“Here Lies Herm — I Mean, Joe”: On Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s “The Brothers Mankiewicz”

By Alex HarveySeptember 27, 2020

“Here Lies Herm — I Mean, Joe”: On Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s “The Brothers Mankiewicz”

The Brothers Mankiewicz by Sydney Ladensohn Stern

IN 1925, Herman Mankiewicz, a young drama critic for The New York Times, was sent to review a production of The School for Scandal. He was appalled to find a 55-year-old amateur actress, whose husband had bankrolled the production, in the role of 18-year-old Lady Teazle. Returning to his office, he began his review: “Miss Gladys Wallace, an aging, hopelessly incompetent amateur” — but managed only a few more lines before passing out drunk. His colleague, George Kaufman, senior drama critic, discovered Herman, slumped unconscious over his typewriter with the review unfinished. Decades later, Herman recycled the incident in his screenplay for Citizen Kane. In the movie, Kane’s friend, Jedediah Leland, has to review a dire operatic performance by Kane’s wife, the talentless Susan. Like Herman, Leland sticks to his principles by writing a scathing critique but collapses before finishing it. In life, Herman escaped being sacked by his newspaper by relying on his youthful charm. In the movie, however, Kane is Leland’s best friend and employer. Leland pities Susan, who only performed because Kane bullied her, yet attacks her nevertheless. Herman reworks his experience to portray a drunken writer who injures an undeserving third party, destroys his closest friendship, and loses his job. In other words, no one escapes punishment.

In her excellent, balanced biography, The Brothers Mankiewicz, Sydney Ladensohn Stern tells the story of Herman and Joseph, his younger sibling, two Jewish American writers who, despite years of celebrated public success, did not escape punishment in their private lives. With a nod to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in her title, Stern recognizes how these first-generation siblings, born to immigrants from German-speaking regions, were enriched and damaged by their family’s European heritage — and, in particular, by their father’s character. Indeed, by intertwining Herman and Joe’s overlapping and contrasting trajectories, The Brothers Mankiewicz takes on the epic form and density of a 19th-century European novel. Their dual biography has a rich, paradoxical texture; they were Jewish yet scorned Judaism as a religion and as an identity; they were intellectuals yet spent their lives working in a medium that distrusted the life of the mind; they were family men yet ended up harming those who loved them most.

Although the Mankiewiczes’ story is very much a classic Hollywood tale, given their lives and careers spanned its Golden Age — from the silent era in the 1920s to the decline of the studio system in the ’60s — their narrative begins on the East Coast, specifically New York. In the early 1890s, Franz Mankiewicz, a young, well-educated German Jew, arrived in the New World. He married, as Herman later put it, “a round little woman who was uneducated in four languages. She spoke mangled German, mangled Russian, mangled Yiddish, and mangled English.” In the United States, Franz became Frank, starting out as editor of a weekly German-language newspaper, but soon finding his vocation as a strict, committed teacher. At 41, he put himself through Columbia University for a further degree in education, eventually becoming an honored professor. But the pedagogue’s “unrelenting demands and cruel punishments” left his son awed and terrified: “Herman’s anger at the injustice mingled with his eagerness to please his charismatic father.”

“Pop” Mankiewicz made Herman take the entrance exam for Columbia as an early teen. Herman studied there at the same time as his father, compounding their permanent sense of competition. Joe, born 11 years after his brother, managed to escape Pop’s educational zeal. Herman, for his part, sought refuge by developing a harsh, mocking wit. He also evaded Pop’s scrutiny by taking off with his Jewish bride, Sara Aaronson, for Berlin in 1920. Hanging around Hotel Adlon’s foreign correspondents’ bar and acting as if he were one, Herman landed a column, “News of the Berlin Stage,” for The New York Times. But due to his profligacy and heavy gambling, the money it brought wasn’t enough to support them. In a pattern that would recur all his life, Herman secured a job at Women’s Wear Daily owing to sympathy for his wife; “she had a problem with that husband,” the editor declared. Herman fell so far into debt that he couldn’t pay for his wife to be discharged from hospital after giving birth. Pop came, took Sara and his new grandson back to the States, and left his son to make his own ignominious way home.

