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A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago   By: (1894-1964)

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E text prepared by Eric Eldred, Clare Elliott, Charles Franks, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team



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... Continue reading book >>

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