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Life of Mark Hellinger

by Michael Spencer

 

Growing Up: 1903-1922

 

 

     Mark John Hellinger was born March 21, 1903 in New York City of Orthodox Jewish parents, Paul and Millie Hellinger. His father was a prosperous real estate lawyer, who very much wanted his son Mark to follow him into the law.

     Hellinger had a younger brother, Monroe, nicknamed Buddy, who idolized his older brother and his brother’s wife. At the end of his life Buddy, who was slowly dying, came and lived in the Hellinger mansion in Hollywood until he died.

     Hellinger decided on standing in opposition to everything his father stood for when he was a boy, according to Jim Bishop. (Bishop, the chief source of information on Hellinger’s life, was Hellinger’s protege as a newspaperman and his lifelong friend.) Hellinger become a non-practicing Jew, and was utterly disinterested in following his father into a law career. Later on in his life, Hellinger often had difficulties with his superiors, becoming openly incensed sometimes to believe, sometimes accurately, that he was being treated with lack of respect.

     When he was still a boy, Hellinger decided he would be a writer. Typically for aspiring writers, he began by producing trivial pieces. Around 1920, he began writing producible plays. And early on, he also wanted to be a Broadway reporter, long before he became one.

     Hellinger never finished high school. When he was 15, he organized a student strike at his school, Townsend Harris High School, agitating for the vacation he thought the students should have. Within several days, the strike ran out of steam, and then Hellinger was expelled.

     Hellinger first worked in 1921 and in the earlier part of 1922 part-time as a waiter and cashier at the Red Head, a night club in Greenwich Village, in order to meet Broadway people. Later he worked full-time at a New York Department store, Lane Bryant, writing direct-mail advertisements for clothing for heavy and pregnant women. He was fired after setting up his own, second business at work.

     Bishop provides a rather repulsive physical picture of the young Hellinger, describing his black, notched teeth. When he was 18, he had all his teeth pulled out and artificial ones put in instead. His appearance became appealing, and he showed himself well able to rouse women’s interest during his bachelor days.

     “He had a dark, handsome face with twinkling blue eyes,” Bishop remarks. “He walked with a slightly hunched stoop in an easy stride and held his head cocked…. His conscious effort was always to sound hard-boiled, disillusioned. In doing this Hellinger was fighting his own heart, which was about as rocklike as a pound of butter in a summer sun.”(Bishop, pp. 14-15)1

 

Broadway: 1922-1937

     In 1922, Hellinger began working as a reporter at Zit’s Weekly, a theatrical publication. His mother had pulled strings through a friend to get this job for her son. Hellinger was there a year and a half.

     And so Hellinger began working as a journalist in New York City. This was the Prohibition era. Prohibition, which ran from 1920 to 1933, was the period in American history when it was illegal to manufacture or to drink alcohol in the United States. Prohibition was responsible for the very colorful Broadway setting, which was the field of Hellinger’s activity. Bishop called the Broadway of this period “an expensive circus” (Bishop, p. 61). Hellinger spent much of his time as a Broadway reporter in Broadway’s nightclubs, drinking his favorite, Brandy. (By some physiological quirk, brandy had little effect on him.) In this way, his own life illustrates the ludicrous failure of Prohibition.

     In 1923, one of Hellinger’s acquaintances, Steve Clowe, helped him get him a job on the New York Daily News when he took him to a party to meet its managing editor, Jim Payne. At this party, Payne tested Hellinger then and there by asking him to name those dancing. Hellinger, who had no idea who they were, impressed Payne as he provided names he made up on the spot. Payne later summoned him to the News and asked Hellinger how much he wanted. Payne misheard Hellinger when he said $15 and thought he said $50. This seemed high to Payne, he said, but nevertheless he offered this amount. (Obviously there has been a very great deal of inflation since then.) Hellinger started at the city desk.