On his return Herman found a New York under the sway of Prohibition, replete with speakeasies and bootleggers, which suited his devil-may-care sensibility. He was a man of the Roaring ’20s, and became a founding contributor to The New Yorker and a habitué of the Algonquin Round Table. When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promised him a fortune ($500 a week for writing a scenario), he was tempted. Sharing his literary friends’ opinion that writing for theater could be literature, whereas working for motion pictures was not, Herman assumed he’d only be gone long enough to pay off debts to the tune of $2,000. But he was to remain in Hollywood for the rest of his life.

Ever-hopeful Sara thought that a change of scenery might reform Herman, separating him from his booze-soaked New York friends. She was mistaken. First, he nearly never arrived in Los Angeles. Traveling on the luxurious Twentieth Century Limited train, he broke the journey in Chicago to lecture on New York theater to a Book and Play Club. Losing his fee in a poker game, he wired for funds to finish his trip, then lost that sum in another game. He had to beg his Chicago host to pay the rest of the way to California. Arriving, he rented a villa in Beverly Hills and bought three cars, including Ernst Lubitsch’s limousine (an awful driver, Herman would yell, ‘“Look, no hands!” when he saw a policeman). His first contribution to cinema was Singapore Joe, a one-eyed villain, played by Lon Chaney in Tod Browning’s The Road to Mandalay (1926). While writing the scenario, a key link to Herman’s East Coast life was severed when he was fired from The New Yorker by his friend, Harold Ross, who claimed his “disposition” and “attitude” made him unemployable. Herman had already “resigned publicly at least six times.”

Yet in Hollywood, he was treated like a star. Working two hours a day, Herman perused the papers, spread Hollywood gossip, visited the bookies, gambled with writers, and punctuated his lengthy lunches with witticisms, which were repeated all over town. Garbo laughed “uproariously at his jokes even when she didn’t understand them.” His attitude to the new medium bordered on the contemptuous. For Love Among the Millionaires, a romantic melodrama, he gave a frustrated suitor the remark: “If I’m ever electrocuted, I’d love to have you sitting in my lap.” Herman still aspired to be a playwright and critic. The respect he craved was back East, with the theaters and with Pop. But the plays he wrote were rank failures. He framed the telegrams of box-office disaster (one show lasted 15 performances), hung them in his office, and kept taking the studio’s paychecks. To compensate for the indignity, he assembled his New York circle around him, bringing writers to Hollywood. Ben Hecht was the first friend he approached via telegraph: “Will you accept 300 per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. Three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

Another writer Herman introduced to Hollywood was his brother, Joe. In exchange for staying sober long enough to finish a script for Paramount, Herman persuaded the studio to give Joe a $65 a week writer’s job. Traveling to Los Angeles from New York on the cheapest train fare, Joe heralded his arrival by telegram: “TWO HOURS LATE HORSES EATEN BY WOLVES GOLD SAFE HOWEVER JOE.”

Given Herman’s own wit, he was assigned the all but impossible task of producing the Marx Brothers. Herman warned his writers that the brothers were “mercurial, devious and ungrateful. […] [Y]ou’ll rue the day you ever took this assignment. This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you wear asbestos pants.” His approach to Monkey Business (1931) was to reduce any plot to a minimum: “If Groucho and Chico have to stand against a wall for an hour and forty minutes and crack jokes, that’s enough for me.” Monkey Business was such a hit that Herman was made producer for their next few movies. While filming Duck Soup (1933), he spent the time learning to tap dance. Harpo declared that he needed a deeper understanding of his character to play the role. Herman replied: “You’re a middle-aged Jew who picks up spit because he thinks it’s a quarter.”

Hollywood Herman was simply New York Herman with more money. He didn’t need the presence of his Algonquin mates to drink and began hiding bottles around the house. At a dinner party hosted by a producer known for his expensive food and wine pairing, Herman drank so much he had to bolt from the table to vomit. “‘Don’t worry,’ he airily told his host afterward. ‘The white wine came up with the fish.’” His gambling wreaked even more damage, though he considered his heavy losses to be a form of job security. He told Sara: “They can’t fire me. I owe them too much money.”

When Paramount faced financial difficulties in 1933, Herman decamped to MGM. Abandoning irony, he wrote The Mad Dog of Europe, a script set in Transylvania that traced the rise of an ex-house painter, Adolf Mitler. Herman knew Hollywood would consider any portrayal of the Nazis as “dangerously incendiary” and tried to produce it himself. But the Germans pressured any potential backer or distributor, and he was reduced to producing studio fluff for two years. Goebbels and the German censors told MGM that “‘photoplays written by Herman J. Mankiewicz’ would not be allowed into Germany unless Herman’s name was removed.” Interestingly, despite his attempt to get the first anti-Nazi movie made, Herman’s contrariness still emerged. He embraced the anti-interventionism advocated by Charles Lindbergh, even though he knew the reason behind the desire to keep the United States out of a European war was Lindbergh’s support for the Nazis’ antisemitism. Joe saw Herman’s unpredictable opinions as “binges of perversity and extremism” — typical for an alcoholic gambler.

At MGM it was Herman’s 25-year-old brother who had the greater impact. Joe co-wrote a crime drama, Manhattan Melodrama (1934), that gained huge publicity when “Public Enemy No. 1,” John Dillinger, was shot to death outside a cinema where he’d watched the movie. After that, he was given the challenge of working with Joan Crawford, famed for her imperious ways. When he read her his script for a romantic comedy, Crawford enjoyed the line “I could build a fire by rubbing two Boy Scouts together” so much she “was moved to kiss him.” Despite Crawford’s active interest, and on the rebound from losing his girlfriend Frances Dee, Joe married another actress in 1934, a New York debutante called Elizabeth Schermerhorn Young. The marriage was reported in the press with Herman named as the bridegroom. A Hollywood writer for five years, Joe was still perceived as Herman’s younger brother. He commented that his tombstone would probably read: “Here lies Herm — I mean, Joe — Mankiewicz.”

By the mid-’30s, the age difference between the brothers mattered less and Joe started to pass Herman professionally. The different career trajectories became evident when they were producers at MGM. Having to deal with unpopular aspects of the job, Herman would rebel with acts of self-sabotage and be demoted back to writer. But Joe accepted “the hand he was dealt, played it skillfully, and looked for ways to improve it.” Joe perceived how Herman used drink, gambling, and being fired “to lash out ‘at Sara, his father, the Establishment, Louis B. Mayer,’ and to protect himself from failure by ‘rendering himself unable to prove what he could achieve — in the end destroying himself without guilt.’” Once Herman had brought Joe to Hollywood, he always expected his younger brother to come to his rescue:

When Herman kept demanding money my rage and fear were so intermingled that I thought it would go on for the rest of my life, and there was no way I could stop it. I was terrified of Herman. I never felt I could call on him for help. Everybody else in the world could. But if I did, somehow he’d bawl me out for what was happening to me.

Joe looked back on his years at MGM as being “wretchedly unhappy […] useless, sterile and pretentious,” despite being groomed by Mayer as a potential head of production. According to the Daily Mail, before he hit 30 he was “hailed as the next Thalberg by the wise-heads of the film city.” Joe had a fraught time on Fury (1936) with Fritz Lang, who antagonized his cast and crew by refusing a lunch break for anyone but himself (Lang would be served a pill on a silver tray). Joe had to talk the crew out of dropping a lamp on the director’s head. When Lang was sacked for refusing to make the cuts the studio wanted, he accused Joe of destroying his movie.

Of all the movies Joe produced at MGM, two comedies starring Katharine Hepburn stand out: The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Woman of the Year (1942). The success of the former was due in part to George Cukor’s direction, but Joe created the opening and enlarged the ex-husband’s part to create a role big enough for Cary Grant. For George Stevens’s Woman of the Year (the first time Hepburn appeared beside Spencer Tracy), Joe insisted on a conventional ending, making Hepburn trade her career as a newspaper columnist for a suburban marriage, counter to the film’s irreverent humor. Joe’s trite final scene was so disliked by Hepburn and the writers that they publicly snubbed him when collecting the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Joe compensated for his MGM frustrations by spending vast sums on boats (Billy Wilder joked that he had the second largest fleet in the Pacific) and compulsive womanizing. He disparaged his brother for wasting opportunities (Herman enjoyed the company of actresses such as Louise Brooks, but Sara had adopted the tactic of befriending any rival). The misogynistic culture of a studio like MGM was stark. Throughout Hollywood, studio powers treated actresses like prostitutes. Abusive behavior was so widespread and accepted that many made no effort to conceal it. Joan Crawford told Joe how Louis B. Mayer would always assure her that she was not only appreciated but that he loved her as a daughter: “Somehow his hand always touched my right tit whenever he said the word ‘daughter.’” Married for most of his adult life, Joe himself maintained a constant stream of sexual infidelities, although — rare in the industry — he remained on good terms with his paramours. Crawford declared she was madly in love with him: “At one time or another all the ladies at MGM were in love with him, I’m sure. He had a crooked little smile that was absolutely irresistible to any woman. […] He gave me such a feeling of security I felt I could do anything in the world once I got on that stage.” Joe’s professional relationship with Crawford outlasted their affair and influenced his creative development, feeding directly into All About Eve (1950). When, later in life, he was feted for his direction of women and compared to George Cukor, who was gay and seen as a “women’s director,” Joe would snort, “Cukor flattered them. I fucked them.”

After divorcing his first wife in 1937, he had affairs with actresses Loretta Young and Rose Stradner, a beautiful Austrian. Stradner, as Stern puts it, “combined an impressive European theatrical pedigree with the mixture of danger and vulnerability that Joe found so appealing in Joan Crawford.” Once her Hollywood career stalled, Stradner behaved in a neurotic and violent fashion. When Joe refused to marry her, she tried to kill herself and he relented. After giving birth to their second son, Stradner collapsed again and was committed to a psychiatric clinic for nine months. For the rest of her life she was on medication, supplemented with alcohol, and she attempted suicide more than once. A believer in Freudian psychoanalysis, Joe put Stradner into therapy for years. Stern notes that, although her therapists had her best interests at heart, they were also captivated by her charming, clever Hollywood husband and flattered by his interest in their profession. Karl Menninger, the psychoanalyst who treated Stradner, had strong views on the subordinate roles of women, telling wives who complained about their husband’s sexual infidelity to examine their own shortcomings for the probable cause and forget and forgive. Such doctrinaire Freudian treatment did Rosa little good, given Joe’s continued womanizing.

Early in their marriage, Joe Mankiewicz took up with Judy Garland. “Christ almighty, the girl responded to the slightest bit of kindness as though it were a drug,” Joe claimed, and told Garland’s biographer that he had been in love “the way you love an animal, a pet.” Joe’s affair with Garland enraged Louis B. Mayer, who saw him as messing with his “property.” Garland told Joe how, whenever Mayer complimented her for singing from the heart, he’d drop his hand onto her left breast as if to remind her where her heart was located. Mayer summoned Joe to admonish him about the affair, claiming that he wasn’t speaking “as a boss,” but “as a friend.” Joe retorted: “Actually, you’ve been neither, Mr. Mayer. You’re talking like a jealous old man.”

At MGM, Joe also fell out with a different figure when he forced F. Scott Fitzgerald to co-write with a studio hack. Fitzgerald was adapting Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Three Comrades (1938), which might also have become Hollywood’s first anti-Nazi movie. But Mayer, the Hollywood censor, and the Catholic Legion of Decency kowtowed to German pressure, switching the time frame to before the Nazis’ rise and removing Jewish characters. Writing to his agent, Fitzgerald mused on Hollywood’s treatment of his work: “The censors hacked at it. Finally, the German government took a shot. So, what we have left has very little to do with the script on which people congratulate me.” When Joe also began to rewrite the script at will, Fitzgerald’s tone switched to anger in a stinging letter to Mankiewicz:

I guess all these years I’ve been kidding myself about being a good writer. […] To say I’m disillusioned is putting it mildly. I had an entirely different conception of you. For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I’ve written best-selling entertainment and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from the script that you’ve suddenly decided that it isn’t good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better.

In his other letters, Fitzgerald mentions “an ignorant and vulgar gent” he names “Monkeybitch.” In addition, the unsavory producer called Jaques La Borwits in his unfinished novella Love of the Last Tycoon is modeled on Joe. Fitzgerald’s view of Mankiewicz as a stereotypical, crass Hollywood type, the sort Joe himself loved to ridicule, became the accepted version. Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s Hollywood lover, even blamed Joe for Scott’s early death. That, of course, is an exaggeration, but Fitzgerald himself was painfully accurate about Joe’s brother when he informed his editor, Maxwell Perkins, that Herman,

a ruined man who hasn’t written ten feet of continuity in two years was finally dropped by Metro but immediately picked up by Columbia! He is a nice fellow that everybody likes and has been brilliant, but he is being hired because everyone is sorry for his wife — which I think would make him rather an obstacle in the way of making good pictures. Utter toughness towards the helpless, combined with super-sentimentality — Jesus what a combination!

By September 1939, Herman had been reduced to working at MGM on a week-to-week basis. With his heavy debts, he begged Mayer for an advance. Mayer agreed to put Herman back on contract, but only if he promised “to stay out of trouble and, of course, completely stop gambling.” The next day, in the midst of a poker game, Herman looked up to find Mayer watching from across the room. Without a word he returned to his office, collected his things, and left. His great friend Ben Hecht had always known Herman wouldn’t fulfil his promise: “A man whose genius is on tap like free beer seldom makes literature out of it.” Herman’s public persona started to decay. No longer a Johnsonian wit, admired for his aphorisms, he became a Falstaffian figure, pitied for his sad character flaws. When Herman tried to quit Hollywood and travel back East to pick up his old New York journalism career, he got no further than New Mexico. Accepting a free ride across the States from a young screenwriter, Herman was thrown from the convertible when it slid across the road and flipped over, breaking his leg in three places. Unemployed, broke, and in terrible pain, Herman’s luck seemed to be exhausted. But at that moment Orson Welles entered his life. Visiting Herman while he was laid up, Welles found him “amazingly charming and civilized,” and asked him to write for him.

Herman had already played with the idea of a story that started with an infamous man’s death and inquired into what had made him who he was in a script about Dillinger. During the ’30s, Herman had been friendly with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies (they conspired to sneak alcohol past the teetotal magnate). Herman was fascinated by Hearst, exploring his extensive library at San Simeon and mingling with leaders like Churchill and ex-president Calvin Coolidge. Herman’s idea for a movie based on Hearst was “a coin Pop had carried around in his pocket, and then he finally spent it,” according to his son. He could channel his firsthand experience of Hearst’s grandiose scale of living, huge building projects, compulsive collecting, and absurd promotion of his mistress’s acting career. Aldous Huxley in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1936) had already satirized Hearst, portraying an obsessive tycoon who uses his enormous wealth to find the secret to eternal life. Herman, more political in approach than Huxley, wanted to show how Hearst, who had started out as a progressive populist, had transformed into an apologist for European fascism, using his enormous power to shape opinion through his media ownership.

Herman wrote the first drafts of Citizen Kane holed up on a ranch in the Mojave Desert, near Victorville; Welles had removed the invalid Herman from any bedside distractions, equipping him with reams of paper, boxes of anti-alcohol pills, and an English secretary to type and ferret out his hidden stashes of booze. Welles and Mankiewicz proved to be perfect collaborators. Welles acknowledged how his and Herman’s different sense of Kane helped give a bifocal depth and complexity to their subject. He described Herman’s point of view on Kane as that “of a newspaperman writing about a newspaper boss he despised,” compared to his own interest, which was “more concerned with the interior corruption of Kane.” He elaborated: “The script is most like me when the central figure on the screen is Kane. And it is most like Mankiewicz when he’s being talked about.” But Herman’s perspective is more nuanced than this suggests. The question of authorship over Citizen Kane’s screenplay is a fraught one. Welles for many years downplayed Herman’s role, although it’s clear from the first draft that some scenes remained identical in the finished film. Welles and Mankiewicz shared the only Oscar Citizen Kane won, that of Best Original Screenplay. Neither was present at the ceremony, Herman having re-broken his leg in an inebriated fall. Orson sent a telegram telling him to “kiss my half” of the statue.

