With the slogan “America First” back in our national discourse, it is worthwhile to remember what that term meant when it first became popular in the years leading up to World War II. It was the slogan of isolationists advocating neutrality toward Nazi Germany and avoidance of U.S. entry into the European conflict, even after war broke out in September 1939. The spokesman of the “America First Committee,” famed aviator and open Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, explicitly accused “the Jewish race” of trying to manipulate the United States into war—for motives that might have been “understandable from their viewpoint,” as he put it, but were “reasons which are not American.” He added of Jewish Americans: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio”—in other words, culture and the arts.
Ironically, while many American Jews did indeed hold powerful positions in the media and entertainment industries, the vast majority of them did not use their platforms to publicly advocate for war. While Lindbergh saw a nefarious conspiracy, in actuality most of those successful figures were reluctant to bring attention to their own Jewishness in a society that still countenanced such open anti-Semitism. Of course it was Japan, not Germany, that finally provoked the U.S. into war in 1941. And even when Americans accepted their role in the conflict, the looming genocide of European Jewry was far off their radar. The notion of World War II as “The Good War,” a noble crusade to free the Jews of Europe, was not how most Americans saw it at the time. As historian Paul Fussell has written, “The slogan was conspicuously ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’ No one ever shouted or sang ‘Remember Poland.’”
Against this backdrop, the courage of a few prominent American Jews who did raise their voices about this issue, and did so unabashedly as Jews, makes their stories particularly remarkable—especially in Hollywood, where enforced assimilation had been a steadfast condition of success. Three such cases are recounted in recent biographies of actor Eddie Cantor (1892-1964), producer Billy Rose (1899-1966), and playwright/screenwriter Ben Hecht (1893-1964). All were first-generation Jewish Americans, sons of immigrants who rose through the ranks of the culture industries of the teens and ’20s to great success. By the 1930s, all three were at the peak of their fame and had much to lose by taking controversial political stances. Furthermore, all had hitherto lived as very assimilated, secular Jews with little to no involvement in religious causes, until the rise of Nazism prompted them to take political action, even if it meant “outing” themselves as members of what was still considered by many Americans a foreign “race.”
In The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics, cultural historian David Weinstein paints a layered portrait of an entertainer with a mild-mannered stage persona who, behind the scenes (and occasionally onstage), was bolder than most of his Jewish colleagues in the industry. Cantor rose through vaudeville in the 1910s before becoming a headliner of many seasons of the Ziegfeld Follies in the ’20s. This led to some “legit” hits like Whoopee (1928) and paved the way to Hollywood. Cantor first began commenting on Nazism in 1935 after his films were banned in Germany—the films had no ostensible Jewish content, but this speaks to how recognizable Cantor’s ethnicity was in his public persona. (Cantor was one of the few Hollywood stars to retain an identifiably Jewish surname, though he had a complicated name-change tale of his own: Born Isidore Iskowitz, he took his mother’s maiden name, Kantrowitz, when his father left the family and this eventually was shortened to Cantor; “Eddie” was an early stage name.) Cantor’s defiant answer to the controversy was not just to denounce tyranny generally but to draw attention to why he in particular was targeted: “Why should I send my films to Germany and make people laugh who make my people cry?” Not unrelatedly, Cantor soon found more success in radio hosting a variety program. But in 1939—at the height of prewar tensions—his show was canceled when, in a private event covered by the press, he warned that “the whole business now going on over there [Germany] can be transferred over here,” and that homegrown fascists like Father Charles Coughlin (the infamous “radio priest”) and nativist Sen. Robert Rice Reynolds of North Carolina (home of Cantor’s sponsor, Camel Cigarettes) “are the enemies of not only the Jews, but of all Americans.”
