Meet Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz

By Julius Barbosa · May 25, 2015

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a journalist, a playwright and a screenwriter. He worked as an international correspondent stationed in Berlin, then returned to New York and wrote for many esteemed magazines. He became a theatre critic before moving to Hollywood in 1926. He helped Hollywood shape the comedy genre, and also brought the world of journalism to the movies. His biggest accomplishment was winning an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane, in 1942. He was a man who could have conquered Hollywood, and made a name for himself, but… he was also a man of vices. He drank heavily and was a gambler. He was also known for having little patience with his superiors. Herman is not well known nowadays, perhaps because there is also another Mankiewicz, his brother Joseph.

“The stories that are told of him in Hollywood,” the film critic Pauline Kael starts saying in her assertion of Raising Kane, “are clues that begin to give one a picture of Herman Mankiewicz, a giant of a man who mongered his own talent, a man who got a head start in the race to “sell out” Hollywood." I became intrigued and fascinated with the life and career of a man whose works seem so little known. Herman may not be considered a giant, but he certainly lived among many of them in Hollywood, and deserves to be remembered as such. He lived the best – and the worst – years of his life, building his career.

Born in New York on November 07, 1897, he graduated from Columbia College with a philosophy degree, in 1917. He became the managing editor of the American Jewish Chronicle for a short period of time and, then, joined the U.S. Army as a cadet and later as a private in the Marines. He was the director of the American Red Cross News Service in Paris between 1919 and 1920. He returned to this country and married Miss Sara Aaronson. He took her to Berlin, where he worked as an international correspondent, doing political reporting for the Chicago Tribune from 1920 to 1922.

Back in New York, he became a reporter for the New York World, but began shifting away from being a reporter to writing dramas, collaborating with important Broadway playwrights such as George S. Kaufman and Ben Hecht. Herman wrote for many magazines. He also worked as a drama critic for The New York Times alongside Kaufman, and became the first-ever staff theater critic for The New Yorker with a weekly column. By then, the 29-year-old Herman seemed to have quickly become an established writer. It is intriguing to see he was not even 30 years old when he had, in a way, “the world in his hands.” What else could he ask for?

Herman met film producer Walter Wanger and his life was never the same. Wanger offered him a motion-picture contract. Moving to Hollywood was his best decision. Kael reports that he signed a “year’s contract giving him $400 a week and a bonus of $5,000 for each story that was accepted, with an option for a second year at $500 a week and $7,500 per accepted story.” This contract came in perfect timing. He was supposed to cover for The New York Times the performance of Gladys Wallis, wife of the magnate Samuel Insull, as Lady Teazle in School for Scandal. At the night of the New York premiere, Herman returned to the office drunk, started writing the review but fell asleep over his typewriter when Kaufman found him. He was in such bad shape that Kaufman had Sara Mankiewicz come get him and take him home. He didn’t lose his job, but the offer couldn’t have come in a better time. It meant a new beginning.


He worked for Paramount Pictures under the supervision of the producer B.P. Schulberg, doing “titles” (the printed dialogue and explanations). In the first few weeks, when he saw all that money coming in, he sent a telegram to Ben Hecht in the winter of 1926: “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” Herman became famous in Hollywood and New York for sending this telegram for it attracted many writers. He did titles for, at least, twenty-five films during the silent era from mid-1926 to 1928.

Soon, he became the head of Paramount’s screenwriting department and brought over his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in 1928 to work as a screenwriter as well under his supervision. Herman debuted as a screenwriter in 1929 with the talkies and became the highest paid writer in town. Herman’s career skyrocketed in the early 1930s. Life was good for Herman, but what he couldn’t predict was his brother’s screenwriting career would flourish in the business, while Herman was developing a reputation as a man resentful of the industry. After 1933, he was having trouble getting work. By 1936, every project he worked on was “uncredited.”

Herman wrote an article “On Approaching Forty” that was published in The Hollywood Reporter in 1936, in which he throws some light on his career, “I moved to Hollywood soon after I had made this notation and was kept so busy with one thing and another – getting the pool filled, playing the Cadillac and Buick salesman against each other, only to compromise on a Cadillac and a Buick, after all.” Observing the list of “uncredited” projects he appears attached to; however, it seems like Hollywood knew Herman was a great writer. They didn’t stop seeking him out. In 1938, for example, Herman was the first screenwriter to work on The Wizard of Oz (1939), developing the idea of the opening sequence in Kansas in black-and-white, but introducing a world of colors in Oz; however, he never received credit for it.

