10/25/13

THE NYACK STORY: AT HOME WITH BEN HECHT


Screenwriter, playwright, newspaperman, novelist, Israel supporter, memoirist, anecdotalist Ben Hecht wrote literally billions of words in his lifetime. Famous as Hollywood's most prolific screenwriter, he and his frequent collaborator Charles MacArthur also wrote one of Broadway's enduring classic plays, "The Front Page" which has been made into a movie at least four times by my count. If you're reading this particular blog I probably don't need to give you "The Ben Hecht Story". (If you really need it, click here). Instead, let's focus on--guess what?--"The Nyack Story." For Nyack is where Ben Hecht's home of many years was located.

Hecht and MacArthur 'discovered' Nyack, New York--then a sleepy village on the Hudson not so very far from the hubbub of Times Square--in the late 1920's. In Hecht's brutally long autobiography "A Child Of The Century", he discusses how they landed in Nyack.

"Looking around for some place where we might write a play without city interruptions, Charlie remembered Nyack. In Nyack , he said, we would find peace and inspiration. We went there and rented a girls' college that had recently gone bankrupt. Here we lived in some fifty bedrooms for the summer."

The fifty-bedroom college rental is very Hecht--there is always the propensity in his life for more--more rooms, more scripts, more stuff to do, more people to know, more books to write, more countries to help found (did I mention Israel?). At some point in the early '30's he boasted to a young aspiring writer, "I can do a script in a week. I can do a book in a month!" It was not a boast. Indeed, he was probably having a slow time of it that year.

Though he doesn't go into any detail about his house in his memoir (it's just about the only thing he doesn't go into detail about), the place was recently for sale and an abundance of lovely photos are now available for all to see.

This is the house Hecht lived in from the late twenties through his death in the mid-sixites. So integral was Hecht's participation in the rewriting and polishing of much of Hollwood's product that he was "allowed" to lead a bi-coastal existence. (Most studio writers at the time were chained to desks in offices--cells, really--on the studio lots blandly referred to as "Writer's Buildings". Many went mad. Others went across the street for a series of pre-lunchtime cocktails.)

Not so Messrs. Hecht and MacArthur. Though they journeyed frequently to the west coast, they also parked--hibernated? hid out?--in their beloved Nyack for long periods. What better and lovelier view for a writer to bang out witty and polished dialogue by than this, from his rear patio (a reverse view of the above):

The small central section of the house--the lower middle part in the upper photo--was apparently built in 1800. It took the protean, over-extended and hyperactive Hecht to add on the surrounding wings. The house has a pleasing, disorganized quality. I particularly like rooms such as the bedroom/library:

And I even like this somewhat klutzy addition, clearly from the late-thirties, early forties. Why are the ceilings so low? Why is there a wall with one set of French doors but not another matching set next to it? Why the lousy lighting? Why the white piano?

How can we object to this sunrise view? And did Hecht awaken to it? Or did he pull all-nighters, slamming out the repartee for Hawks, Wyler, Selznick, et.al, before dozing off to this little slice of Hudson heaven?
Still, Hecht did often travel out to Tinseltown (Christ I hate that term--why did I use it?) and in typical (why the hell am I having spacing problems--I really don't like the "new" Blogger)--in typical 
Hechtian fashion it was neither a simple nor relaxing process--at least by normal people's standards. The below description sounds like the once-in-a-lifetime cross country move from hell that most of us would dread even doing once. Apparently it was a twice-yearly Hechtian pilgramage. I get tired just reading it, but then again I get tired just contemplating Hecht's filmography. Dig:


"Each time we went to Hollywood, we took with us most of our Nyack menage. Lester Bartow (Hecht's general factotum) our driver, rode them across country in the car. With Lester on the coast-to-coast treks went my strongman trainer, Elmore Cole, under whose eye for twenty years every morning at eight I punched the bag, did mat work and grunted lifting weights; our French poodle, Googie...and our three old ladies, Gertie, Joe and Hilja (more Hecht family general factotum's). Twenty suitcases, six trunks, oil pantings, our radios and phonograph records, and favorite window drapes went each time by freight. Rose and I took the train." 





 Subscribe in a reader

3 comments: