Ray Lewis White
Ben Hecht on The Vegetable: A lost Chicago review


Of the fifty-nine reviews of The Vegetable in 1923—as enumerated and annotated by Jackson R. Bryer in The Critical Reputation of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1967, pp. 49-59)—the only reviewer of Fitzgerald’s published play to become and remain well known is Edmund Wilson. Of the other reviewers, only Fanny Butcher, Harry Hansen, John Farrar, and Burton Rascoe are now remembered—and only by collectors of book reviews and tracers of critical receptions. Yet one other reviewer in 1923—himself a talented satirist and aspiring dramatist—wrote interestingly of The Vegetable. Ben Hecht (1896-1964), then editor of The Chicago Literary Times, reviewed Fitzgerald’s play in the 1 June 1923 issue of his personal critical newspaper:

This play was written by a ringleader among a class of flippant, garrulously obvious writers who are at present busily engaged in scratching and playfully slapping the face of society, without cutting beneath the rouged skin. In this way they may pose as devilish, fearless investigators of shams and follies without endangering their popularity and with an intermin­able chuckle that removes the edge from their weak attempts at irony.

Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the prosperous, boisterous members of this band and he accomplishes the old trick of swatting hypocrisies and fondling them at the same time—the “tartly humorous but sympathetic” style that has rescued many an empty brain with a swelling purse. His play deals with a young male householder named Jerry, who becomes drunk on boot-leg insolence and imagines that he has been elected President of the United States.

After a burlesque account of his experiences in this position, culminating with his impeachment because he appointed his dull-witted father as Secretary of the Treasury, he is removed from the White House and altered to a happy, champion postman.

This drivel is supposed to be a satire on the vanities and incapacities of public officials, but it affords nothing save the spectacle of a breezy charlatan—the author—engaged in stuffing his mental hollows with a shallow brand of humor. (p. 6)

Ben Hecht is not known to have reviewed any other work by Scott Fitzgerald. Whether the two writers ever became more than acquainted—even when sharing days in Hollywood—is doubtful, Hecht later referring to “Fitzgerald, with his sophomore face and troubadour heart” as “already pensive and inquiring if there were any sense to life, and muttering, at thirty, about the cruelty of growing aged” (A Child of the Century [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954], pp. 395, 478). Fitzgerald, who had admired Hecht’s Eric Dorn (New York and London: Putnam’s, 1921), writing to Max Perkins that the novel was “probably the second best book of the autumn” (Dear Scott/Dear Max, p. 41), later shared Hecht’s boredom with movie work, but placed him among “the spoiled writers” (Letters, pp. 430, 572). Perhaps Ben Hecht’s opinion of The Vegetable accounted—in part—for this lack of literary friendship.

Illinois State University