“Prominent American Jews such as Cantor walked a delicate line,” Weinstein reminds us. “They attempted to use their positions to assist and defend their fellow Jews without fueling antisemitic charges of dual loyalties or disproportionate influence.” Cantor’s “line” was made all the more “delicate” by the contrast of his inoffensive nebbish stage persona and his privately passionate convictions. Weinstein maintains that “beneath the stage makeup stood a tough guy,” though he is also up front about the problematic contradictions in Cantor’s life and work. (Cantor “railed against anti-Semitism while playing characters that perpetuated stereotypes of weak Jewish men,” just as he also “performed in blackface…even though he frequently participated in campaigns opposing prejudice and discrimination.”) But within the anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic contours of the age’s popular culture, Cantor showed a willingness to step out of character and risk his career. When asked if he regretted those 1939 comments that lost him his job, he said, “Long after I’m through as a comedian, I’ll still be a man.”
Billy Rose’s biographical trajectory from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to showbiz fame and Jewish humanitarianism mirrored Cantor’s personally, if not professionally. Brash in character and scattershot in his accomplishments, Rose’s life is summed up, by biographer Mark Cohen in Not Bad for Delancey Street: The Rise of Billy Rose, as “shorthand expert; songwriter; nightclub owner; Broadway producer; fairgrounds impresario; master negotiator; newspaper columnist; theatre owner; multimillionaire; secret Jewish rescuer, activist, and philanthropist and frequently married and cheerfully self-described bastard.” (In popular culture, his ongoing fame today may owe more to the bigger fame of the first of his four wives, comedienne Fanny Brice. Cohen describes the union as basically a business partnership, no more.)
Stenography may have been Rose’s initial ticket out of the ghetto into polite society (working for uber-philanthropist Bernard Baruch), but his true “rise” began in Tin Pan Alley, penning lyrics to hits like “Me and My Shadow” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” (Many have doubted the extent of his true contributions to these songs, written collaboratively with other lyricists. But Cohen makes a strong case for the legitimacy of his authorship claims.) After clashing with the big music publishers over business practices, Rose soon pivoted away from songwriting to pursue even more riches as a producer. He ultimately made his mark as a unique kind of theatrical “presenter”—critic John Mason Brown once described him as a cross between Florenz Ziegfeld and P.T. Barnum—known for devising wholly new attractions outside the traditional Broadway realm, like his Diamond Horseshoe nightclub, a kind of epic dinner theatre, and the water spectacles of his lavish “Aquacade.”
Aside from his name change (from Samuel Rosenberg), Rose, with his brash swagger and Lower East Side accent, did not do much to conceal his ethnic origins. But rarely did he take on explicitly Jewish projects either, preferring to see himself as a purely self-interested businessman. “But the Jewish catastrophe posed by the Nazis,” writes Cohen, “forced Rose to make an exception to his hard-boiled outlook,” leading to “a double life that saw him become one of the country’s richest and most famous purveyors of light diversions for the masses and also an important part of American Jewry’s campaign to win support for American intervention in World War II.”
His first major response to the changing times was staging a pageant-like version of Sinclair Lewis’s antifascist novel It Can’t Happen Here in 1937. And in October of 1941—just weeks before Pearl Harbor—he produced “Fun to be Free,” a political rally-slash-variety show that took direct aim at Lindbergh. Rose’s partners in this venture included Cantor, who performed, and Ben Hecht, who scripted much of the evening. It was the first of Rose’s many collaborations with Hecht, who later credited Rose for his financial largesse both during the war and after (in support of Israel), saying, “His pocketbook was one of the chief arsenals for Jewish liberation.”
If Rose was this awareness campaign’s chief “backer,” Hecht was its poet. By the late ’30s, Hecht was one of the age’s most celebrated screenwriters, though his journey to Hollywood had been circuitous. Another Lower East Sider by birth, he grew up in Racine, Wisc., where his parents soon resettled in a Jewish immigrant community. He truly came of age as a journalist and novelist in Chicago during the 1910s and ’20s and became a leading figure of the Chicago literary renaissance of the period, contributing much to that city’s prohibition-era mythology. His now-legendary partnership with fellow newspaperman Charles McArthur scored its first Broadway hit in 1928 with The Front Page, followed by Twentieth Century in 1932. He wrote copiously for both stage and screen throughout the ’30s, most famously the screenplays to Scarface, Nothing Sacred, and (uncredited) Gone With the Wind. In a familiar pattern, he was previously apolitical regarding his Jewish origins and thoroughly assimilated, but the Nazi threat abruptly radicalized him. He later joked about “becoming a Jew in 1939,” but even by then he had been steadily building a profile throughout the decade as one of Hollywood’s most outspoken anti-fascists—albeit offscreen.