     The New York Daily News was a tabloid, one of a number of New York City tabloids which competed fiercely in those times for circulation and survival by covering sex and crime. “The News lived on a sensation a day and the circulation figures climbed higher and higher,” reports Jim Bishop, who worked with Hellinger at the News. Because of the intense competition for survival, “the tabloids dug deeper and deeper into the muck of sex and public disgrace for daily food” (Bishop, p. 63).

     Hellinger has an established place in the history of American journalism as the first Broadway reporter, a role he assumed in July 1925. At that time Hellinger was given a Sunday column, “About Town,” and he was told to fill it with Broadway names. However, leaving gossip to his friend Walter Winchell, Hellinger mainly filled each column with a brief short story, providing stories dealing with Broadway people, each story ending with an O. Henry twist (Bishop, p. 66). “I stumbled into my short story formula,” Hellinger later explained. “Somebody would slip me a story about real people, and I’d blow it up and fictionize it and put in an ironic twist at the end” (Martin, p. 46).2 He would write a great many of these stories during his career, thousands of them, though everyone provides a different figure about how many thousand.

     However, his employers were dissatisfied over his unwillingness to dedicate his column to itemized news items on Broadway people and they would have compelled him to produce such columns, but fan mail had begun coming in, and so they relented. In a year, his column was the most read feature in the News and was being published across the country (Bishop, p. 66). In 1928, the News also gave him a daily column, which was called “Behind the News.” Also, Hellinger invented the fake feud to stir interest, in which he and a supposed rival excoriated one another in print.

     During his time as a reporter in New York, Hellinger began dressing in his lifetime personal uniform of dark blue shirts and white ties.

     Hellinger was always remarkable for his wealth of friends and acquaintances, a fact due to his own personal warmth and no doubt also due partly to the fact that he became a celebrity as a newspaperman. His very wide variety of friends at this time included Walter Winchell, who he usually met some time each day, Florenz Ziegfeld, the greatest American musical producer of all time, and Texas Guinan, a very colorful and well-known nightclub hostess during Prohibition. Hellinger also cultivated the gangsters of the time, and knew, for example, such figures as Dutch Schulz and Legs Diamond, in fact sometimes acting as a mediator to calm murderous disputes among them (Bishop, p. 95).

     One time he was in the hospital because of a broken kneecap. His hospital room had a bathroom, and he filled the bathtub with ice and imported beer and filled the rest of the bathroom with alcohol too and put a slot machine in his room. His room filled with people he knew, sometimes some of them standing in the hall for lack of room (Bishop, pp. 203-4).

     Hellinger, who was famous throughout his life for his generosity, sometimes gave away his entire income. Bishop reports that customarily before he left work for dinner with a friend around 6 p.m., Hellinger would fold up two dollar and five dollar bills and put them in his coat pocket, and then as he walked outside, “every down-and-out actor, every ex-Broadway hoofer, every ex-con, was waiting in doorways for them to pass,” and Hellinger would covertly slip them money. At dinner he would pay for the tab for the various people he knew when he saw them there (Bishop, pp. 147-9). And as some writers remark, he was legendary as a check-grabber when he was with others at dinner.

     In 1926 the News sponsored a beauty contest as a circulation gimmick. Hellinger was one of the judges. The winner was a Ziegfeld showgirl, Gladys Glad (her real name), a very beautiful woman with a very practical mentality. She won the contest and a sedan, though she was then too young to drive. On July 11, 1929, Hellinger married her. He wanted his friend Mayor Walker to perform the ceremony, but since the mayor was in Florida then, the City Clerk married them instead.

     In November 1929, his superior at the Daily News sent Hellinger a letter telling him to abandon his column as it existed and to fill his column with news items. This obviously was a misjudgment, and Hellinger, a very popular columnist, moved on to a rival tabloid, the New York Daily Mirror, a Hearst newspaper. He continued with his daily column there, and also his Sunday page, which now, though, came out on Saturday. The move provided him, all-in-all, with a better job, which included his own office and his own secretary.

