A Fun Chicago Book—“1001 Afternoons in Chicago”

“I want to read a Chicago book that’s fun!”

Chicago history has been captured in hundreds of books. Some of them are distinguished and scholarly and dull, but still worth reading. Forget about those for now.

Our occasional subject here will be the quirky old 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.

Hecht was already a veteran reporter. He roamed the city from Gold Coast to back alleys, looking for offbeat tales of humanity. 1001 Afternoons made him famous. He went on to become a celebrated playwright and screen writer.

1001 Afternoons is eclectic. Sometimes Hecht writes about figures in the current news. 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. (Remember him?)

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 ride on a 2 a.m. ‘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. Or familiar.

And that’s the thing about Hecht’s columns. The slice-of-life vignette has become beaten to death. When Hecht did it a century ago, it was new and exciting.

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

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