Herman’s Oscar win revived his Hollywood career for a while, making his brother envious. But Joe’s move to work as a writer-director at Twentieth Century Fox paid off; the films he made under studio head Darryl Zanuck ensured he would permanently outshine Herman. Zanuck was the stereotypical overweening Hollywood boss, striding round in jodhpurs “with a phalanx of yes-men in his wake, goosing stars with his riding crop, and barking out commands between puffs on a giant cigar.” Zanuck would only break his work day, which began at 11:00 a.m. and didn’t end until 4:00 a.m., with a half-hour gap in the afternoon “when he would retire to a private chamber for sex with a starlet, usually a different one each day.” Despite Zanuck’s obsessive total control, Joe wrote and directed his best films under the man. And the scrutiny didn’t scare him off womanizing, either; a full-blown affair with Gene Tierney, the lead in his first feature, coincided with the formation of an unofficial Joe Mankiewicz fan club among the studio’s young women, who, behaving like groupies, sought presents and favors from him.

Relishing the ability as a director to protect the integrity of his scripts (somewhat ironic, given his treatment of Fitzgerald), Joe created two career-defining films: A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Both movies examine female identity from multiple standpoints. Lauded for his portrayal of heroines whose lives weren’t confined to the traditional domestic role, Joe held to the belief that women couldn’t be completely fulfilled by career alone — love and family were always more important. A Letter to Three Wives won Oscars for its screenplay and direction; it retains its charm and humor but feels dated, partly trapped within the period social conventions it explores. But All About Eve remains fresh, partly because Joe gave his characters the cynical self-awareness that marked his own behavior as a philanderer. Mirroring the flashback structure of Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz split the film into three narrators’ perspectives — those of an “aging diva,” Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis (Joe sold her the part by claiming Margo was “the kind of dame who would treat her mink coat like a poncho”); of her best friend and stay-at-home wife, Karen Richards, played by Celeste Holm (partly a reflection on Joe’s wife); and of the venomous theater critic Addison DeWitt, played by George Sanders. Contrasting their opposing views of Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, Margo’s ruthless understudy, the film examines the nature of acting, the lure and price of fame, and women’s shifting identity. Davis enjoyed herself so much during filming that she ditched her husband and married the actor who played her lover. Baxter, whose performance as Eve equals Davis’s, declared:

Joe knows more about women than any man I’ve met. We’re all just made of glass — he knows what makes us tick and it makes him a superb director because he knows what is deep in us. It’d be tough to be involved with Joe as a woman with a man because he’d know everything.

The film amply demonstrates the extent of Joe’s amatory knowledge of actresses. He gave DeWitt, his mouthpiece in the film, a nervous young actress as a “protegee,” casting Marilyn Monroe, who’d been used by studio executives more for her “sexual services than acting.” The script’s Wildean dialogue revels in the confusion between life and art — the way actors let their roles pervade their relationships, the connection between the need to pretend and the insecurity of the self, the parallel between assuming a character and becoming a lover. Twenty years of Joe’s pursuit of women and his immersion in the artifice of moviemaking come together in All About Eve. It received 14 Academy Award nominations, unequaled until Titanic in 1997, and Joe was given another two Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay, right on the heels of his wins for Three Wives.