As many film historians have documented (Neal Gabler in Empire of Their Own, and more recently Thomas Doherty in Hollywood and Hitler), Jewish American studio executives may have privately feared Hitler’s rise, but most of them still courted German overseas markets for their movies and forbade any anti-German (let alone pro-Jewish) sentiment in their films right up until the eve of the war. Prevailing isolationist sentiment in the mainstream U.S. audience didn’t help either.
Blocked from writing anti-fascist content for the screen, Hecht (like Cantor and Rose) had to sideline as an activist separately from his art. Two new biographies—Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures and Julien Gorbach’s Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist—are wide-ranging enough to cover multiple facets of Hecht’s life and career, from his modernist literary origins to his newspaper days to Broadway and Hollywood, but do so chiefly through the lens of his Jewishness. While this aspect of Hecht’s life has since been eclipsed by the immortality of his best plays and movies, for Americans paying attention to such things during the WWII era, Ben Hecht was one of the country’s most visible advocates for anti-fascist and pro-Jewish causes who was openly Jewish himself.
As with Cantor and Rose, Hecht’s Jewish activism began with general anti-fascist campaigning, raising awareness of the German threat to an American public wary of foreign entanglements. Such appeals tended to couch themselves in the broadest possible flag-waving fanfare, assuring Americans that opposing Hitler was simply another chapter in their “Fight for Freedom” (the name of the organization that produced the 1941 “Fun to Be Free” rally, which included a “patriotic pageant” of that title by Hecht and MacArthur). But when news reports began to trickle in as early as 1942 that millions of Jews were being murdered en masse, Hecht grew impatient with “mainstreaming” his message. He also sidestepped the more “establishment” Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Congress, which were calling for patience and deference to the Roosevelt administration in its slow-walking of Jewish rescue proposals, instead joining forces with the more militant followers of Zionist exile Peter Bergson, who demanded nothing short of immediate intervention through such unorthodox means as buying the freedom of as-yet-undeported Jews through shady intermediaries, or even creating an international “Jewish Army” brigade to liberate the concentration camps. (The Allied invasion of Italy, when U.S. troops were at last deployed on the European continent, would not come until September of 1943, with D-Day the following June.)
Hecht donated his services to Bergson as a proud propagandist, writing several newspaper editorials, speeches, and pamphlets. But he captured the most attention by turning to the theatre, conceiving of a spectacular pageant advertised as “A Mass Memorial Dedicated to the Two Million Jewish Dead of Europe.” We Will Never Die was first performed at Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943, and in many ways was the nation’s first Holocaust drama. Hecht and Billy Rose, who served as “producer,” enlisted many fellow Jewish Broadway luminaries (Kurt Weill, Moss Hart), actors of stage and screen (Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson), and a cast of literally hundreds of extras, including a chorus of exiled rabbis. Described by Hoffman as “a kind of Jewish passion play,” the pageant looked to the past, present, and future: first by paying tribute to the legacy of Jewish civilization through a “Roll Call of the Great Jews” of history; then by documenting the current fighting of Jewish soldiers in the U.S. and Allied forces; and, finally, with a prescient vision of the postwar world, where defeated Nazis would face trial and condemnation by the ghosts of their victims, who all intone “Remember Us” as they recite a catalogue of some of the first known German atrocities.
Between two New York performances and a five-city national tour (during which Hecht added a scene depicting the recent Warsaw Ghetto uprising), the pageant reached large audiences and received even more exposure through press coverage in each city. As many later Hollywood activists would learn, Hecht knew that reporters pay more attention to your cause when celebrities are attached.
