Herman J. Mankiewicz, now known primarily as the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941) with Hollywood’s greatest wunderkind, Orson Welles, was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood and the head of Paramount’s screen-writing department in the late 1920s and early ’30s. He reached the pinnacle of his craft soon after arriving in Hollywood, then started to make a quickening decent as alcoholism and cynicism adversely affected his career by the end of that decade. His collaboration with Welles, which brought both men the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1942, gave his career a boost in the early 1940s, and he garnered another Oscar nod the following year for writing The Pride of the Yankees (1942) about the recently deceased New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig.
He was born in New York City on November 7, 1897 to Jewish immigrants from Germany, and after living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the family, along with Herman’s kid brother Joe, moved back to the Big Apple in 1913. Mankiewicz took a degree in philosophy at Columbia and became an editor of the “American Jewish Chronicle” before going to fight the Great War with the Marine Corps.
The hard-drinking Mankiewicz, like so many of the screenwriters of the Talkie period, started out as a newspaperman. After World War One was over, he was hired by the Paris-based American Red Cross News Service, eventually moving on to the “Chicago Tribune” where he covered German politics in Berlin. He served as dancer Isadora Duncan’s publicist while in Europe.
A married man who ultimately sired three children with his long-suffering wife, the former Sara Aaronson, Mankiewicz returned to the city of his birth to write for the “New York World”. He established himself as a prime wit rivaled only by George S. Kaufman, and pieces he wrote appeared in the top magazines of the time, including “Vanity Fair”. He eventually worked at the “New York Times” with Kaufman as a drama critic before moving on to the “New Yorker” magazine, where he served in the same capacity. He also tried his hand as a Broadway dramatist. His comedy “The Good Fellow” was a flop in 1926, closing after seven performances, though his next effort, “The Wild Man of Borneo (1941)” that he co-wrote with Marc Connelly, lasted all of 15 performances before closing in 1927.
In the last years of silent pictures, Mankiewicz heeded the admonition of Horace Greeley to “Go West, young man” and moved to Hollywood. He wrote intertitles, most notably for Josef von Sternberg’s classic The Last Command (1928). Paramount made him the chief of their scenario department, where he hired talented writers in his own mold, men like Ben Hecht, another hard-drinking, ink-stained wretch from the newspaper industry. “Mank” was a talented wordsmith and he soon became the highest paid writer in Hollywood, as his position was solidified with the advent of sound and the need for real dialogue that could be spoken onscreen by actors, not read by audiences, many of whom moved their lips while following along, eyes agog. The new Talkies demanded fast, crisp dialogue, and Mank was the man to provide it. His biting wit and taste for satire went down well with the audiences for the new Talkies. He eventually brought his kid brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz to Hollywood. (With four Oscars out of 10 nominations, Joe — a triple threat as writer-director-producer — eventually surpassed his elder brother, creating some classics of his own such as All About Eve (1950).)
Herman Mankiewicz produced the The Marx Brothers pictures Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933). His penultimate gig as a producer at Paramount was on W.C. Fields’s 1932 Olympics comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932), on which brother Joe worked as a writer. Surprisingly, Herman wold not produce another movie until 1949, but his bad-boy behavior, which included gambling as well as hard partying, apparently was taking its toll. Mankiewicz’s career was hampered not just by his alcoholism, but also by his cynicism. He despised Hollywood.
Mankiewicz went back to New York in early 1932 to make his Broadway debut as an actor, playing a waiter, in the play “Blessed Event”, which was a modest hit. Eventually, Paramount let him go. By 1934, he was a contact writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and by the end of the decade, his reputation was suffering, as he had lost the lofty perch he once occupied.
Orson Welles claimed that he had to assign producer John Houseman to keep Mankiewicz sober during the drafting of the “Citizen Kane” screenplay. After that film gave his career a boost, film critic Pauline Kael wrote that he became even more erratic and unreliable due to his drinking. Mankiewicz apparently found it hard to fit into the increasingly hierarchical structure of the movie industry, which was far removed from the far more relaxed days of the early talkies.
He died in Hollywood, a place he despised, at the age of 55 on March 5, 1953.
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