A fun old Chicago book: '1001 Afternoons in Chicago'

October 10, 2011

"I want to read a Chicago book that's fun!"

Chicago history has been captured in hundreds of books. Some of them are scholarly and distinguished and dull, but still worth reading. Forget about those. Our occasional subject here will be the quirky old Chicago books that have become my personal favorites. Each in its own way evokes the flavor of an era. And isn't that what history is all about?                                               

Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in Chicago (1922) is my first selection. Beginning in 1921 Hecht wrote a daily column for the Chicago Daily News. This book contains 64 of them.

By the time he launched his column, Hecht was already a veteran reporter. Now he roamed the city from Gold Coast to back-alley slums, looking for offbeat tales of humanity. The column and the book made him famous, and he went on to become a celebrated screen writer.

1001 Afternoons is eclectic. Sometimes Hecht writes about noted figures. He recalls a last encounter with Big Bill Haywood, or offers a tribute to comic Bert Williams, or recounts a eulogy delivered by Clarence Darrow. One piece speculates on the daily life of fugitive killer Tommy O'Connor.

More often Hecht's subjects are ordinary Chicagoans. We meet Gustave the watch-maker, and Sing Lee the laundry man, and Clara the office clerk, and Mr. Martin the "professional juror." We take a 2 a.m. ride on an 'L' train. We join Hecht on a simple walk in the rain.

The writing style is more adorned than we are used to today. It speaks of a different time. Yet many of the stories are timeless--and somehow, familiar.

And that's the thing about Hecht's tales. The slice-of-life vignette has been beaten to death. When Hecht did it 90 years ago, it was fresh and exciting.

1001 Afternoons in Chicago has been reprinted many times, and copies are easy to find. Whichever edition you get, make sure it has the original illustrations by Herman Rosse. His drawings are an integral part of the package.