While Joe scaled the heights, Herman, following Citizen Kane, had been going downhill for a decade. A 1951 piece in Life celebrating Joe made public what had been privately obvious for years: “Somewhere along the way […] the two brothers passed each other, one going up, the other going down.” Fired by Universal for drinking while writing Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944), Herman was “stuck in the prolonged adolescence of the Prohibition Era,” as Stern terms his alcoholic incidents. His arrest for drunken driving made national news, owing to Hearst’s vendetta against him for Citizen Kane. There were flashes of the old brilliance — a friendship with Nicholas Ray, who claimed Herman taught him everything he ever knew about screenwriting, yielded an odd-ball noir, A Woman’s Secret (1949), told via Herman’s trademark flashback. Unfortunately, such flashes were few and far between. 

Herman had a clear-sighted sense of the reasons behind his gnawing self-doubt thanks to years of therapy, but he also understood his inability to do anything about it:

I seem to become more and more a rat in a trap of my own construction, a trap that I regularly repair whenever there seems to be danger of some opening that will enable me to escape. […] [E]very now and then, after all, people put such shiny new silken bows on the sides of the trap and re-furnish and air-condition the whole thing so charmingly and efficiently — how do I know I would like it in the great world anyhow?

With a liver infection, failing kidneys, and an enlarged heart, he retreated to his study. Loyal Hollywood friends created fictional writing jobs to help him financially and let him believe he was still working. On his deathbed, Herman’s caustic humor never deserted him. He wanted all faithful Jews at his funeral to take off their hats and stated that the official notice of his death in the press should read: “In lieu of flowers, contributions may be given to plant trees in the Arab section of Palestine.” Ben Hecht gave the best tribute to his old friend when he admitted that, a week after the funeral, he had already given up trying to think of Herman as dead: “So help me, Manky dead, is three times a livelier companion than most of the living I know.”

Joe printed Herman’s name in tiny letters in his diary entry for March 5, 1953, drawing a tiny box around it: his way of moving on. But The Barefoot Contessa, written a year after Herman’s death, doesn’t break new ground. In it, Joe reexamined the value of a life, as defined by Hollywood success, exploding any false romanticism attached to the “rags-to-riches” stereotype. Structurally similar to All About Eve and Citizen Kane, it was liked by French critics; François Truffaut thought Joe had made a film “to settle scores with the Hollywood which condemned him to polishing the furniture when he had dreamed of breaking down the walls.” Unfortunately, unlike in All About Eve, any insights into Hollywood’s self-deceiving vacuity now feel verbose rather than witty.

While he was filming The Barefoot Contessa at Rome’s Cinecitta, Joe met Rosemary Matthews, a smart 24-year-old English production assistant. During the shoot she became indispensable to his household and his latest fling. He appointed Rosemary a full-time employee of his production company and, in 1957, gave her the task of smoothing relations in Vietnam during the filming of his shoddy adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1958). Even Joe admitted the movie was “very bad”; Greene wrote that “one can almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author.”

Despite his marriage unraveling and the damage his sons suffered from Stradner’s alcoholism and his infidelity, Joe continued to lie about his womanizing to his wife’s psychiatrists. His niece Josie, who’d been 15 when her father Herman died, had a good sense of Joe’s combination of strength and insecurity: “He’s terribly funny. He is terribly bright. He can be terribly warm. It’s only when you take the big picture that you realize the warmth comes out of the faucet.” Joe had a crassness that Herman lacked: “My father could be very vulgar, but it was always with the sense that he knew he was being.” When Joe’s son dated a minor actress, Josie overheard her uncle declare: “Never fuck a starlet when you can fuck a star.” The most disquieting example of Joe’s behavior occurred when he had a premonition that Stradner might be trying to kill herself again. He called up Josie and asked her to travel with him to where his wife was staying. According to Josie, “The feeling was that she was dead. Nobody had seen her.” Arriving at the house, Joe made his 21-year-old niece enter the bedroom to find Stradner’s body, an indecipherable suicide note by her side.

