remembered as the screenwriter behind classics like Gone With The Wind and Wuthering Heights, but to Neal Pollack, Hecht will always be the hack from Chicago. In 2006, Neal Pollack described Hecht as “a newspaperman in an age when that profession had literary possibilities, and a short-story writer when that profession had commercial ones.” Most important, however, Hecht had an audience—in 1943 he published a lengthy plea on behalf of the Jews of Europe (his later book, Perfidy, would reveal that Jewish Labor Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis).
His columns from the Chicago Daily News were collected in 1001 Afternoons, which, Pollack argues, “remains one of the grail books of any Chicago reporter with literary aspirations.” Of one particular story, “The Man Hunt,” Pollack writes:
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about “The Man Hunt” is that it appeared in a daily newspaper, which we long ago ceased to think of as a house of literary worth. But the Chicago newspapers of the 1920s represented one of those rare intersections of high and low culture, so rare that people (mostly writers, mostly Chicagoans) are still longing for its return. Only newspaper work could have supplied Hecht’s pallette with such limitless color. Abandoned wives, henpecked husbands, aging showgirls, tavern owners, aldermen, suicidal millionaires: Archetypes sprung from his pen.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.