     Hellinger was always notable for his occupational drive and restlessness, and while continuing as a newspaperman, he pursued other lines of endeavor as well. He wrote some of the sketches for the Ziegfeld Follies during its final year, 1931, and then some of the sketches for Ziegfeld’s 1932 show, Hot-Cha. 3  He showed talent as a vaudeville actor, going on the circuit more than one year. He wrote plays and published magazine articles. He tried out various types of columns. Some of his stories were made into movies for Hollywood. In 1931, he published a book of short stories, Moon Over Broadway, then in 1934 a second collection, The Ten Million. He went on the radio for an assortment of shows (but Bishop explains that his voice was too hard) (Bishop, p. 216). In a class of its own was his sports casting, when he covered Columbia University football games in company with Perry Charles, entertaining their audience as they proceeded without knowing the least thing about football (Bishop, pp. 184-8).

     In 1932, his wife Gladys walked into a bedroom during a party and found him in a compromising situation, according to Bishop (Bishop, p. 191). Because of this and some other difficulties in their marriage, she divorced him. However, after a year, which included solicitations to her in his newspaper column, they remarried in 1933, on the same date as their first marriage, July 11. There was no sign of serious trouble in their marriage after this.

     By the time he was 25, Hellinger was a well-known columnist, syndicated nationally. In 1933, he was only 30, and it is very surprising to realize how much he had accomplished by this age.

     Hellinger was a very hard worker. For example, in 1935, on his own initiative, he offered to do an entire Sunday page himself, making it out of jokes, stories, opinions of shows, cartoons and other material. In 1937, this page appeared in 174 newspapers with 18,000,000, or perhaps rather, according to varying estimates, 20,000,000 or 25,000,000 readers (Bishop, p. 234). During the next phase of his life, in Hollywood, Hellinger would work as hard as before. When his health began to seriously break down near the end of his life, he refused to follow doctor’s orders and the pleadings of his wife, and he worked himself to death.

     His writing was “glib, superficial, conversational, as smooth and translucent as a sheet of glass,” Bishop remarks (Bishop, p. 206). However, while outstanding in his line of work as a newspaperman, he himself regretted never becoming “a real writer,” so Bishop reports. He was “a third-rate O’Henry,” Bishop concludes, “though a first-rate motion picture producer” (Bishop, p. xii).

     Hollywood had taken notice of the fact that this journalist could effortlessly produce quality scripts, and before the end of his time as a New York City newspaperman, he could have gone to Hollywood as a writer, but he wasn’t willing to go only as a writer (Bishop, p. 205).

 

Hollywood, 1937-1947

 

     With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the Broadway Hellinger knew, that colorful, fascinating district, died. Hellinger remained on for a few years after this, but Bishop believes that the end of this era of Broadway was a fundamental reason for Hellinger’s departure. Another reason for his departure was his perennial occupational restlessness—Bishop explains that typically after Hellinger achieved success in something, he lost interest in it. This can be instanced by the way his scope of activities as a newspaperman grew over the years. While some of his efforts failed, such as his attempt on the radio, his efforts also led to new areas of success.

     Hellinger had already become appreciated in a publicity-conscious Hollywood because he spoke of its new releases in his nationally-syndicated column. Then, in 1937, he was hired by Jack Warner of Warner Productions as a writer-producer. Warner hired him a combination “writer-producer” because he wasn’t sure of Hellinger’s talents, and this double title enabled him to move him into either one of the two jobs, depending on Hellinger’s abilities.

     Hellinger had been ready to drop his nationally-distributed weekly page along with everything else when he went to Hollywood, but he kept it after his wife pointed out that continuing it would give him a voice about new movies that would be important in Hollywood (Bishop, p. 233-4). His last daily column appeared November 13, 1937.

