After getting sick at the table of a persnickety host fussing over his etiquette Herman J. Mankiewicz quipped,
“It's all right, Arthur, the white wine came up with the fish.”
The American journalist and screenwriter born on November 7, 1897 was educated at Columbia and at the University of Berlin. Remaining in Paris at the end of World War I as the head of the American Red Cross Mankiewicz later moved to Berlin and embarked on his writing career as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune.
Eventually returning to the United States Herman Mankiewicz gained an unsavory reputation among New York's cultural elite as the drama editor under George S. Kaufman of The New York Times and as the earliest drama editor for The New Yorker, he soon moved west and worked for Examiner newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Mankiewicz frequently visited Hearst's great San Simeon estate, also known as Hearst Castle, on the lonesome seaside north of LA, before Hearst decided Mankiewicz's drinking habits were too much of a ” temptation for his mistress, Marion Davies.”
By 1926 Herman Mankiewicz was a veteran professional writer, with a drinking problem, who had written his first screenplay at Paramount The Road to Mandalay for Lon Chaney. An obsessive gambler notorious for his colossal misfortune, Mankiewicz once “wagered $100 that a stranger in a bar could not name Theodore Roosevelt's opponent for the presidency in 1904.” That year he cabled Ben Hecht saying, “There are millions to be grabbed out here, and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”
Throughout the 1930’s Mankiewicz wrote and co-wrote a number screenplays and adaptations for many years as a “prolific title, dialogue, and script writer” while pursuing a parallel career as a drama critic for the Los Angeles Times.” He collaborated on and worked as an executive producer on a number of films by the likes of Laughter (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Million Dollar Legs (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). However, more often than not he received no recognition.
By the end of the decade he had been fired by every major studio in Hollywood when he found himself writing radio plays. Originally called "The Mercury Theater on the Air" at the time it was called The Campbell Playhouse. Lady Luck seemed to be smiling on Mankiewicz. In his early 40’s he was once again rubbing elbows with the elites such as Howard Koch, Abraham Polonsky and Arthur Miller. Little did he realize he would become a flashpoint of fate, one that to this day highlights one of the greatest movies teeming with mythologies and legends to come out of Tinseltown as America fast approached the middle of the 20th century.
There was a long pause before the 24 year old leaned in close to Mankiewicz,
Take my hand, Mank. And we'll dance one last time. We’ll dance to the music of the angels. We'll make history. We'll scorch the earth. We will ... astonish them all.
Silence ensued as Orson Welles
offered his hand. Mankiewicz took a sip from his glass of juice; vodka and pool water then finally broke the stillness.
Thank God you don't write dialogue.
His most famous work is the 1941 Oscar-winning screenplay Citizen Kane; though technically he wrote it in collaboration with Welles, it was Mankiewicz himself who penned most of the script. One source claims that Orson Welles had first heard of Mankiewicz after he broke his leg falling down the steps of Hollywood’s Chasen's Restaurant. Welles himself suffered from fragile legs soon hired Mankiewicz for $200.00 a week at The Mercury Theatre:
Young Welles liked the flair of the older man, his stories of bygone newspaper days, and newer ones about Hollywood, where Welles would soon move his radio show, closer to the Mercury movie project. Mank, as he was called, managed to go to lunch with Welles in New York, and they hit it off. Welles brought him, still bedridden, back to Hollywood. He was to write, per his contract, under the editorial supervision of Producer John Houseman. Mank soon completed, among others, scripts for "Dodsworth," "Vanity Fair," and "Huckleberry Finn."
The first year’s worth of projects for Welles and The Mercury Theatre were spent on false starts and unproductive endeavors. RKO
vetoed Welles’ idea to do John Calhoun’s The Heart Of Darkness
claiming censorship considerations and that it was too expensive.
(Orson Wells) was desperate. The Mercury Theater members were restless, frightened. During an infamous dinner at Chasen's, Welles lost his temper at John Houseman's complaints and threw a flaming chafing dish at him. It was an act that harbingered the end of their legendary partnership. He was to lose … the steady, reliable Houseman, but for a while they continued to cooperate professionally.
One evening, they all gathered to plan a movie, any movie. Many ideas were considered. Would it be about politicians? Too high profile for the times. At some point they reached a consensus; it had to be about well-known and affluent men. Eventually they focused in on the Robber Barons
. These wildly prosperous men who controlled Iron, Steel, Horses, Shipping in the late 19th Century, and soon their ideas lighted on the media, magazines, radio, and motion pictures. All the story proposals contained elements of the “Great Jigsaw Puzzle” that is American life. Perhaps it was the story of a newspaper tycoon would fit the bill.
