Welcome to Hecht’s Windy City
Ben Hecht used Oscars for doorstops and routinely heaped scorn on the studio pontiffs who, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, paid him an average of $3,500 a day. Before he co-wrote “The Front Page,” the play that brought him fame and opportunity, before he laid the story foundations of two basic movie genres (the gangster film and the screwball comedy), before he called into being the myth of the Hollywood screenwriter (overpaid yet endlessly put-upon), Hecht was a reporter, a newspaper man in America’s hottest crime city during American journalism’s golden age.
“I have lived in other cities but been inside only one,” Hecht said, and “1,001 Afternoons in Chicago” ( University of Chicago Press: 288 pp., $15), originally published in 1922 and recently re-issued in a gorgeous paperback facsimile of the first edition, records that intimacy.
“I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock,” Hecht notes. He haunted “streets, studios, whore houses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, mad houses, fires, murders, banquets, and bookshops.” He earned his early glamour as a brash poet of Chicago’s underbelly.
The young Hecht -- he’d been born in 1894, the Jewish son of Russian immigrants -- was so avid for story he learned not to sleep. And because he saw “people shot, run over, hanged, burned alive, dead of poison, crumpled by age,” he didn’t record those stories like O. Henry. Hecht’s style was garish, breezy, lyrical, a mixture of cynicism and sentiment that felt fresh back then and is still pretty irresistible today. He possessed, moreover, the essential gift of any would-be chronicler of urban life: empathy. Here, in a sketch titled “Fanny,” he puts himself in the head of a judge, trying to winkle out the story of a young prostitute on the stand:
“No defense. The policeman’s drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, but what about the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky.”
Hecht gives us a timeless type: the young girl, breathlessly rushing to the big city -- which then slaps her with a ruthless education. “Let the policewoman’s records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed,” Hecht writes. When the judge, shaking his head, gives Fanny another chance, warning that it will be jail next time, Hecht trails her from the court and watches her in the street: “Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated. Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs -- and powders her nose.”
Elsewhere Hecht puts the reader inside other heads. There’s a despairing Italian knife-thrower whose wife (“the dagger Venus”) has put on weight and wrecked his act, a “short, thin man with a derby” who has turned being a juror into a career, a jailer playing cards with men about to be executed and a weary desk-sergeant who claims not to be able to remember a yarn offhand but then turns into a deadpan Scheherazade of murder, suicide and robbery:
“A fellow named Zianow killed his wife by pouring little pieces of hot lead into her ear, and he would have escaped, but he sold the body to the old county hospital for practicin’ purposes, and while they was monkeying with the skull they heard something rattle and when they investigated it was several pieces of lead inside rattling around. So they arrested Zianow and got him to confess the whole thing, and he was sent up for life, because it turned out his wife had stabbed him four times the week before he poured the lead into her while she slept, and frightened him, so he did it in self-defense, in a way.”
The sergeant says this tale is scarcely worthy of Hecht’s pencil, and he promises he’ll try to come up with something better next time.
Hecht watched and listened like any great reporter while nurturing ambitions of greater literary scope. In 1921, when he began the Chicago Daily News pieces that would become “1,001 Afternoons In Chicago,” he was about to make a splash with his first novel, “Erik Dorn.” His influences included not just Dreiser and Norris, the great American realists, but Dostoevski and Charles Dickens, and sometimes, like Dickens in London, Hecht wandered the streets of Chicago, at dead of night, alone.
“The night shapes increase. There are buildings. They drift along the river docks. Dark windows and faded brick lines. The rooftops are like the steps of a giant stairway that has broken down,” Hecht writes in “Night Diary.” He puts himself on a bridge, looking down, seeing “the dark water of the river and silver, gold and ruby reflections of the bridge lights. These hang like carnival ribbons in the water. The ‘L’ trains crawl over the Wells Street bridge and the water below them becomes alive with a moving silver image. For a moment the reflection of the ‘L’ trains in the river seems like a ghostly waterfall.”
This recalls “Night Walks,” an 1860 essay in which Dickens writes about Waterloo Bridge, observing that “the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the specters of suicides were holding them to show where they went down.”
Hecht, as a prose writer, wasn’t quite capable of that. He would need the likes of Josef von Sternberg, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock to help him achieve such subtle and shivery effects, and in another medium. That said, Hecht’s youthful journalism remains both moving and dazzling. He sided with the scrappy underdog and was endlessly alert to the moods of the great city that was his subject. “Yesterday the windows sparkled with sunlight. Today they stare like coffin tops,” he writes, crystallizing how skyscrapers shimmer and change with weather.
Saul Bellow read this book while still in high school and would always remember it, maybe because Hecht’s sketches, while sometimes gritty and violent in content, also present a quest for lyricism and hope, indeed suggesting that the chains of today might still become the laurels of tomorrow. Ben Hecht wrote about the immigrant’s dream and lived in it in a spectacular way. He called his autobiography (another book that merits re-issue) “A Child of the Century,” and he was just that, the striver who often happened to be in the right place at the right time, a matter of luck and prodigious talent too. “1,001 Afternoons in Chicago” details one phase of an emblematic American life.
Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.