The first film he directed after his wife’s death was, as Time put it, “the only movie that has ever offered the paying public, for a single admission, a practicing homosexual, a psychotic heroine, a procuress-mother, a cannibalistic orgy and a sadistic nun.” Joe’s 1959 version of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer has some fine elements; Katharine Hepburn turn as Violet Venable, a mother controlling to the point of madness, is moving and personal (the actress had discovered her brother’s body after he had hanged himself). Williams’s themes of family sexual repression, mental illness, and traumatized children clearly resonated with Joe. But Suddenly, Last Summer’s onscreen mania was as nothing compared to the insanity of Joe’s next production, a movie that ruined lives, ended careers, nearly closed a studio, and, at the time, was the costliest ever.

Whether it was the waste and extravagance (the sets for Rome’s forum and the Egyptian palace were larger than the originals), the global media frenzy over the amorous relations between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, or the incompetence of Twentieth Century Fox, which oversaw 21 months of filming and four international relocations, Cleopatra was a living nightmare. Joe described the film as “conceived in a state of emergency, shot in hysteria, and wound up in blind panic.” He got through it thanks to a supply of prescription medication, but the uppers and downers took their toll: “for the first time in my life I have periods during which my brain simply doesn’t function — and during which my body will not go to sleep because of the stimulants I have been taking.” By the end of the shoot, he had to direct from a wheelchair. Broken in health and spirit, and with a serious drug dependency, Joe suffered public humiliation when his old boss, Darryl Zanuck, returned to Twentieth Century Fox and blamed him for the disaster. Ignominiously sacked during post-production, Joe never fully recovered. In the last 30 years of his life he directed only three more movies. Fortunately, Sleuth (1972), his final film, is a miniature gem, a fine adaptation of a play by Anthony Shaffer, with pitch-perfect performances from Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier.

Stern concludes that Joe was “so used to believing in his own superiority that he lacked the ability to shrug off defeat.” At the end of his career the self-doubt that had so affected his brother seemed to paralyze him as well:

I’ve done so little original work in my life. I haven’t written things that I really should have done. I haven’t written a couple of books that I should have. […] I’ve pissed away what I had […] and I say to myself, if you are a good writer, why haven’t you written?

Despite a harmonious third marriage to Rosemary, who loyally supported him in his debilitated state during the Cleopatra debacle, Joe was embittered in his final years. In his study, the large portrait of his judgmental father looked down on him. Pop’s skepticism about the value of working in the movies, which Joe had spent his career confounding, came back to haunt him. Herman had also never been reconciled to his failure as a “serious” writer.

This is the central ironic paradox of the lives of the brothers Mankiewicz. The very qualities that the sons inherited from and shared with their father — their confident intellectualism, their broad cultural references, their serious interest in “the human condition” — define the best of their films, in which they could never take full pride. What made the brothers self-destructive and self-doubting was what made them good. Hollywood, for Herman and Joe, was both empowering and disabling: it indulged their weaknesses, but it also gave them a privileged public platform. Joe tackled nearly every film genre, from film noir to epic spectacle, musical to Shakespeare, romantic comedy to Westerns and social satire. While his movies may be “entertainments,” they are guided by what Stern calls his “unsparing adult sensibility” and examine questions of sex and class, history and character, perception and self-deception, performance and ambition.

Despite Citizen Kane, no one can claim Herman as a great screenwriter. He gambled away a fortune, destroyed himself through drink, and squandered his talent. He was too intelligent a critic not to have an acerbic evaluation of most of his own work. He coped by hiding his failure behind a disdain for the art of screenwriting. But, as befits the producer of such peerless comedies as Monkey Business and Duck Soup, Herman had a huge appetite for life’s farcical messiness. In his memoir, A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht celebrated his friend Manky’s unique role in the Hollywood ecosystem:

[W]hen I remember his thrown away genius, his modesty, his shrug at adversity; when I remember that, unlike the lords of success around him, he only attacked the strong with his wit and defended the weak with his heart, I feel proud to have known a man of importance.


British director and writer Alex Harvey has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His latest film is Road Music (2020), a feature documentary on the legacy of the Delta Blues.

LARB Contributor

Alex Harvey is a writer and director based in Los Angeles. His book Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles was recently published by Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom and University of Chicago Press in the United States. He is currently making a film about Satyajit Ray and Kolkata.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.