Ben Hecht Plays Where's Waldo's Head?

In an early article during his days as a reporter for the Chicago Journal, where Ben Hecht wrote from 1910-1914, Hecht introduced the city of Chicago to Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, an early psychoanalysis student of Dr. Sigmund Freud. As you will read below, Hecht and Dr. Stekel, spent a fair amount of time together with Hecht even working as an analyst for Dr. Stekel, if you'll believe it.

As we've previously discussed in other blog posts, how mental illness was treated and what was considered an illness, in the early 20th century, left much to be desired. Unlike, Dr. Henry Cotton who believed removing teeth or testicles might be the root of mental illness, many others, believed the keys to the various mental illnesses were in our dreams. Dr. Stekel took a particular interest in how sex manifested itself in our dreams and daily life.

Dr. Stekel's published works include- Sex and dreams; the language of dreamsBi-sexual love; the homosexual neurosisDisguises of love; psycho-analytical sketchesImpotence in the Male: The Psychic Disorders of Sexual Function in the Male, and Nietzsche and Wagner: A Sexual Psychological Study on the Psychogenesis of Friendship and Friendship Betrayal


Sex and Dreams by Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, 1922 The Gorham Press.

Sex and Dreams by Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, 1922 The Gorham Press.


Ben Hecht's personal feelings for Carl Wanderer ultimately come through in some of his earlier writings and are openly stated in some of his later works. Hecht’s own weird fascination with Dr. Wilhelm Stekel offers some insight to where those feelings may have been developed. Hecht spent ALOT of ink on sex in later years and those writings are enlightening. The story below about the Waldo's is a perfect example.


Dr. Wilhelm Stekel

Dr. Wilhelm Stekel


In his book Gaily, Gaily Hecht recounted that his initial article on Dr. Stekel and the new field of psychoanalysis had made the doctor extremely pleased and caused him to be, “overfull with patients.” Hecht called on the doctor at his hotel suite again and the doctor told Hecht he needed a new assistant and wanted Hecht to be the man. “No medical or psychoanalytical training is required. A reporter will go to the home of an important patient and make observations for me.”

Stekel told Hecht the patient he would be seeing was a prominent local attorney, George Waldo, whose subconscious caused the man to be afflicted with attacks of “globus hystericus” which prevented him from giving his final plea to a jury on behalf of a guilty client. Supposedly the attorney’s own guilt for something was leading to his affliction. Stekel wanted Hecht to attend a dinner with the attorney, who Hecht previously knew socially and disdained, and the attorney’s wife, who Hecht had an even more profound disdain for, so that Hecht could take notes on the dinner for Dr. Stekel.

“I sat at a shadowy, but costly dining table and listened to a George Waldo sex lecture, multiplied by two. Mrs. Waldo was an even more embarrassing conversationalist than her erotomaniacal husband.”

Hecht would describe Mrs. Waldo as, “a lean woman of thirty- sharp, boyish features under a tipsy hill of blond hair. Boney arms, and stringy shoulders were exposed by a red velvet dinner dress, which also featured the unexpected fact of two oversized breasts. They bulged triumphantly in the candlelight and were as hard to ignore as a pair of trained poodles. But they had a rival- her mouth. It seemed never to close. Her conversation offered an almost uninterrupted view of her insides.”

Hecht, the eighteen-year-old reporter-cum-psychoanalyst, listened to husband and wife speak explicitly about their sex lives and sex in general.

“I had never heard such obscene babble in the lowest of brothels. Asked to contribute some of my own personal sex lore, I decided to end my career as a scientist and go home.”

Rather than go home on a rainy Saturday night however, Hecht said the Waldo’s tried to convince him to spend the night in their guest room. “I gave in, agreed to stay the night and found myself drinking out of a constantly refilled glass of rye whisky.” Hecht spent “a lot of time vomiting” in the bathroom after having been led to the guest room by Mr. Waldo.

Later, “A sound wakened me out of dizzied sleep and I beheld what every young man dreams of- a vision of female loveliness invading his bedroom. I was still too drunk to know it was Ethel Waldo. If there is any erotic form in my report of what followed, it is proof of my deficiencies as a writer."

The married woman told Hecht, “You mustn’t be worried…George has taken his sleeping medicine. I gave him an extra spoonful, he’ll sleep like a pig till noon.”

“I had never known a married woman carnally. I said nothing, more ashamed of protesting than of yielding. I kept my eyes closed. It is proof of how little a man’s character means to him that I was able to embrace successfully a woman who filled my mind only with derogatory shudders.”

After waking alone, Hecht said he was about to make his getaway when Mrs. Waldo entered his room in a robe “as festive as a Maypole” and told him her husband had been called away on business and would be gone the rest of the day.

