As a partner in the Grady Rutledge publicity firm of Chicago in the early 1920s, Hecht organized campaigns against the Ku Klux Klan, whose lynchings of minorities, primarily blacks, terrorized the American South and North. The client underwriting the anti-Klan campaign was the National Unity League, whose board included the esteemed social welfare advocate, Jane Addams and the governors of the states where the Klan operated and the League took its campaign. Through Hecht research one finds the national Unity League consecutively in Illinois, Wisconsin and New York in late 1922. The League sought to reveal the names of Klan members and influence state and local politicians against them. Lionel Moise and the periodical "Tolerance" (Chicago, 1922) are names Hecht mentions in reference to that prong of the attack.
Already established in Chicago, the campaign was taken to Milwaukee by Rutledge and Hecht on October 21, 1922. Here they announced their plan to expose Klan members. At issue at the time was the Klan's application to use the City Auditorium and State Fair grounds for their hate rallies, a ploy thwarted by the Mayor of Milwaukee and the Governor of Wisconsin.
Artists and writers joined the effort, blending civil rights into the arts and literary scene by contributing to a new little magazine, the Milwaukee Arts Monthly. Pieces included poetry and prose on racial attitudes as well as a discussion of the potential of the "black" theater like that of Eugene O'Neill to enlighten the American stage with such works as "The Emperor Jones." Of keen bibliographic significance were two beautiful, now rare poems by Jamaican writer, Claude McKay, Harlem Renaissance author of the emblematic If We Must Die. It is not known whether his travels took him to Milwaukee or whether he was a remote contributor. The McKay poem Honeymoon was reprinted in our first issue of the Ben Hecht Story & News in 2000.
Ben Hecht wrote enough stories about black/white dynamics to form a small collection, including To Bert Williams, a richly symbolic obituary to the eminent vaudevillian, the thought provoking The Miracle; the fey opinions of a black North Side podiatrist in The Future Fish; DaDa, which uses the DaDaist style of the absurd to ridicule the Klan; the nightmarish Yellow Goat in The Little Review; the train porter as an astute thespian in Greek versus Greeks. Hecht observed the dynamics whereby the token minority assimilates in his piece about Moon Kwan (Moon Quan), consultant to the popular China and Chinatown films movies of the '20s. In the same period, circa May-June of 1923, Hecht and his artist friend, Hollander Herman Rosse, collaborated on a musical with Dave Payton (Peyton), jazz pianist and music critic for the black newspaper the Chicago Defender (see Payton picture at the I Got the Blues link at this site). Hecht's own bi-weekly, The Chicago Literary Times (1923-24) broke taboos by publishing a regular column, Black-belt Shadows, about Chicago and broader AfroAmerica by young William Moore -- with the then-daring editorial note: "This column is conducted by a Negro journalist." A factor in his willingness to work with blacks on occasion was his first playwriting experience: His high school collaborator was a young black student, John French in Racine.
In Hollywood's Golden Age of the '30s and '40s Hecht from time to time shaped new roles for black actors, as in his casting of a black pianist Juan Panalle as the ballet rehearsal pianist in Spectre of the Rose. He also knuckled under to stereotypes, detesting his job at the behest of David Selznick to fix the script for the reactionary Gone With the Wind. A hefty fee salved his irritation. Hecht's role in the rewrite was dramatized in Ron Hutchinson's play Moonlight and Magnolias.
Hecht film stories featuring black characters included Hallelujah I'm a Bum, co-starring Edgar Conner as Al Jolson's sidekick in a politically savvy rhymed dialogue over Richard Rodgers music. Nothing Sacred presented Troy Brown as the bootblack masqueading as the Sultan of Marzipan; In Lifeboat the gallant rescuer was Canada Lee, who also read Hecht's World War II stage narrative A Tribute to Gallantry at Carnegie Hall in New York. In Actors and Sin, Alice Key as the maid spoke standard English and wore a simple, expensively tailored afternoon dress (perceived as a breakthrough at the time but you see the problem). The beleaguered film Tales of Manhattan included a genre piece Hecht wrote for an optimistic Paul Robeson, who treasured the folk element in his repertoire -- but the timing was wrong; groups like the NAACP no longer wanted to see blacks in dialect roles and folk portrayals, no matter how well done.
A bibliographic if not historical tidbit is Hecht's article in The Negro Digest about the black cook on his Holocaust rescue boat, the SS Ben Hecht.
In his last year of life, Hecht wrote the evocative story, The Negress in a series for the then-new Playboy Magazine. A personal catharsis, autobiographical in part, it evokes his unrequited longing for a Chicago cabaret singer, whose true love was a back-to-Africa evengelist. Hecht narrates the play by play, including the Hechtean staple, the creepy attorney, in the story of the evangelist's murder trial.
Hecht's most important race film historically was the Frank Capra message film The Negro Soldier, a feature length tribute shown to the armed forces and civilians during World War II, its purpose to increase harmony within the military ranks and the work force. As a consultant to the producers at the United States Office of War Information, Hecht advised black director Carlton Moss. Moss recalled Hecht urging him to take the film's lead role, the preacher, so as to immortalize his own writing contributions to the film. Moss remembered on the one hand, Hecht's "bring a bomb" period of anarchism and, on the other hand, his wit and satire in film. It was Moss's mention of Troy Brown's performance as the Sultan of Marzipan in Nothing Sacred that inspired our research on the lost scene, resulting in the publication of the Sultan of Marizipan still in Art & Architecture on 1000 Afternoons in Chicago.
Before World War II Hecht began a ten year commitment to message plays and activism against American isolationsim and the atrocities of fascisim befalling his own religious minority, the Jews of Europe. Hecht's star-studded 1943 pageant We Will Never Die orchestated by Kurt Weill and Franz Waxman toured coast to coast crosscutting scenes celebrating Jewish valor and achievements with atrocities of the Holocaust as they were occuring, atrocities so little covered by American media that Hecht-the-messenger was smeared as a callow sensationalist. His magnificent play was ditched for lack of support. Hecht's incendiary comments about the British in Palestine resulted in a British boycott of his films, forcing him to write without a credit line on movies distributed in Britain. He enjoyed a rare spell of good repute for his 1946 Broadway play, A Flag is Born, celebrating the new Jewish state. In the Hechtean spirit of non-traditional casting, the part of David was played by a new young actor, Marlon Brando.
Florice Whyte Kovan.