#243: Entering the Pantheon

November 15th, 2013

I won’t be able to celebrate Ben Hecht entering the pantheon of great Chicago writers tonight. I’ll be working.

I won’t be able to dress up in 1920s garb (although I think I wouldn’t have anyway) and dine and drink and listen to live readings of Ben Hecht’s works tonight at The Cliff Dwellers Club.

The Cliff Dwellers is an arts-based private club that dates back to 1907. They’re throwing tonight’s fest in honor of the Chicago Writers Association — a different local arts group — inducting Hecht into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame on Dec. 7.

That’s Ben Hecht as in “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” Ben Hecht. That’s Ben Hecht as in the inspiration for this site you’re reading right now.

Yes, Hecht, alongside new inductees like Edna Ferber, Thorton Wilder and Oz creator L. Frank Baum, will next month join the ranks of great Chicago writers to … all be famous together, I guess.

It is an honor, culled from nominations by local writers and those interested in the town’s literary traditions. Heck, Sherwood Anderson’s great-grandson came all the way from North Carolina last year to accept on his ancestor’s behalf.

It’s a good group Hecht’s joining. The hall of fame does have the tough-talking street poets one thinks of as pure Chicagoana — the Roykos, the Terkels, the Algrens.

But it also has the tragically neglected — the Lorraine Hansberrys, the Ida B. Wellses, the Langston Hugheses.

And it has the “Who the heck are these people?” — apologies to the Cyrus Colter and Harriet Monroe super fans out there.

But where does ol’ Ben fit?

Sure, Hecht has the tough-talking newsman act down pat. He covered murderers and crime while writing his 1,001 tales of the city. He’s could toe-to-toe with Royko on the war stories and Algren on the shots, I’m sure.

He’s also got the tragically neglected, though. He’s not full unknown. He’s a famous playwright, a screenwriter of classic cinema. He’s had plays and movies and music acts written not only about his works, but about him. I’ve written about some local pieces released just this year. Beau Bridges played him in a movie version of his memoirs in the 1960s. This is not an unknown man.

But he does have a bit of the novelty act about him. He’s picked up and dusted off, eyed for a bit with wonder and then put back on the shelf forgotten. “Huh. The ‘Front Page’ guy was an actual reporter. Who knew?”

I must concede that to most, Ben probably falls in with Cyrus and Harriet in the “Who the heck?” I don’t like to think about that.

It’s strange how we think in pantheons about writers, of Halls of Fame and editorial Justice Leagues. It’s strange to try to set and determine someone’s place in history. It makes them seem so dead.

But the memorial is Dec. 7 from the Chicago Writers Association.

Tonight, the Cliff Dwellers will laugh and joke, dress in 1920s clothes and, instead of listing his place among the honored dead of literature, they’ll do something I think Hecht would have liked a lot more.

They’ll bring him back to life.

Read about tonight’s event (scroll to Nov. 15)

Read about Ben Hecht

Read a series I did earlier this year about a live radio play production of Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago”

(And I wasn’t kidding about the Beau Bridges movie)

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