Ben Hecht was both the most cynical and the most–well, uncynical–writer. He certainly knew about the mind’s ability to hold two different, contradictory beliefs at the same time. Hecht was all too aware of cognitive dissonance in himself and others.
The things that people say and believe in and for which they die and in behalf of which they invent laws and codes–these have nothing to do with the insides of people. Puritan, hypocrite, criminal, dolt–these are paper-thin masks.
As he relates in A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Hecht knew Bill Haywood. In 1918, the union leader had been convicted of espionage, and was out of prison with the case on appeal. Hecht, who had last seen him a couple of years before, ran into Haywood in 1921 and found him to have “the same crooked-lipped smile. And his one eye staring ahead of him with a mildly amused light in it. A rather striking person was Bill. I suppose it was because he always seemed so calm outside.”
Hecht was surprised to find this dedicated political activist in such a frivolous place as a theater, and said so.
Haywood replied that he’d made a list of plays, both musical comedies and dramas, and of cafés and other venues, and had spent the previous month visiting them and checking them off the list. The inference Hecht drew, was that Big Bill Haywood was storing up on some good times before going to the penitentiary to serve an inevitable 20-year sentence.
Less than a week later, Haywood disappeared, and later turned up in Russia, where he lived for the rest of his life. Hecht realized that the plan had been in place all along–no wonder the man was calm! “Yes sir,” Hecht tells us, “this Big Bill Haywood, the terror of organized society, was saying goodbye to his native land as if he were a sentimental playboy.”
The hero of Boxcar Bertha is supposedly based on Bill Haywood
A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago – Rosse on the illustrator