“The day was worse than the night had been. I had read about nymphomania and not been alienated by its morbid details. An over-passionate female in print can seem even companionable. But a perfumed and beribboned Mrs. Waldo, happy as a kitten prancing around a ball of yarn, was nothing the body or mind could enjoy. She reduced sex to an illness and reminded me of people I had seen die in convulsions; of autopsies I had watched done; of the disorders of the natural type such as tidal waves and earthquakes. Mrs. Waldo grew more unpalatable with every embrace. Her abyss of a mouth, the companion abyss of her craving, her spasms and greedy gyrations, and their calliope accompaniments began to nauseate me. Suddenly, Mrs. Waldo started voicing the fine love she felt for me. During one of her woozy, mouth-smacking flights of exaltation, I hit her on the chin and knocked her out. I dressed and bolted.”

“Dr. Stekel listened to my Waldo report with little interest. I omitted my amour with Mrs. Waldo and was surprised at his not seeing through me.” The doctor told Hecht he was interested in the sex talk but what made him take notice was when Hecht told Stekel that the dinner was taken by candlelight and that candles and gas were the only illumination in the Waldo house. In a ‘eureka’ moment, Dr. Stekel posited that the lack of electricity was due to Mr. Waldo’s subconscious planning to murder Mrs. Waldo.

“Mr. Waldo hid his murder plot from his consciousness. We will find out absolutely that it was Mr. Waldo’s wishes to keep his home old-fashioned and without electricity. Why? So he could have gas. And why gas? Because it is gas he intends as a weapon. He hopes to dispose of his wife by asphyxiation. Notice carefully that word. It is an asphyxiation symptom that the husband suffers with. When he begins to address a jury on the innocence of his client, Mr. Waldo releases from his subconscious the knowledge of his own guilt as a murderer to be.”

Hecht then wrote how rather than kill his wife, Mr. Waldo intended to divorce her after Mrs. Waldo had run off with another man. Unfortunately, as it related to the unmarried Hecht, Mrs. Waldo had taken dozens of lovers and had apparently shared the details of each dalliance with Mr. Waldo. As all her other lovers had been married men with families that could be destroyed, Mr. Waldo intended to sue his wife for divorce and wanted Hecht to swear in a deposition and in court that he had sexual intercourse with the married woman.

After what he termed to be a blackmail plot Hecht sat for a deposition and reluctantly told his tale. In the months leading up to the divorce trial, such a cloud hung over Hecht that, “there were comments on my pallor and odd stare. I was asked whether it was a frustrated love or a venereal disease. My elders gave me advice on both subjects.”

As if this tale wasn’t odd enough, Hecht wrote of how he learned that he would not have to worry about a trial. His editor sent him to cover a ‘hot story’ about a victim of love. With a photographer named Bunny Hare at his side, Hecht set out for the crime scene.

“We followed a policeman into a dimly lighted basement. Other policeman were there. They were grouped around a nude female body sitting upright in a kitchen chair. Bunny Hare aimed his large camera at the subject and shot off his flash powder. In the sudden blaze, I saw Ethel Waldo’s face. It was stiffened in a tilted posture. Then the face disappeared. The flash-light explosion had jarred the corpse and undone the ax-murderer’s savage work. I stared at the floor and watched Ethel Waldo’s head roll toward me. Ethel’s murderer was never caught and there was no one ever to relate the story of her killing. But I knew it well from the instant I saw her staring crookedly in the flash-light blaze. I remembered hitting her in the four-poster bed and knocking her out. Someone had hit her harder.”

Hecht’s editor praised him, “That’s a real solid scoop- identifying that detachable head before the police got hold of her name. We beat every paper in town by a full hour. I intend to call your genius to Mr. Eastman’s (the Chicago Journal’s owner) attention.” Hecht would get a raise of $2.50 per week for his scoop. The concept that sex sells, would not be lost on Hecht.

Not long after covering the Ragged Stranger story, and before he and MacArthur wrote The Front Page, Hecht wrote his own book on sex, Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath with illustrations by Wallace Smith. While the book's topic might sound similar to the Wanderer story, a man's descent into madness, some believe Hecht wrote the book to strike a conversation on prudishness, censorship, and morality- I don't feel that much of it is germane to Hecht's views on Wanderer and thus we're not diving further into that work, in case you were wondering. There is an e-book available though if you would like to check it out here.



A new blog post Wednesday, September 26- A Final Determination: Julia or James

A new podcast episode is out- Podcast Episode #7- The Governor is Doing What?


This blog aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct fallacies where they have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.


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