1001 Afternoons in Chicago

Ben Hecht

Preview: Issue 1 of 29

Preface

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, fugues, 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 historical allusions.

The preface is proving horribly inadequate. It is not at all what Ben wants. It does not seem possible to support his theory that "One Thousand and One Afternoons," springing from a literary passion so authentic and continuing so long with a fervor and variety unmatched in newspaper writing, are hack-work, done for a meal ticket. They must have had the momentum of a strictly artistic inspiration and gained further momentum from the need of expression, from pride in the subtle use of words, from an ardent interest in the city and its human types. Yes, they are newspaper work; they are the writings of a reporter emancipated from the assignment book and the copy-desk; a reporter gone to the heaven of reporters, where they write what they jolly well please and get it printed too! But the sketches are also literature of which I think Ben cannot be altogether ashamed; else why does he print them in a book, and how could Mr. Rosse be moved to make the striking designs with which the book is embellished? Quite enough has been said. The author, the newspaper editor, the proof-readers and revisers have done their utmost with "One Thousand and One Afternoons." The prefacer confesses failure. It is the turn of the reader. He may welcome the sketches in book form; he may turn scornfully from them and leave them to moulder in the stock-room of Messrs. Covici-McGee. To paraphrase an old comic opera lyric:

"You never can tell about a reader; Perhaps that's why we think them all so nice. You never find two alike at any one time And you never find one alike twice. You're never very certain that they read you, And you're often very certain that they don't. Though an author fancy still that he has the strongest will It's the reader has the strongest won't."

Yet I think that the book will succeed. It may succeed so far that Mr. Hecht will hear some brazen idiots remarking: "I like it better than 'Dorn' or 'Gargoyles'." Yes, just that ruinous thing may happen. But if it does Ben cannot blame his editor.

HENRY JUSTIN SMITH.

Chicago, July 1, 1922

FANNY

Why did Fanny do this? The judge would like to know. The judge would like to help her. The judge says: "Now, Fanny, tell me all about it."

All about it, all about it! Fanny's stoical face stares at the floor. If Fanny had words. But Fanny has no words. Something heavy in her heart, something vague and heavy in her thought—these are all that Fanny has.

Let the policewoman's records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed and like an ear of ripe corn dropped in the middle of State and Madison streets, Fanny came to the city.

Ah, the lonely city, with its crowds and its lonely lights. The lonely buildings busy with a thousand lonelinesses. People laughing and hurrying along, people eager-eyed for something; summer parks and streets white with snow, the city moon like a distant window, pretty gewgaws in the stores—these are a part of Fanny's story.

The judge wants to know. Fanny's eyes look up. A dog takes a kick like this, with eyes like this, large, dumb and brimming with pathos. The dog's master is a mysterious and inexplicable dispenser of joys and sorrows. His caresses and his beatings are alike mysterious; their reasons seldom to be discerned, never fully understood.

Sometimes in this court where the sinners are haled, where "poised and prim and particular, society stately sits," his honor has a moment of confusion. Eyes lift themselves to him, eyes dumb and brimming with pathos. Eyes stare out of sordid faces, evil faces, wasted faces and say something not admissible as evidence. Eyes say: "I don't know, I don't know. What is it all about?"

These are not to be confused with the eyes that plead shrewdly for mercy, with eyes that feign dramatic naïvetés and offer themselves like primping little penitents to his honor. His honor knows them fairly well. And understands them. They are eyes still bargaining with life.

But Fanny's eyes. Yes, the judge would like to know. A vagueness comes into his precise mind. He half-hears the familiar accusation that the policeman drones, a terribly matter-of-fact drone.

Another raid on a suspected flat. Routine, routine. Evil has its eternal root in the cities. A tireless Satan, bored with the monotony of his rôle; a tireless Justice, bored with the routine of tears and pleadings, lies and guilt.

There is no story in all this. Once his honor, walking home from a banquet, looked up and noticed the stars. Meaningless, immutable stars. There was nothing to be seen by looking at them. They were mysteries to be dismissed. Like the mystery of Fanny's eyes. Meaningless, immutable eyes. They do not bargain. Yet the world stares out of them. The face looks dumbly up at a judge.

No defense. The policeman's drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, what is the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky. Throw in a poignantly ironical dissertation on life, on its uncharted aimlessness, and speak like Sherwood Anderson about the desires that stir in the heart. Speak like Remy de Gourmont and Dostoevsky and Stevie Crane, like Schopenhauer and Dreiser and Isaiah; speak like all the great questioners whose tongues have wagged and whose hearts have burned with questions. His honor will listen bewilderedly and, perhaps, only perhaps, understand for a moment the dumb pathos of your eyes.

As it is, you were found, as the copper who reads the newspapers puts it, in a suspected flat. A violation of section 2012 of the City Code. Thirty days in the Bastile, Fanny. Unless his honor is feeling good.

These eyes lifted to him will ask him questions on his way home from a banquet some night.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty."

"Make it twenty-two," his honor smiles. "And you have nothing to say? About how you happened to get into this sort of thing? You look like a good girl. Although looks are often deceiving."

"I went there with him," says Fanny. And she points to a beetle-browed citizen with an unshaven face. A quaint Don Juan, indeed.

"Ever see him before?"

A shake of the head. Plain case. And yet his honor hesitates. His honor feels something expand in his breast. Perhaps he would like to rise and holding forth his hand utter a famous plagiarism—"Go and sin no more." He chews a pen and sighs, instead.

"I'll give you another chance," he says. "The next time it'll be jail. Keep this in mind. If you're brought in again, no excuses will go. Call the next case."

Now one can follow Fanny. She walks out of the courtroom. The street swallows her. Nobody in the crowds knows what has happened. Fanny is anybody now. Still, one may follow. Perhaps something will reveal itself, something will add an illuminating touch to the incident of the courtroom.

There is only this. Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated.

Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs and—powders her nose.

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