(Florice Whyte Kovan's article in the Ben Hecht Story & News, ISBN 1629-0811 Volume 3, Number 1, 2001).
The reprint of Marilyn Monroe's memoir, My Story in the year 2000 by Cooper Square Press correctly credits Ben Hecht as an author, ending a period of almost 50 years in which Hecht's role was denied. Oddly, his partisans can't complain too much. Hecht himself publicly denied writing it when he was writing it in 1954.
Over the years we had seen the letters Hecht wrote during his collaboration on the book with Monroe, but hadn't considered an article about the ill-fated literary venture until we received a letter from Anthony Slide. He suggested that readers of the Ben Hecht Story & News might enjoy the story behind My Story. Hecht scholar Florice Whyte Kovan doubled back over her copies of Hecht letters and found others to illuminate his contacts and understandings with publishers, with his literary agent and with Monroe's attorney as they dealt with the fate of the "as-told to"---Hecht's capture of Monroe's charmingly debunking perceptions of life and love.
In a letter to Ken McCormack of Doubleday in the early spring of 1954 Hecht thanks him for his careful review and comment, then updates the status of the fledgling enterprise. "This Monroe hitch has turned into an unexpected headache. It's only last week that I got the go-ahead from our ex-orphan." Not surprisingly Hecht was finding the recent Monroe/Joe DiMaggio marriage encroaching on her availability to fulfill her part of the contract. Hecht complained, "When I first saw her for five days she was 100% clinging and cooperative. She got married and the picture changed. . . . My next session with her may have to be in a ball park."
Hecht had no interest in credit for ghosting the memoir. His literary grapevine would know. His interest was in selling his writer's craft for profit. He called the agreement "The contract permitting me to write her copy under her name." But certainty about the outcome had already become blurred. Referring to his literary agent, Hecht called the venture "A contract that became a hallucination in (Jacques) Chambrun's mysterious noggin." Literary agent Jacques Chambrun's stable of writers had included Sherwood Anderson, Somerset Maugham and HG Wells. Representing the latter, his task was to deal with public hysteria over the too-realistic radio drama War of the Worlds. He had been Hecht's agent for some 20 years.
A month after writing his letter to Doubleday, Hecht sent 168 pages of typescript to Chambrun with a description of the 40 final pages to come: the smash movies that launched her stardom, How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, her purchase of a $12,000 mink coat, her own business enterprises, the death of her Aunt Grace and her desire to be a mother. He assured Chambrun, "Miss Monroe has approved of all the copy I've sent you, but as I told you, there will be 'minor revisions' --a phrase here, a small point there will be altered." He averred that she had approved his entire manuscript in his presence. "I read it aloud to her in front of several people and she wept and cried and declared herself overjoyed with the whole project."
A lachrymose mood was apparently common in Monroe's sessions with Hecht. Hecht divulged, "It is easy to know when she is telling the truth. The moment a true thing comes out of her mouth, her eyes shed tears. She's like her own Lie Detector (sic)." This explains Hecht's sobriquet for her, "La Belle Bumps and Tears."
Hecht told Chambrun to try to sell the 200 page story to the Ladies' Home Journal with a 50% advance. Upon receipt, he promised to obtain all the pictures he could from "Marilyn's private Marilyn art gallery."
But Collier's Magazine was more interested. On May 19 Hecht wrote to Monroe's attorney, Lloyd Wright, Jr. of Wright, Wright, Green and Wright, The Marilyn Monroe story has been sold to Colliers Magazine with proviso that its copy is subject to Marilyn's approval and editing. Hecht admitted, "I did hear from you admonishing me not to let anybody see the script until it was edited. It would be rather impossible to sell it without showing it and since you agreed on my selling it and having it published after Marilyn's editing I had it submitted under those conditions." Hecht's circulation of the manuscript before Monroe's final editing was consistent with the customary work-flow in the publishing industry, where decisions about whether to publish a book are based on manuscripts well before they are completed, revised and proofed. Clearing of permission is necessarily the last task. Implicit in Hecht's agreement with Monroe to sell it, he had to let his agent show it around.
The letter asked two questions: Would Monroe edit as she agreed to and would she agree to the book's publication by Doubleday? Hecht argued that her continued participation would elevate her into a literary figure. "The book under her name would receive serious literary attention from the entire press and magazine world. It would bring her a high and wide-spread type of publicity superior to any she has received," he persuaded.
