||A Thousand And One Afternoons In Chicago by Ben Hecht
It was a day in the spring of 1921. Dismal shadows, really Hechtian
shadows, filled the editorial "coop" in _The Chicago Daily News_
building. Outside the rain was slanting down in the way that Hecht's own
rain always slants. In walked Hecht. He had been divorced from our staff
for some weeks, and had married an overdressed, blatant creature called
Publicity. Well, and how did he like Publicity? The answer was written in
his sullen eyes; it was written on his furrowed brow, and in the savage
way he stabbed the costly furniture with his cane. The alliance with
Publicity was an unhappy one. Good pay? Oh yes, preposterous pay.
Luncheons with prominent persons? Limitless luncheons. Easy work, short
hours, plenteous taxis, hustling associates, glittering results. But--but
he couldn't stand it, that was all. He just unaccountably, illogically,
and damnably couldn't stand it. If he had to attend another luncheon and
eat sweet-breads and peach melba and listen to some orator pronounce a
speech he, Hecht, had written, and hear some Magnate outline a campaign
which he, Hecht, had invented ... and that wasn't all, either....
Gentlemen, he just couldn't stand it.
Well, the old job was open.
Ben shuddered. It wasn't the old job that he was thinking about. He had a
new idea. Something different. Maybe impossible.
And here followed specifications for "One Thousand and One Afternoons."
The title, I believe, came later, along with details like the salary. Hang
the salary! I doubt if Ben even heard the figure that was named. He merely
said "Uh-huh!" and proceeded to embellish his dream--his dream of a
department more brilliant, more artistic, truer (I think he said truer),
broader and better than anything in the American press; a literary
thriller, a knock-out ... and so on.
So much for the mercenary spirit in which "One Thousand and One
Afternoons" was conceived.
A week or so later Ben came in again, bringing actual manuscript for eight
or ten stories. He was haggard but very happy. It was clear that he had
sat up nights with those stories. He thumbed them over as though he hated
to let them go. They were the first fruits of his Big Idea--the idea that
just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often
flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there
dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but
walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers,
sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its
interpreter. His was to be the lens throwing city life into new colors,
his the microscope revealing its contortions in life and death. It was no
newspaper dream at all, in fact. It was an artist's dream. And it had
begun to come true. Here were the stories.... Hoped I'd like 'em.
"One Thousand and One Afternoons" were launched in June, 1921. They were
presented to the public as journalism extraordinary; journalism that
invaded the realm of literature, where in large part, journalism really
dwells. They went out backed by confidence in the genius of Ben Hecht.
This, if you please, took place three months before the publication of
"Erik Dorn," when not a few critics "discovered" Hecht. It is not too much
to say that the first full release of Hecht's literary powers was in "One
Thousand and One Afternoons." The sketches themselves reveal his creative
delight in them; they ring with the happiness of a spirit at last free to
tell what it feels; they teem with thought and impressions long treasured;
they are a recital of songs echoing the voices of Ben's own city and
performed with a virtuosity granted to him alone. They announced to a
Chicago audience which only half understood them the arrival of a prodigy
whose precise significance is still unmeasured.
"Erik Dorn" was published. "Gargoyles" took form. Hecht wrote a play in
eight days. He experimented with a long manuscript to be begun and
finished within eighteen hours. "One Thousand and One Afternoons"
continued to pour out of him. His letter-box became too small for his
mail. He was bombarded with eulogies, complaints, arguments, "tips," and
solicitations. His clipping bureau rained upon him violent reviews of
"Dorn." His publishers submerged him with appeals for manuscript.
Syndicates wired him, with "name your own terms." New York editors tried
to steal him. He continued to write "One Thousand and One Afternoons." He
became weary, nervous and bilious; he spent four days in bed, and gave up
tobacco. Nothing stopped "One Thousand and One Afternoons." One a day, one
a day! Did the flesh fail, and topics give out, and the typewriter became
an enemy? No matter. The venturesome undertaking of writing good newspaper
sketches, one per diem, had to be carried out. We wondered how he did it.
We saw him in moods when he almost surrendered, when the strain of
juggling with novels, plays and with contracts, revises, adblurbs,
sketches, nearly finished "One Thousand and One Afternoon." But a year
went by, and through all that year there had not been an issue of _The
Chicago Daily News_ without a Ben Hecht sketch. And still the
manuscripts dropped down regularly on the editor's desk. Comedies,
dialogues, homilies, one-act tragedies, storiettes, sepia panels,
word-etchings, satires, tone-poems, fuges, bourrees,--something different
every day. Rarely anything hopelessly out of key. Stories seemingly born
out of nothing, and written--to judge by the typing--in ten minutes, but
in reality, as a rule, based upon actual incident, developed by a period
of soaking in the peculiar chemicals of Ben's nature, and written with
much sophistication in the choice of words. There were dramatic studies
often intensely subjective, lit with the moods of Ben himself, not of the
things dramatized. There were self-revelations characteristically frank
and provokingly debonaire. There was comment upon everything under the
sun; assaults upon all the idols of antiquity, of mediaevalism, of
neo-boobism. There were raw chunks of philosophy, delivered with gusto and
sometimes with inaccuracy. There were subtle jabs at well-established
Babbitry. And besides, of the thousand and one Hechts visible in the
sketches, there were several that appear rarely, if at all, in his novels:
The whimsical Hecht, sailing jocosely on the surface of life; the witty
Hecht, flinging out novel word-combinations, slang and snappy endings;
Hecht the child-lover and animal-lover, with a special tenderness for
dogs; Hecht the sympathetic, betraying his pity for the aged, the
forgotten, the forlorn. In the novels he is one of his selves, in the
sketches he is many of them. Perhaps this is why he officially spoke
slightingly of them at times, why he walked in some days, flung down a
manuscript, and said: "Here's a rotten story." Yet it must be that he
found pleasure in playing the whole scale, in hopping from the G-string to
the E-, in surprising his public each day with a new whim or a recently
discovered broken image. I suspect, anyhow, that he delighted in making
his editor stare and fumble in the Dictionary of Taboos.
Ben will deny most of this. He denies everything. It doesn't matter. It
doesn't even matter much, Ben, that your typing was sometimes so blind or
that your spelling was occasionally atrocious, or that it took three
proof-readers and a Library of Universal Knowledge to check up your
9 June, 2006