(William Randolph Hearst) intrigued Welles. His father, an early day auto headlight manufacturer and general speculator, had chased women with Hearst as a young man. Welles' aristocratic first wife Virginia was newly married to screenwriter Charles Lederer, Marion Davies' favorite nephew. They had told him stories about Hearst. …It was agreed that Mankiewicz would write a first draft at an increased salary of $1000 a week, with provisions similar to those in his existing contract. Anything Mankiewicz wrote became "the property and in the authorship of The Mercury Theater."
Actress Ruth Warrick
who portrayed Emily Kane in the movie related that Welles emphasized to the cast that the “first Mercury film was to be a story of the kind of man we Americans admire, emulate, want to be -- for all the wrong reasons.”
Later, when Mankiewicz realized how good the film would be, and that Welles would be taking full credit, Mank brought the matter to arbitration. Evidence revealed that within the continuity of the script it shows, in Welles' hand, a circle and arrow drawn to move Mankiewicz's name above his own.
John Houseman set his differences with Welles aside, enlisted the aid of a secretary and secluded Mankiewicz in the middle of the Mojave desert and far away from temptation, to write:
The general outline of Mank's script followed a jigsaw puzzle of the lives of self-made or lucky plutocrats who dominated America from the Civil War onward: Hearst, observed nearby at his movie unit on the MGM Lot; Reaper King Harold McCormick, who married Edith Rockefeller, and for his Polish mistress, Ganna Walska, bankrolled an opera house in Chicago; John D Rockefeller, Sr, recently dead, whose grandson, Nelson Rockefeller, Jr, Welles knew in New York; Samuel Insull, (discussed ) in the tabloids (about) his return to America to face prosecution, having absconded to Greece with a fortune . . .(and) many others -- the railroad giant Huntington! (Anyone who hears the great bronze doors of the Huntington Memorial Library in LA thump shut around closing time knows the chill air of the Thatcher Memorial Library in CITIZEN KANE.)
The premise of the narrative was to be about "communications in the broadest sense” and Mankiewicz tentatively titled it American
. His script went through a half dozen drafts with Welles and Houseman adding scenes much like it had been their practice when they worked together in radio. While John Houseman rode herd on Mank, he was also put in charge of "The Newsreel
." Eventually "The Newsreel” format was incorporated into the Kane
movie as an element depicting a short subject commentary on the main character's life. It would now be used to present Charles Foster Kane
in Mank’s jigsaw
method and is still employed today in shows like Entertainment Tonight
when they present celebrity stories.
There, but for the grace of God, goes God.
Herman Mankiewicz On Orson Welles,
quoted in the NY Times, 11 October 1985.
Mankiewicz, bored, in pain and out of sorts, exiled to the desert, far from the watering holes he so enjoyed, began to insert little digs and in-jokes about Welles, his embarrassingly youthful Walter Parks Thatcher-like omnipotent employer and captor. Welles recognized the trend and encouraged it.
Undeniably, this was to be the foundation of Orson Welles auctorial style in every movie he made afterward. Letters and memos written by Welles indicated that not only did he revise and add scenes to Citizen Kane he also wanted the narrative to be told from a limited first person perspective, once again applying what had done on radio to film. Gregg Toland volunteered to work as the cinematographer and it was his concepts that he had developed for the previously rejected work on Heart Of Darkness emphasizing light and shadow to symbolize memory that would create a sense of presence for characters in relation to size, distance, and space. Sound, dialog, music, and cameras brought together and gave life to Mank’s story born in the high desert of Victorville, California; few argue that Director Welles executed the plan magnificently.
It'll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.
Mr. Rawlston (Philip Van Zandt), referring to Rosebud
Mank became entangled in a storm over the Academy Award winning script for Citizen Kane. Even though Orson Welles initially asserted that he wrote it, the majority of the people who worked on the movie as well as host of researchers are adamant that Mankiewicz deserves the most credit.
Controversy has long swirled around the authorship of the screenplay for RKO's Citizen Kane (1941), which brought Oscars to Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles. As the film was being prepared for release, Welles attempted to claim sole credit and acknowledged the contributions of Mankiewicz only after being forced to do so by the Writers Guild. Critic Pauline Kael, in her 1971 The Citizen Kane Book, revived the debate with her carefully detailed argument that it was Mankiewicz who was primarily responsible for the screenplay, from inception of the idea through the shooting script. And just what was the extent of the unaccredited (sic) contribution of frequent Welles associate John Houseman? Whatever the balance of the collaboration, this much is known: When Mankiewicz and Welles began work on the script, it was titled American, and its central figure was an even more thinly veiled caricature of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst than appears in the completed film.