Correspondence files pick up the thread some weeks later, when Hecht finds himself in the position of denying to columnist Louella Parsons that he wrote the new Monroe biography she called him about: My Story just serialized in London's Empire News. Suspecting Chambrun's treachery, he wired him on June 1, "I denied that such a sale had been made because I couldn't imagine it being done without my knowledge and consent."
Hecht told Chambrun to withdraw the manuscript from all magazines that had it, particularly Colliers,the popular magazine that published his short stories. Stop the serialization in the London paper if you can and return them the money if you have it. I want no part of it." After a recital of Chambrun's offenses he ended, "I am making all these statements because your action has put me personally into the sort of hole I have never been in before. That of breaking my word. The only redress I can imagine in the matter is to destroy the entire Monroe copy, which I ask you to do on the receipt of this telegram."
The Hecht/Monroe manuscript rose like a phoenix from the ashes of its creators. In 1974 Stein and Day paid $25,000 for a manuscript strikingly like that published in the London Empire News. Its purveyor was Monroe's photographer, confidante and business partner, Milton Greene. He claimed ownership of the manuscript content as a gift from Monroe, who, he said, wanted him to have it and "do the right thing with it," he claimed.
Enter the New York Post. Long friendly to Hecht and learning that Stein and Day was publishing the book, they called his elderly widow Rose Hecht to confirm that she gave the publishers a release. The release, however, was verbal. Upon being presented twice with a quit claim she refused to sign. Still feisty and articulate, Rose showed reporters Hecht's copies of the manuscript in the couple's apartment in Central Park West. Her interest in going public with who wrote what began when she finished reading Stein and Day's book. Hers was not the concern of an heir to the text. Hers was the concern of a widow about her husband's reputation. Knowing exactly what Hecht wrote, she abhorred a passage appearing in the Stein and Day book in which Marilyn predicted her own death by overdose; not in Hecht's text; she did not want that deathly foreboding attributed to her late spouse. Rose's assertion that Monroe never had a complete copy is consistent with a 1954 letter Hecht wrote to her attorney about progress in sending her the typescript in batches.
When questioned by the Post, Greene denied Hecht wrote it, a denial refuted by the attorney who drew up the Greene/Monroe partnership in 1955, when they considered publishing it. When confronted with Rose's information Greene declared he thought she was dead! Publisher Sol Stein, who by then had printed the run, proclaimed the text's authenticity as Monroe's own based on the "touching simplicity" of her voice, a paradoxical compliment to Hecht's ear and pen. Then the firm's legal department contacted Rose with the threat to sue for $2,000,000 anyone who claimed the obvious: that Marilyn Monroe did not write the book herself. Rose, accustomed to taking the high road and chronically ill-served by lawyers, calculated her slim chances in the tawdry mess, and backed down.
No thanks to Chambrun, the two authors never made a dime on the book. Hecht returned his $5,000 advance to Doubleday. Monroe retreated from new talks with Doubleday on the part of the Monroe/ Greene partnership, likely because of DiMaggio's embarrassment at the text. Why didn't Hecht break with Chambrun after his apparently lucrative theft --if the Post was right, to the tune of $50,000 (BH said only 1,000 pounds in 1954). Why didn't Hecht give Chambrun the axe. He would have jeopardized the publication of other works pending through Chambrun's representation; however a poignant reason for not firing him, borne out by correspondence, was Hecht's profound gratitude to Chambrun for landing publication of his chilling narrative Remember Us, about Hitler's genocide, in Reader's Digest early in the war. It wasn't until ten years after the Monroe manuscript piracy and shortly before Hecht's death in 1964 that he finally broke with his agent--- but only after setting a trap that convinced him that Chambrun had been selling other manuscripts behind his back.
The Cooper Square Press reprinted My Story in 2000, finally crediting Hecht as a "contributor." Forty years after his death, Hecht has the quirky legitimacy of being a ghost materialized.
Thanks to Anthony Slide for the idea for this article and for informative clippings. Thanks also to Diana Haskell of the Newberry Library and for the Library's permission to quote.
Copyright 2001 by Snickersnee Press. All rights reserved. To paraphrase, link or quote, cite FW Kovan, the Ben Hecht Story & News, SnickersneePress and the URL of this page and today's date.
This story appeared in the Ben Hecht Story and News, Compiled.
Buy a giclee print of Ms Monroe as seen on the building at the Woodley Park Metro stop in Washington DC. Click to see this and our other DC paintings by Zach Sasim.
Enjoy Ben Hecht's 1922 story about feminist playwright Olga Petrova, Petrovivacity full text here.