The Newberry Library’s collections include the personal effects and papers of Ben Hecht, whose 1920s newspaper column “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” inspired this project.
They’ll let you go through them if you get a Newberry Reader’s Card.
So I got one.
I had spent three hours in the Newberry Library’s reading room going through Ben Hecht’s personal clippings of “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” his column for the Chicago Daily News.
It was enthralling.
On newsprint clipped by the author himself, I looked through stories of Chicago life that hadn’t seen the light of day since 1922. “The Loop Pterodactyl,” “Alms and the Man” and others that either didn’t make it into or that came after the 1922 book collection.
At the top of a clipping called “Rain Editorial,” at some point between 1922 and his death, Hecht had scribbled the words “Last story” in pencil.
Ben Hecht never made it to 1,001 stories. Being the oh-so-clever iconoclast who could take on the world, he wrote the filthiest book he could come up with. And he was brought up on federal obscenity charges and fired from the Chicago Daily News for it.
One of Hecht’s biographers thinks Hecht wanted a test case on American obscenity law. Having tried and failed to read “Fantazius Mallare” on more than one occasion, I’m inclined to agree. There’s no reason for this dreck other than to be offensive.
For his obscenity trial, Hecht’s lawyers, Charles Erbstein and the Clarence Darrow, advised him to collect as many of his literary friends and colleagues to explain that this work, dear jury, was art.
“They explained, as if they had all been coached by the same hand, that they could not afford to jeopardize their standing as citizens, fathers, mothers, husbands, etc., by coming out in the open and defending a book that had the word ‘pissing’ in it,” Hecht would write in his 1954 autobiography.
“From its flattened pelvis that seemed like some evil bat stretched in flight, protruded a huge phallus. The head of the phallus was enlivened with the face of a saint. The eyes of this face were raised in pensive adoration. At the lower end of the phallus, the testicles were fashioned in the form of a short-necked pendulum arrested at the height of its swing,” Hecht wrote in “Fantazius Mallare,” describing a sculpture.
That’s not to mention the interracial midget rape scene, the post-flogging rape scene, the phrase “The vagina is a door at which they deliver regularly like industrious milkmen” and the pages of penis drawings that accompany the seven-page dedication to “the Freudian dervishes who masturbate with Purity Leagues.”
A wealthy, respected, beloved screenwriter, novelist, intellectual and playwright lied in his autobiography to make himself the victim 30 years later.
Ctrl-F the Project Gutenberg of “Fantazius Mallare” for yourself to see: The word “pissing” wasn’t even in the book.
What a prick. What an amazing, talented, insightful, beautiful, reprehensible prick.
But this was the Hecht who clipped and penciled “Last story” on the last “1001 Afternoons in Chicago” story that would ever run in the Daily News. He would form his own paper, The Chicago Literary Times, that would continue the project until he decided to drop it and move to New York.
He didn’t know that yet.
He didn’t know that his legacy would be as “the Shakespeare of Hollywood,” penning some of the greatest works of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He didn’t know about Oscars, accolades, novels, biographies, a 1950s TV show, dying in wealth and comfort surrounded by people who loved him.
He didn’t know that people would study his papers in a research library that sits on “Honorary Ben Hecht Way.”
The Hecht who clipped “Rain Editorial” and penciled “Last story” at the top was a grandiose, self-pitying 28 year old who had gambled big on a smutty book and lost, a failed wonderboy who, rightly or wrongly, felt abandoned by the literary community, the legal system and his employers.
This was the Hecht who, in ink now 92 years old, crossed out the title “Rain Editorial” and wrote in perfect cursive, “Confessions.”
It was a story about being lost, about wandering alone in the rain, abandoned except for a stray dog he comes across. It was a story written by a man scared about his future. It was read almost a century later by a man trying to capture the past.
It ended like this:
“And so together we walk for a distance, this dog and I, wondering about each other . . . .”