I sometimes feel wistfully nostalgic for a Hollywood that no longer exists. I can’t pinpoint when it existed, or even describe it exactly — to define it would diminish it — but I can tell you that it flourished during a “golden age,” a classic era, and that it was impossibly dreamy and glamorous.
Back then, chiffon-wrapped chanteuses crooned in elegant nightclubs, men dressed for dates and were handsome and valorous, and women wore crimson lips like a sultry second skin. It was a time of radiance and radicalism, when Hollywood’s royals went “to the mattresses” for Israel.
I was reminded of this while reading screenwriter Ben Hecht’s opus oratory on the Holy Land (yes, he actually calls it the Holy Land), over 21 typed pages he titled “Speech at dinner at Slapsy Maxie’s, L.A., financed by Mickey Cohen.” It was recently rediscovered at the Newberry Library in Chicago and reprinted in the Jewish Review of Books (and yes, he’s talking about that Mickey Cohen).
Turns out, sometime in 1948, just after the establishment of the State of Israel, Hecht gave this soaring and sensational speech about the need to support Israel to a very peculiar and powerful crowd. The setting was the famed nightclub on Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Fairfax, frequented mainly by gangsters and their glamorpusses.
“I addressed a thousand bookies, ex-prize fighters, gamblers, jockeys, touts and all sorts of lawless and semi-lawless characters; and their womenfolk,” Hecht later wrote of that night. His 45-minute treatise was a fiery Zionist call to action, pleading, exhorting and disquieting.
“I am going to speak of unhappy things tonight,” he began ominously, explaining that Menachem Begin, then-commander of Israel’s militant Irgun, had personally cabled him from Tel Aviv for a favor.
“He asks that I do what I can to arouse among the Jews who are not fighting in the Holy Land, the knowledge that without them the Holy Land will be lost. And with it will be lost forever the hope of the Jews taking their place as equals in the human family.”
Hecht uses every tool in his writer’s box to appeal to his audience’s deepest emotions and sense of history. He recalls the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, the valiant heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and, finally, the Jewish fight for self-determination in Palestine. Although, as Stuart Schoffman wrote in a preface, Hecht could be “fast and loose with the facts”; and he was bitterly scornful toward the British, whom he viewed as colluding with the Arabs. “These were the same British who whistled the Grand Mufti and his colleagues back from their Hitler honeymoon — and spread a red carpet for their re-entrance into Palestine,” he wrote.
But weren’t those the days! When a fervently Zionist firebrand employed movie premiere metaphors to speak of the Middle East!
“It really makes you wonder,” a former entertainment journalist wrote to me in an e-mail. “Where are all the rabble-rousers today??”
Instead of dancing at Slapsy Maxie’s, they’re dining at the Beverly Wilshire. Instead of spouting fire, they’re sticking to formalities. The order of the day isn’t action — it’s accounting.
At the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s gala dinner on March 18, the Jewish titans of entertainment were all in tow: Haim Saban, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer — even the mini mogul-in-the-making, Brett Ratner. But the cause that night was not as central as the celebrity Humanitarian Award honoree, Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief content officer, the man with whom even billionaires are angling to do business.
The rhetoric was never as rousing as Hecht’s, save for Rabbi Marvin Hier’s annual appeal from the podium. I tried to imagine Israel’s Superman Saban going all Mussolini-like on the stage, urging the audience to press Congress on Iran.
I tried to imagine Katzenberg publicly pushing for peace talks, vowing to use his direct line to the president to apply added pressure.
And I wondered if Weinstein could use his trademark toughness to talk Netanyahu out of subsidizing more settlements. And if Meyer, the longest-running studio chief in Hollywood history, would turn Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers” into this generation’s “Exodus.”
But the evening’s real rabble-rousers didn’t hail from the Hollywood power set; they were the Medal of Valor recipients — and they weren’t even Jewish.
Mike Flanagan deserted the British Army to help Israel’s fledgling armed forces during the 1948 War of Independence.
The families of Massimo Paruccini and Mercedes Virgili helped hide a Jewish family from the Nazis in their quaint Italian town.
And the Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal was forced to forfeit his prize money for a top Arabic literary award because it was discovered he had attended a writers festival in Jerusalem. But rather than retreat or recant, he raised his voice against what he called “the prison of intolerance” toward Jews and Israel in the Arab world, warning that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism seem once again to be “reaching proportions of history’s tragic past.”
Sansal’s message was menacingly familiar.
“All these unpleasant things I have said to you not to arouse futile angers against villainy past and gone,” Hecht declared in 1948. “I have said them only to point out the danger in which the Jew stands today.”
No Jews were in danger last week in the ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire.
It was all just a Hollywood fantasy.