The Mankiewicz Family (Herman, Joe, Don, Tom, Ben, et al): Part 1

Every family hosts at least a little drama. The Mankiewicz family was certainly high on the list.

In case you watched the film, Mank, and did not get enough creativity/crazy, there is a very interesting book on brothers Herman (Citizen Kane) and Joe (All About Eve, Cleopatra).

Competing with Idiots: Herman and Joe Mankiewicz, A Dual Portrait, by Nick Davis, a grandson of Herman.

[I have just started reading, My Life As a Mankiewicz, by Tom Mankiewicz. I will post a review later.]

Herman was the big brother, the first to succeed, the first to marry, the first to establish a name for himself in Hollywood and the first to receive an Academy Award. He helped his little brother get his job in Hollywood, helped him negotiate a significant raise in salary, and planted the Mankiewicz family flag in the entertainment business. He also never let little brother Joe forget any of that, especially as Herman’s life and career declined.

Joe established himself as a decent screenwriter and producer, working tirelessly in the MGM studio system, watching others grab the brass ring. Joe waited patiently to move into the director’s chair, something that Herman never did. Joe received four Academy Awards, two for writing and two for directing.

Davis’ book is well researched from interviews with family members and surviving colleagues, family records and prior books on Herman and Joe. Davis digs into the family Mankiewicz psyche, the broken relationships between Franz, the father and his sons. In a nutshell, neither son ever achieved enough for their father, or for themselves. That emotional disconnect plagued the sons with their own families.

Davis describes big brother Herman as gregarious, burning bridges while he was standing on them, and spending money faster than he could earn it. The more he made, the more he gambled. His need of money caused him to sign a very poor deal with Orson Welles for his services on Citizen Kane.

Herman was an alcoholic and addicted gambler, who worked his way down the ladder of success. While Herman is most known for writing most of what would become Citizen Kane, and live in Welles shadow as the script’s author, his real torment was never being able write anything as significant as Kane. He seemed to despise most of his Hollywood work, especially when he lost his clout and took whatever work he got.

Joe ascended the Hollywood ladder, but agreeing to rescue Cleopatra, was a career choice he never overcame. It was a financial and creative disaster at the time, and he took a huge amount of the blame, although it had already hit the iceberg and was sinking before Joe stepped onboard. The film made him a lot of money, the type he could not turn down, and his ego was energized when the studio and Elizabeth Taylor looked to him as the savior. With the exception of Sleuth, Joe was never involved with a substantial film project again. His career was damaged, as was his creative confidence. Films were changing and Joe was out of sync with the new film industry. At age 63, Joe was done. According to friends and family, Joe tied, but failed at writing, developing a case of writers block that was so bad that daughter Alex said he could not even compose a Christmas card.

In describing Joe, Davis was describing what today is called a sexual predator, a manipulator of actresses, some of which he may have cared for, but he used his power and charm on young women. As an example, Davis recounts the affair of married Joe with the tormented and vulnerable, 20-year old Judy Garland.

Davis’ book really focuses on Herman and Joe, but the children and wives are supporting players in the Mankiewicz drama. Little brother Joe came to Herman’s aid at the end of his life, taking over gambling IOUs and serving as a surrogate father to Herman’s daughter.

The book is a sad, but very engrossing read. Herman and especially Joe put a major imprint on 1940s and 1950s Hollywood films. The children and grandchildren have carried on as journalists, screenwriters and directors, each with navigating the Mankiewicz legacy.

Hollywood was both a candy store and a quicksand-filled jungle for many, for Herman and Joe, it was both. The movie business gave them opportunity and success, but in the end it only magnified their flaws and inability to find true happiness. That is my take on Herman and Joe when I closed Davis’ book.

This quote from Davis seems to encapsulate the lives of Herman and Joe:

“And maybe that was the best the Mankiewiczes could do, this house of strangers – we’d live separately, die separately, be buried separately, but through it all, if we were lucky, the people we decided to spend our lives with, our friends and husbands and wives and children, we would try to curb our Franz-like tendencies to turn everything into a contest, resist the urge to label everyone else an idiot if they disagreed with us, and do what we could, if possible, to let people in, behind the armor and the wit.”

The Mankiewicz family at a glance:

Herman Mankiewicz – Screenwriter, producer, journalist, contributor to the New Yorker magazine.

Don Mankiewicz, son of Herman. Novelist and screenwriter. Nominated for an Academy Award for writing the film, I Want to Live. Wrote the pilots for the series, Ironsides and Marcus Welby, M.D.

John Mankiewicz, son of Don. Film and television writer/producer. Credits include House, House of Cards, Bosch, In Plain Sight and Miami Vice.

Jane Mankiewicz, daughter of Don. Fiction writer.

Frank Mankiewicz, son of Herman. Journalist, political advisor, president of National Public Radio, press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy.

Josh Mankiewicz, son of Frank. Television journalist, longtime host of Dateline NBC.

Ben Mankiewicz, son of Frank. Television journalist, film critic and host of Turner Classic Movies.

Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, daughter of Herman. Journalist, wrote for the New Yorker. Published a novel, Life Signs, before her untimely death.

Nick Davis, son of Johanna. Television and film writer, director and producer. Novelist.

Tim Davis, son of Johanna. Television writer (Men in Trees).

Joseph Mankiewicz – Screenwriter, producer and director. Films include All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives, Suddenly Last Summer, Cleopatra, Sleuth. Married three times.

Christopher Mankiewicz, son of Joe. Actor and producer (Runaway Jury).

Tom Mankiewicz, son of Joe. Screenwriter, his work included co-writing four James Bond films, a script doctor on many films, script consultant on Columbo and Hart to Hart. Films he directed included Delirious and Dragnet.

Alex Mankiewicz, daughter of Joe. Illustrator and graphic artist.


4 thoughts on “The Mankiewicz Family (Herman, Joe, Don, Tom, Ben, et al): Part 1

  1. What an amazing family! I’m familiar with Herman, Joseph, Ben, and maybe Frank, but didn’t know so many other M’s were so successful. Did Davis comment (or has Tom M. commented) on the family’s Jewishness? Not to highlight race, but I’m guessing this was a significant component, since the early days of Hollywood were dominated by highly competitive and successful Jewish moguls, studio heads, producers, etc.

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    1. In the Davis book, very little mention of it, only in early family history, but absent in the Hollywood years. Interestingly, the studio heads were very reluctant in the 1930s of showing fascism or doing anything to hurt business in Germany. No direct criticism of Hitler, until much later.

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      1. The one film that comes to mind is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which lampooned Hitler, years before the reality of the death camps was made known. Not his best film by any means, but he was bold to do it. There’s a character today (who will remain nameless) who should probably also be lampooned by a major film.

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