Family & Companions
Though once the highest paid screenwriter working in Hollywood, Herman J. Mankiewicz floundered later in his career after years of hard drinking and gambling, only to be briefly resurrected by wunderkind Orson Welles, who hired him to write one of the greatest movies ever made, "Citizen Kane" (1941). Mankiewicz made a go of Hollywood in the mid-1920s after a career as a reporter and theater critic, becoming the head of the script department at Paramount Pictures. He wrote or collaborated on dozens of pictures during the silent era, and with the advent of sound, produced early Marx Brothers classics like "Monkey Business" (1930), "Horse Feathers" (1932) and "Duck Soup" (1933). He also worked frequently with W.C. Fields, including on "Million Dollar Legs" (1932), and was at the peak of his career in the early 1930s. But his career path spiraled out of control thanks to gambling, heavy drinking and his general contempt of Hollywood. With bridges burned, Mankiewicz was on the outs until Welles brought him on to write "Citizen Kane." Despite controversy from its unflattering portrayal of William Randolph Hearst and a dispute about writing credit, Mankiewicz won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. He went on to write another Oscar-nominated film, "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942), and was well positioned for further triumph. Mankiewicz crumbled again, however, and never wrote another great movie, but did enough acclaimed work that he left behind a lasting legacy as one of classic Hollywood's most gifted writers.
Born on Nov. 7, 1897 in New York City, Mankiewicz was raised by his father, Franz, a German immigrant who became a teacher, and his mother, Johanna, a dressmaker. The family, which would go on to include younger siblings Erna and Joseph, lived for a time in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where he attended the Harry Hillman Academy. In 1913, they moved back to New York City and Mankiewicz attended Columbia University, graduating with a philosophy degree in 1917. He spent a short time as the managing editor of the American Jewish Chronicle before joining the U.S. Army as a cadet and later serving as a private first class in the Marines. Mankiewicz went on to become the director of the American Red Cross News Service in Paris and later set up shop in Berlin as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. By this time, he had married Sara Aaronson, with whom he had three children - Johanna, Donald and Francis. Also at the time, Mankiewicz was hired by dancer Isadora Duncan to become her publicist. He returned to the States, where he became a reporter for the New York World, while earning a reputation as a talented writer with published work in Vanity Fair and The Saturday Evening Post.
In the 1920s, Mankiewicz began shifting away from being a reporter to writing drama, collaborating with playwrights George S. Kaufman on "The Good Fellow" and Marc Connelly on "The Wild Man of Borneo." He worked as a drama critic at The New York Times alongside Kaufman, and became the first-ever staff theater critic for The New Yorker, for whom he wrote a weekly column in 1925-26. Mankiewicz soon moved to Hollywood, where he began working as an intertitle writer on a number silent films like the W.C. Fields comedy "Two Flaming Youths" (1927), "The City Gone Wild" (1927), starring Louise Brooks; the comedy "What a Night!" (1928) with Bebe Daniels; and Josef von Sternberg's historical drama "The Last Command" (1928). Within a short period of time, Mankiewicz commanded a high salary and became the head of the scenario department at Paramount Pictures, where he earned a sterling reputation for selecting the best screenwriters in the business to write for the studio. Mankiewicz, himself, also wrote the screenplays for a number of pictures, including Dorothy Arzner's "Fashions for Women" (1927), "Mating Call" (1928) starring Thomas Meighan and Evelyn Brent; and the Victor Fleming comedy "Aaron Slick" (1928).
By the dawn of the sound era, Mankiewicz was the highest paid writer in Hollywood, thanks to a tough satirical edge and modern tastes that separated him from an inferior competition. Working in the same town was his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would go on to achieve his own fame as a prominent writer-director, best known for his films "All About Eve" (1950), "A Letter to Three Wives" (1949) and "Cleopatra" (1963). By all accounts, the younger brother would flourish happily in the business, but his older brother was quickly developing a reputation as a man resentful of the industry. He was also becoming known as the life of any party; a drunken Mankiewicz more often than not was the focal point of every party he was invited to and developed a reputation for using his cutting wit to insult every guest in the room. In the early 1930s, Mankiewicz began serving as a producer on a number of films like "Monkey Business" (1930), "Horse Feathers" (1932) and "Duck Soup" (1933), all instant classics starring the Marx Brothers. After producing the W.C. Fields comedy "Million Dollar Legs" (1932), he wrote his first truly acclaimed film, "Dinner at Eight" (1933), a sophisticated comedy directed by George Cukor about a social butterfly (Billie Burke) who arranges a dinner party for her businessman husband (Lionel Barrymore), only to have the night go awry thanks to guests that included a crooked executive (Wallace Beery), his adulterous wife (Jean Harlow), a faded matinee idol (John Barrymore) and a former actress-turned-professional guest (Marie Dressler). By the mid-1930s, Mankiewicz was a contract writer for MGM, churning out scripts for the comedy "The Show-Off" (1934) starring Spencer Tracy, the romance-tinged adventure "Escapade" (1935) with William Powell and Rosalind Russell, and "My Dear Miss Aldrich" (1937).
