A gray-haired man who looks like Tom Waits took up clean livin’ sat at a table, methodically reviewing what looked to me like original colonial broadsheets.
In the corner, a stereotypical librarian-type from a 1940s comedy – thick glasses, heavy wool skirt and sweater and a tightly braided ponytail down to her ass – stood by her own table. She hovered between three rostra, a wood one for her laptop, a clear one for a heavy index book and a rolled pad-turned-bookstand for a magnificent browned tome.
When she turned around two hours later, I saw she couldn’t be more than 25.
The frump wasn’t a librarian of course. The real librarians at the Newberry Special Collections, at least the two I had seen to that point, were sleek and stylish college students. They were gorgeous, hipster fashion models for their respective genders.
It was one of these stunning hipsters who brought me Ben Hecht’s papers.
Ben Hecht is the inspiration for this project, of course. The man who would later become “the Shakespeare of Hollywood” wrote the column “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” in the Daily News from 1921 to 1922.
I liked the idea and, in 2012, stole it. It was a gimmick to advertise the type of real-world writing I already wanted to do and I apologize for nothing.
Hecht wrote about the poor as well as the rich, the trodden as much as the trodding. He made art out of the everyday, showing the nobility of life often sneered at as “common.”
It was half horseshit. Nostalgia be damned – journalists in the 1920s cared less about ethics, morality or even facts than any Fox pundit today. Truth vs. lie wasn’t a distinction that existed in the ‘20s newsman’s mind. Entertaining vs. boring was what put things in the paper.
I stay honest in my stories, which is probably why Hecht had a publisher.
In that library room with the beautiful hipsters, ponytailed frump and clean livin’ Waits, I looked through a few of the 163 boxes of Ben Hecht’s personal papers. Half-written scripts. Transcripts of “The Ben Hecht Show” episodes from the ‘50s. Endearing scribbled notes and coffee stains on drafts.
I was killing time. I wanted to stretch out the moments until I opened the oversized box a stunning hipster brought me.
This was the box that contained Ben Hecht’s personal clippings of “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” cut by hand from the Chicago Daily News in 1921 and 1922 and pasted on now-brown sheets to while away the years in Ben Hecht’s own file cabinet.
There were some stories there I had read. A collected edition that came out in 1922 has been reprinted a few times, so “World Conquerors,” “Nirvana,” “Fanny,” “The Man From Yesterday” and a few others poked out of the newsprint like old friends.
But there were also troves of other stories I had never seen hide nor hair of, ones that either didn’t make the cut for the book or ones that came after. “The Sausage Machine,” “Ghosts,” “Peshka and the Great Urge,” “The Gangly Man and the Statue That Would Not Talk.”
Under rustlings of pages, ventilation and the click beep whir of digital cameras, I was welcomed into a Chicago most people hadn’t seen in almost a century, one that had been shared for a moment in the era of straw caps and 23 skidoo, then tossed out with the day’s news.
I spent three hours lost in beautiful writing.
To be concluded on Wednesday
Read a series about a live radio play production of Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” last year, then help support a film version of their project.
- Hunting Ben Hecht, Part 1 — Access Contemporary Music’s Seth Boustead wants to capture Ben Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago stories in music.
- Hunting Ben Hecht, Part 2 — The creators of Picklebot provide the script for the Hecht revival.
- Hunting Ben Hecht, Part 3 — A radio rehearsal from Nowhere.
- Hunting Ben Hecht, Part 4 — After months of preparation, the 1001 Afternoons in Chicago radio play comes together.
(I am not connected with either the film or radio play, but can vouch that they’re really nice guys.)