Perhaps, Hollywood could put up with his drinking and gambling habits. After all, no one is perfect, but they could not put up with his foul mouth. When Bob Thomas wrote the biography about the Head of the Columbia movie studio, Harry Cohn, he described Herman as an employee who shows no respect for his superiors. Cohn was sharing his opinion about a movie he thought was the worst movie ever made. Instead of saying that people had different opinions and views, likes and dislikes, Herman insulted Cohn by saying that the whole world should be “wired to Cohn’s ass!” To make things worse, by 1939, Herman was drowning in gambling debts. The Head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, was concerned about Herman and Sara. Kael notes that Mayer gave Herman money to pay his gambling debts and, in exchange, sign a contract and swear to never gamble again. The very next day, Herman was playing poker on the lot. Mayer showed up and stood there, watching him. Herman left the studio and didn’t return. It seems that F. Scott Fitzgerald had summarized Herman’s life in a nutshell, “He was a ruined man.”

Herman had become forgotten, but his brother Joseph found consistent work as a screenwriter, sharing an Oscar nomination as early as 1931. Joseph worked for seventeen years as a screenwriter at Paramount and also as a producer for MGM, before he started to direct at Twentieth Century-Fox. The Harvard Film Archive states that Joseph’s biggest career move was “launched unexpectedly in 1946 by an abrupt invitation from his hero and mentor Ernest Lubitsch suggesting him to take over direction of Dragonwyck.”

If struggling with his career wasn’t enough, Herman was involved in a car accident. He spent thirty-four weeks in a cast in bed and thirty-two weeks in a brace. Herman was broke and Orson Welles needed a screenplay for his Mercury Theatre Company at R.K.O. Orson needed a man with enough experience to write a screenplay, but he didn’t have all the money to hire an active screenwriter to work for him. That’s when Herman and Orson met. That’s when magic happened: the birth of Citizen Kane. Herman and Orson share the writing credits and an Oscar for Original Screenplay, given at the Academy ceremony in 1942. Herman was back in the game, rubbing elbows with his buddies again, and received another screenplay nomination for The Pride of the Yankees (1942).

Then, the unexpected came: one night, driving back home after a few drinks at a restaurant, he hit a car. No one died and there was only minor injury. However, the minor accident suddenly became a major front-page story in the Hearst newspapers across the country for four successive days, “with headlines more appropriate to a declaration of war.” The magnate William Randolph Hearst tried to literally burn and destroy Citizen Kane before its release because of the “unfair” portrait based on his character. Herman had to stand trial on a felony charge. Although he came out alive, the hounding by the newspapers took its toll, and his reputation was permanently damaged.

In Raising Kane, published in 1971 in The New Yorker, Kael plays with the theory – and defends it vehemently – that Herman is the only author who deserves credit for writing Citizen Kane. It’s a theory that was discredited when Peter Bogdanovich wrote The Kane Mutiny. Regardless of her theory about the authorship of the film, what makes the difference is that she writes from the heart about Herman, and the life of a man full of flaws, but who was also a genius. Had Herman been more sober and focused on his work, he’d probably had had as a successful career as his brother did. After all, Joseph went on to write and direct well-known movies such as All About Eve and Cleopatra.

Herman certainly influenced others. Budd Schulberg, son of the famous B.P. Schulberg, wrote novels about Hollywood and was fourteen years old (when Herman started to work for Paramount under his father’s supervision). Anyone who reads “What Makes Sammy Run?” and also reads about Herman’s life will clearly notice how inspired the novelist was to blend the lives of Herman and Louis B. Mayer to create the fictional character Sammy Glick. There are also similarities between the real events of Herman’s life and Manley Halliday in “The Disenchanted.” Halliday is a disguised F. Scott Fitzgerald, but both Fitzgerald and Mankiewicz come from the same period of time. The coincidences are recognizable.

Herman is one of those human beings who should have a movie made about his life, to honor the rise and fall of a giant, one of those independent projects that usually serve as Oscar bait. Kael concludes that, “One reason that Herman Mankiewicz is so little known today is, ironically, that he went to Hollywood so early, before he had gained a big enough reputation in the literary and theatrical worlds.” Schulberg writes from the same point of view in his novels to describe writers in Hollywood. To make things more challenging or difficult for Herman, by the end of the Hollywood studio system, there are two Mankiewicz’s, and both are now part of Hollywood history… In the world of fast paced information we all live in, it’s convenient to just say “Mankiewicz” and get easily confused with whom is being referred to. Herman Mankiewicz died on March 5th, 1953 in Los Angeles, CA.