     When he came to Hollywood, some people thought him “an alien freak, a wise-guy Broadway columnist who knew nothing about motion pictures” (Bishop, p. 242). When he arrived, he was inexperienced and inept as a producer. After this became obvious, Warner assigned him to a B-movie unit under Bryan Fox, which was just the experience he needed. (What was known as a B-movie was a deliberately low-budget production.) In August 1938, after nine months at this unit, he was promoted to associate producer, with a new and more favorable contract. In Hollywood, the producer was the member of the movie production team ordinarily in charge of finances and administration, and so he was responsible for example for choosing a script and selecting the director and actors and he had a hand in the film until its final distribution. An associate producer, as opposed to a producer, was more over day-to-day operations. However, Hellinger would involve himself more comprehensively than usual, and he was the first in his position to work on the script along with the writers (Bishop, p. 245). Hellinger quickly revealed himself as a talented producer. For one movie, The Roaring Twenties, he wrote the script, relying on his experiences in the 1920s.

     The Hellingers moved into a thirteen-acre estate which his wife Gladys picked out, staffing it with nine servants. After Warner promoted him to associate producer in 1938, he got $130,000 a year. His salary at Warner after the war was $200,000 a year. These were very much larger amounts of money than they seem even now due to the inflation which has occurred since then.

     The movie High Sierra (1941) fully established his reputation. Hellinger had fought to make Humphrey Bogart the lead, though Warner insisted that this actor was unsuited for this. However, Hellinger was right, and this film established Bogart as a leading Hollywood star.

     Another film, Torrid Zone (1940), was the story of a gangster (played by Edward G. Robinson) who became a monk so that he could hide out in a monastery. Actually, with this movie Hellinger turned an unpromising script into a successful film. Interestingly, Ronald Reagan, who came to Hollywood in 1937, appeared in one of Hellinger’s films, Hell’s Kitchen (which Hollywood columnists called Hellinger’s Kitchen) (Bishop, p. 245).

     Hellinger could be quite abrasive with his superiors at Warner’s, feeling, and sometimes with some justification, that he wasn’t being treated with respect. Sometimes his name didn’t even appear among the credits. According to Bishop, in time he and his immediate superior at Warner’s “got along like a pruritic tiger and an ulcerous ringmaster” (Bishop, p. 247). Not surprisingly, Hellinger moved on, going to Twentieth Century-Fox, though afterwards he went back to Warner’s.

     Finally, he went to Universal Pictures in 1947 as independent producer, this studio financing and distributing his films; there he was in charge of his own unit, pleased now to have no superiors in his work.

     Over the years in Hollywood, Hellinger became better and better at his work. His first independent production was The Killers (1946). For actors he chose “unknowns, or has-beens, or almost-wases” (Bishop, p. 313). For the lead role, he hired Burt Lancaster, an ex-circus acrobat who had never been in a film before. Hellinger’s wife Gladys, by the way, who saw Lancaster’s talent at first more clearly, helped talk Hellinger into deciding on him. The Killers made Lancaster a star. For the female lead, Hellinger chose Ava Gardner. No one had taken her seriously before as an actress. The Killers made Gardner a star too. After this, she became the Hollywood sex goddess of that day. Hellinger also hired Edmond O’Brien. The movie made O’Brien a star too. One of Hellinger’s leading talents lay in seeing what people would appreciate, a talent evident earlier on when he was in New York, when he created his own niches as a newspaperman. The Killers went on to become a major success.

     The Killers was based on one of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. Hemingway liked this movie and agreed to let Hellinger make movies out of his other short stories too, which provided a valuable opportunity for him, in view of Hemingway’s immense reputation then. Hemmingway and Hellinger became good friends, and in fact, Hellinger made his last trip before he died to visit Hemmingway in Sun Valley.

     In 1947, Hellinger produced what was usually considered his finest film, The Naked City, which he called his celluloid monument to New York City. The Naked City is an example of “film noir,” which was a dominant film genre in those days, since the time of The Maltese Falcon. These are dark films of crime and corruption. A believer in realism, this sort of film was natural to Hellinger.

