Letter From the Director
Why Ben Hecht is My Newest Jewish Hero
For over forty years I have been making films about non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and the untold stories of Jewish heroes with an emphasis on those operating in American popular culture. I am proud to have told the inspiring stories of how each one of them — Hank Greenberg, Gertrude Berg, Julius Rosenwald, and Moe Berg — made their mark on American history in the spheres of baseball, radio and television, business and philanthropy, and spycraft.
When executive producer William Levine suggested that I make a documentary on Ben Hecht I had to admit I did not immediately recognize the name. I was surprised at my ignorance because once I Googled him, I realized I was familiar with many of his screenplays, like Front Page, Notorious, and Wuthering Heights. I was a big admirer of the great directors—like Alfred Hitchcock and William Wyler—that he had written scripts for, but I had not focused on who wrote the witty or tense words.
I was further surprised when I realized Hecht had worked in fields parallel to all my previous subjects during the same years. As I explored Hecht’s life, I was even more surprised that I had not known his name before. Hecht was writing for Chicago newspapers during the same years Julius Rosenwald was successfully expanding Sears and building the schools with Black communities in the rural South. Plus, both men had left school at the tender age of 16 to pursue their careers.
The more I read about Hecht, the more smitten I became with his accomplishments. Hecht was a man of many seasons. He was prolific in newspaper reporting, fiction and non-fiction writing, playwriting, and screenwriting. He found success in three American cities—Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
For me, Hecht’s political activism aimed at saving European Jewry during World War II is his most impressive accomplishment, as too few Americans were focused on that goal in that period. Utilizing his writing skills, Hecht wrote and staged pageants and newspaper ads advocating to save Jews from the Nazi slaughter, and later to transport survivors to Palestine.
These political activities hurt Hecht’s career. His tireless and fierce efforts to rescue European Jews negatively affected his screenwriting status in Hollywood. He was not deterred, and his personal bravery shows how one man can sacrifice for the cause of saving others.
Even with all of his accomplishments, Ben Hecht is not as famous today as the actors and directors he worked with in his heyday. I am proud to bring his amazing story to the screen so that he joins the ranks of rediscovered Jewish heroes.
– Aviva Kempner