In retrospect, Hecht seems to have been doing a great service for Jewish Americans by breaking the silence and alerting the public to what would only later be called the Holocaust. “In the darkest hour of Jewish history,” writes Gorbach, “at a moment when American Jewry was helpless, fragmented, and bitterly divided, Hecht drew from the past to popularize an affirmative narrative of his people for the generation who lived through the war.” But by deploying what Hoffman criticizes as “a set of maverick (showy, angry, irreverent) consciousness-raising tactics,” Hecht also “deeply unsettled the staid American Jewish establishment.” It did not help that his ally Bergson represented what was then a radical fringe faction of Zionist politics. Nor did Hecht do himself any favors by regularly accusing fellow successful American Jews (especially in Hollywood) of cowardice for worrying more about their own assimilation into U.S. society than about their less fortunate brethren abroad. At the same time, as Gorbach persuasively argues, Hecht was pointing the way to a future when “Jewish American” would be an identity to be proud of, not hidden: “By aggressively calling attention to his people’s plight at a time when so many others were afraid to make waves, Hecht redefined what it meant to be an American Jew.”
Still, was Hecht’s “pugilistic” style of Jewish advocacy ultimately a limitation and a liability, as Hoffman suggests, defining Jewishness “in mostly negative or reactive terms, in response to anti-Semitism”? In contrast to the more sunny and hopeful philanthropic personas of Cantor and Rose, Hecht let the darkness of the times drive his rhetoric to increasingly vituperative and violent extremes. This became even more clear after the war, when the crisis of resettling Holocaust survivors intensified the fight over Palestine among Jewish, Arab, and British forces. Hecht became a supporter of the most violent Jewish guerrilla force, the Irgun, helping it to wage a propaganda campaign against the British government as incendiary as his fight against Nazism—it was so controversial, in fact, that it led to a temporary ban on his films in the U.K.
To raise funds for the insurgency, he wrote another theatrical pageant-drama, A Flag Is Born; with Billy Rose’s financial backing, it opened in the fall of 1946 (starring Paul Muni as an aged Holocaust survivor) and spread its proud Zionist message for a four-month run on Broadway, followed by a national tour. (In Broadway annals it’s most famous for casting the pre-Streetcar Marlon Brando as a Zionist firebrand, even though he wasn’t Jewish.) The Irgun acknowledged Hecht’s contribution to the cause by using the proceeds from Flag to commandeer a ship to transport refugees they christened the “S.S. Ben Hecht.”
While Hecht was lionizing the “Jewish terrorists” of the Irgun, Cantor and Rose courted more respectability by fronting campaigns for Israel Bonds and adoption of orphaned Jewish children. (You can still visit the Billy Rose Art Garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.) And while all three men unabashedly prioritized Jewish interests in Palestine without consideration of displaced Arabs, Hecht was alone in endorsing the “territorial maximalist” faction that would go on to become the hard-line Likud party in modern-day Israel. (Benjamin Netanyahu’s father was a member of Bergson’s group, and Menachem Begin spoke at Hecht’s funeral.) Both Hecht biographers wrestle well with the mixed political implications of Hecht’s legacy—at once furthering Jewish empowerment while also advancing an “ends justify the means” ruthlessness in both his rhetoric and choice of political allies.
Hecht’s “grim view of human nature,” Gorbach argues, had one benefit: It “yielded a kind of second sight, an ability to see with much greater clarity than most, the horror that was about to unfold.” One could say his prescience also extended to the growing potential of American artists and entertainers in a media-saturated society to champion causes and even sway public opinion. In situating these lives in the context of contemporary Jewish cultural studies, these biographies suggest that such civic responsibility is inherent in Judaic values. As secular as they were, the actions of these mid-century Broadway and Hollywood icons actually exemplified the ancient Hebrew tenet of tikkun olam, “repair the world.” Even though Eddie Cantor, for instance, “did not observe Judaic law and practice,” Weinstein maintains, “he fervently believed in the rituals and power of show business,” holding up “popular entertainers as models to illustrate the imperative that all Americans must fight bigotry and religious intolerance.” Their political pursuits certainly paved the way for many subsequent followers of all backgrounds in the church of the performing arts to similarly leverage their celebrity in the name of social justice.
Garrett Eisler is a frequent contributor to this magazine.