In 1938, Mankiewicz was the first of many screenwriters to work on "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), developing the idea of the film starting in black-and-white while in Kansas, but exploding into lavish color when Dorothy (Judy Garland) arrives in Oz. Though he never received credit for his initial work, Mankiewicz's contributions were evident on screen. Meanwhile, he shared screenwriting credit with Ben Hecht on the screwball comedy "It's a Wonderful World" (1939), which starred James Stewart as a private detective hired by a ne'er-do-well millionaire (Ernest Truex), only to be accused as an accomplice to murder. Out to prove his innocence, he coerces help from an eccentric poet (Claudette Colbert) and winds up falling in love. But due to his love of drinking to excess, gambling and denouncing the business that provided him a living, Mankiewicz had burned every bridge imaginable and found himself out of work.. Enter new wunderkind Orson Welles, who was hot off his "War of the Worlds" radio triumph that had netted him a three-picture deal with RKO Pictures and granted him carte blanche and unprecedented final cut for whatever project he chose.
Welles began developing an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which was deemed too expensive and not commercial by the studio. Looking for an old Hollywood hand to guide him through unchartered waters, Welles hired Mankiewicz to help him develop a film. After bouncing around several ideas, the two hit upon creating a story around a newspaper baron corrupted by his own unending ambition. Mankiewicz had long wanted to write a script about such a character ever since he had entered the inner circle of William Randolph Hearst, with whom he would socialize - on his best behavior, of course - at parties held at the newspaper mogul's San Simeon estate. Welles, Mankiewicz and close friend John Houseman - whose job was to make sure Mankiewicz wrote pages instead of getting drunk - disappeared to a vacation retreat outside of Los Angeles to write the first drafts of "Citizen Kane" (1941). Five months later, Welles began shooting and immediately attracted controversy when word leaked out that he was directing an unflattering portrait of a character based on the powerful Hearst. Though Welles and Mankiewicz denied that Hearst was the source, there was little doubt when the final product was released. Hearst refused to allow advertising for "Citizen Kane" in his newspapers and threatened theater owners with retribution if they displayed the film.
Because of Hearst's efforts, "Citizen Kane" was a financial flop despite strong critical reviews - an irony for Mankiewicz, who felt he had finally written a movie of worth. But the question of who should be credited with actually writing the screenplay came into question when Welles began promoting himself as a one-man show - writer, director and actor - despite official credit being given to Mankiewicz by the Screen Writers Guild. Still, the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), winning for the latter. Due to the furor caused by Hearst's unrelenting campaign to kill the movie, both Mankiewicz and Welles decline to attend the ceremony, mostly to avoid public embarrassment. Mankiewicz heard the announcement of his one and only Oscar win over the radio while at home with his family. He was nominated the following year for "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942), Sam Wood's poignant biography of Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper), the New York Yankee great who rose from modest beginnings to become a major league star, only to have fate cut him down while still a great ballplayer. The stirring biopic earned 10 Academy Awards, including Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), but received no wins.
Despite the apparent resurrection of his career, Mankiewicz was unable to avoid slipping back into old habits of drinking, gambling and cursing out Hollywood. He would go on to write a number of films, none of which came close to touching the mastery on display in "Citizen Kane" and "Pride of the Yankees," including the noir-like "Christmas Holiday" (1944), the romantic melodrama "The Enchanted Cottage" (1945), and "A Woman's Secret" (1949), starring Maureen O'Hara and Gloria Grahame. For his last film, he returned to the world of professional baseball with "The Pride of St. Louis" (1952), a rather underwhelming portrait of colorful St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean (Dan Dailey). Following his work on "Pride," Mankiewicz fell ill from years of heavy drinking and spent his last days at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, where he died from uremic poisoning on March 5, 1953. He was 55 years old, and never lived to see eldest son Don Mankiewicz become an award-winning novelist - an aspiration he had once had for himself - or youngest son Frank Mankiewicz become Robert Kennedy's press secretary.
By Shawn Dwyer