     The Naked City is a detective story, based on a murder from the New York City police’s unsolved crime files. It was the first movie entirely shot in the streets of New York City. Hellinger put an apparent has-been, William Daniels, in charge of the photography. Daniels would win an Oscar because of this film for the best photography of the year. The Naked City was one of the year’s major films. It also led to a popular television series, The Naked City, which had numerous spin-offs.

     During World War II, Hellinger determinedly tried to enlist in the service. They wouldn’t take him because of the health problems the examining doctors uncovered, but, at last, in 1944, Hellinger arranged to go to the war for four months as a Hearst war correspondent. Hellinger went into the Pacific theater, taking a leave of absence from Warner’s.

     But the medical examinations he had while trying to enlist turned up health problems which made it clear that he was not due for a long life.

     Hellinger wasn’t happy during his last years. One of his screenwriters wrote that “when I first met Mark (in the summer of 1945) he was worried. He was worried and apprehensive till the day he died.”4 His biographer, Jim Bishop, likewise writes that Hellinger “died embittered, lonely, suspicious and afraid” (Bishop, p. xi). Some of this unhappiness, at least, was due to the pressure of his work and to his poor health towards the end and to his bitterness over his experiences with superiors in Hollywood.

     In 1947, Hellinger had a heart attack while he was producing The Naked City. Hellinger lived just long enough to preview the finished film. On December 21, 1947, he died of coronary thrombosis in Cedar of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 44 years old. After his funeral on Christmas Eve, he was buried, as he had wanted, within sight of the Hudson River, just north of New York City.

 

Conclusion

 

     The course of Hellinger’s career makes it clear that he was extraordinarily able. While still in his twenties in New York City, he became a celebrity and won a national reputation as a journalist. When he went to Hollywood, he knew nothing about producing. Then, within ten years, he was making some of the best movies of the year.

     One of Hellinger’s great loves was writing, and so even after he went to Hollywood, as he once said, Hellinger considered himself a co-writer of the movies he produced.5

     Hellinger’s doctor in California suggested that he consider adoption, and, with this advice, he adopted two children, Mark Jr. and Gladys. They were still young when he died.

     Some biographical reference sources say that Hellinger wrote an autobiography, I Meet a Lot of People.  He did work on this book, but it never reached publication. In 1949, the Mark Hellinger Theater in New York City was named after him.

     When he died, Hellinger was just entering his heyday. As time went on, he was coming out with better and better movies (interspaced with ones with lesser merit), and he made his best movie, The Naked City, shortly before he died. At the very end, he was establishing his own studio, Mark Hellinger Productions, its offices to open the day after he died. Producers and directors would have worked for him. Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster, for their part, were going to make moves for him every year. What would he have achieved if his life hadn’t been cut short at 44?

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1 All such references are to Jim Bishop’s biography on Hellinger, The Mark Hellinger Story; a Biography of Broadway and Hollywood (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952).

2 “Martin” stands for an article in the Saturday Evening Post(Pete Martin, “The Softest Touch in Hollywood,” June 28, 1947). This article is the second-best source of biographical information on Hellinger, after Jim Bishop’s biography of Hellinger.

3 Bishop, who worked with Hellinger during this period of his life at the News, writes that Hellinger wrote some of the sketches for these shows, not that he wrote these shows(Bishop, p. 172). Some biographers says simply that he wrote these shows, which is one of the bits of misinformation being provided about his life.

4 Richard Brooks, “Swell Guy,” in The Screen Writer, vol. 3 (March 1948), p. 13. If Brooks’

 

impressions of Hellinger are valid, he was a person who was very generous with others but also,

 

at that time at least, he sometimes was petty in his dealings with others and in various ways

 

was insecure psychologically.

 

5Wald, Malvin, “The Making of The Naked City,” in The Big Book of Noir, ed. Lee Server, et al

 

(New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998), p. 60.