Herman Mankiewicz almost certainly scripted the bulk of Kane
’s incisive, witty, and unforgettable scenes and dialogue. One and all that were employed on the film established that it was Mankiewicz who came up with the concept of the unfathomable word uttered by the dying tycoon, 'Rosebud
.' It became an impetus and the verbal icon around which the film revolves.
Film critic Roger Ebert stated that a number of sources in Hollywood pointed out that " . . . Mankiewicz, used 'rosebud' as an inside joke, because as a friend of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, he knew 'rosebud' was the old man's pet name for the most intimate part of her anatomy." Because the script was a thinly-disguised fictional biography of the 76 year old publishing king of yellow journalism, when the movie came out Hearst used every bit of his substantial influence and power to raze Kane before it opened and failed. He did nevertheless manage to damage the 24 year old Welles career with a smear campaign in the Hearts' papers branding him a communist. Nominated for nine Oscars Citizen Kane emerged with only one for Best Original Screenplay, "boos" could be heard whenever the film was mentioned during the ceremony.
Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a missing piece.
Herman J. Mankiewicz & Orson Welles,
Citizen Kane, screenplay, 1941.
HBO has since produced a movie about the controversial legend surrounding who, what, when, where and how the screenplay developed for Citizen Kane. Titled RKO 281 the drama/biography was done by Scott Free Productions Ridley Scott along with John Logan were the director and screenwriter respectively.
The foundation for the saga was a “dramatic account of the trials and tribulations filmmaker Orson Welles went through while creating his masterpiece of film, Citizen Kane, and how millionaire William Randolph Hearst (sic) sought to block Kane's semi-autobiographical tale of power and obsession. The title is derived from the RKO Pictures designation while in production.” Some of the songs for the sound track were, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Where or When,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” as well as Richard Rodgers “Disgustingly Rich” and Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started.”
After Citizen Kane Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling wrote the screenplay for The Pride of the Yankees in 1942. It’s based upon the story by Paul Gallico and is “the sweet, sentimental, and utterly American story of Lou Gehrig, the "Iron Man" first baseman of the indefatigable New York Yankees of the 1920s and 30s.” For his efforts Mankiewicz was nominated but did not receive the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Born in New York, New York, Herman Mankiewicz came from a very distinguished film family. Even though none of his biographies mention a wife, while living in Berlin in 1922 he had a son Don M. Mankiewicz who has become a successful is a novelist writing See How They Run, Trial, as well as an intermittent screenwriter for movies like I Want to Live.
Herman Mankiewicz also had a second son, Frank Mankiewicz who was press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy and political director of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and syndicated columnist. Today Frank Mankiewicz works as a radio and TV commentator
He was the grandfather of Nick Davis who wrote and directed an Emmy Award winning film portrait of John F. Kennedy.
His younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz is well known by his own rights as a movie director, producer and writer . Some of his credits in filmmaking are "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949), "All About Eve" (1950), "Guys and Dolls" (1955), "Cleopatra" (1963), and he directed "Sleuth" (1972).
Herman Mankiewicz was also the uncle of writer and director Tom Mankiewicz who worked as a script consultant on a small number of James Bond films as well as two of the Superman films. He also directed several episodes on Hart to Hart in the beginning of the 80’s and in 1987 had his directional début with the action-adventure Dragnet.
After Citizen Kane Mankiewicz continued to battle severe personal problems. His desperate drinking habits, enormous gambling debts, and frequent spats with studio executives combined to undermine the last twelve years of his career and on March 5, 1953 Herman Mankiewicz died of uremic poisoning in Hollywood, California.
Citizen Kane (1941) - AFI #1:
Dictionary of American Quotations, © 1997 by Margaret Miner and Hugh Rawson
Herman J. Mankiewicz:
Katz, Ephraim. Katz's Film Encyclopedia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1979.
Mank - The Wit, World, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz - by Richard Meryman (1978), Wm. Morrow & Co., NYC.
Mankiewicz, Herman J (1897 - 1953). Crystal Reference Encyclopedia (2001). Retrieved 31 July 2003, from xreferplus.
MSN Entertainment - Celebs: Herman Mankiewicz:
Review: Citizen Kane:
TCM ~ THE ESSENTIALS:
TV Guide Online - Movie Database: