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Ben Hecht’s First Day

Adina Hoffman

Ben Hecht was always falling in love—though he never tumbled harder and faster into that ecstatic state than he did when he met Chicago. “The city of my first manhood,” he called it. The place enthralled him with its blur of rooftops and chimneys, its signage and streetcars, its windows, its water, its sky, and especially its crowds. Its crowds! Dashing through downtown, he’d stop suddenly, transfixed, as all those strangers rushed by him on the sidewalk. “I sometimes felt shy,” he’d later write of his teenage infatuation with the fact of this great human swirl, “as I stood against a building watching people pass. What if some bright pedestrian saw what I was doing—having a love affair with the faces of the city? It would be hard to explain.”

It was July 1910. Having graduated high school in Racine a few weeks earlier and endured exactly three days of summer school at the University of Wisconsin, he’d fled the Madison campus and the prospect of a college degree—hopping a train for the big city and a whole new life. With vague ideas of working as an acrobat, a violinist, or maybe a sailor, he instead wound up bumping into a distant uncle with a red nose, bloodshot eyes, and a more practical plan for his employment. According to the apocryphal-sounding story that Hecht would often repeat, on his first day in Chicago he’d been waiting in line to buy a ticket for a vaudeville matinee when he encountered this only half-remembered relative, a liquor salesman named Manny Moyses. Embarrassed at having been caught playing a very serious sort of hooky—he hadn’t yet confessed to his parents that he’d dropped out of college—Hecht felt he had little choice but to follow when his uncle proposed that they call on one of his best booze-buying customers, a Mr. John C. Eastman. Pronouncing his nephew “a hundred-and-twenty-proof genius,” Moyses introduced the nervous young Hecht to the publisher of the Chicago Daily Journal as “just the thing your great newspaper needs,” at which Eastman (also red-nosed) auditioned Hecht on the spot, ordering him to write a dirty poem and promptly leaving for lunch. So the recently graduated chairman of Racine High School’s Jest Committee sat for an hour at the desk of the publisher of the oldest Chicago newspaper then in existence and composed six moderately racy verses, complete with an envoi. When Eastman returned, he read the poem, approved, and ushered Hecht into a cavernous space dense with long tables, desks, typewriters, and men in shirtsleeves—some yelling, some sleeping with their hats pulled low over their eyes. He was hired, and told to report at six the next morning to this same spot, which smelled sharply of ink, the paper’s local room.

This too was love at first sight.

From Ben Hecht by Adina Hoffman. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Adina Hoffman is an award-winning essayist and biographer. The author of four previous books, including Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, she lives in Jerusalem and New Haven.

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