He started out as a snapper, zipping through the city from one crime scene to another. A born reporter, he thought nothing of shinning up drainpipes or crawling through windows to get a story. One night he blocked up a chimney to force a grieving family out of their home the better to filch a portrait of their recently murdered daughter. Generations of audiences have laughed at the low-life morals that motor Hecht’s and Charles McArthur’s hit newspaper drama The Front Page. Hoffman makes clear that its gags came from life...
Because, for all its Tinseltown glamour, this book isn’t part of Yale’s estimable series of Jewish Lives for nothing. Hecht might have been a ‘pork-chop eating, Christmas tree-lighting, dyed-in-the-American-wool wise guy’. But like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who realises he’s been speaking prose all his life, he turned on a shekel in 1939 and overnight ‘became a Jew and looked on the world with Jewish eyes’. It was as if, Hoffman says, ‘Germany’s invasion of Poland had somehow altered his DNA’.
Hecht’s life was extraordinary, his writing is (mostly) a tonic, his films are (in the main) dazzling, and Hoffman has brilliantly caught his restless, contradictory quality in crystalline prose. Her analysis of his Jewishness is nothing short of a revelation, and all too horribly timely in this epoch in which ancient grudges resurface every day.
The kind of boozy all-rounder who thrived in the first half of the 20th century, Hecht was variously, and sometimes simultaneously, a reporter, columnist, poet, novelist, playwright, biographer, director and a Jewish activist....Hecht, who died at 70 in 1964, is due a revival, and this short, striking biography could provide it. Like him, it’s playful, punchy and moves at a real clip.