Herman J. Mankiewicz, The ‘Loser-Genius’ Hollywood And Hitler Tried To Erase

Published February 25, 2020
Published February 25, 2020

Herman J. Mankiewicz exposed a media tycoon’s love affair in a film plot, incited Nazis to ban his films from Germany, and successfully fought for credit on American cinema's greatest film.

Herman J Mankiewicz

John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty ImagesHeadshot of Herman Mankiewicz, MGM contract writer and the screenwriter for “Citizen Kane.” Circa 1940s.

Herman J. Mankiewicz saw Hollywood as a gold mine. Moving west to take a screenwriting job in 1926, he invited more east coast writers to share in the film industry’s easy money. “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots,” Mankiewicz telegrammed to a friend. “Don’t let this get around.”

However, Hollywood success came at a cost. A notorious gambler and alcoholic with an acerbic wit, Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz wrote nearly 60 film scripts with mostly no credit before a writing credit on Citizen Kane made him infamous.

From production to promotion, Mankiewicz’s part on the film courted controversy.

Mankiewicz angered William Randolph Hearst by using details of his private life for the film’s plot. He also fought with director Orson Welles over credit as the film’s screenwriter that followed both men to the grave. Yet, in the end, Mankiewicz got the last laugh, the credit, and the Oscar he deserved.

The Early Life Of Herman J. Mankiewicz

International NewsScreenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in 1943

Born Nov. 7, 1897, in New York City, Herman J. Mankiewicz grew up in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Under pressure from his father to excel, he became a whiz kid and graduated from Columbia University before his 19th birthday.

“A father like that could make you either very ambitious or very despairing,” Mankiewicz once shared. He famously chose despair and developed a sharp tongue.

While working as a press agent and drama critic in New York, Mankiewicz joined the legendary Algonquin Round Table social circle. From the Table’s writers and critics, which included Dorothy Parker and George S. Kaufman, Mankiewicz’s alcohol-laced wit was supreme.

Indeed, Algonquin member Alexander Woollcott called Mankiewicz the “funniest man in New York.” After his comedy caught producer Walter Wanger’s attention, he invited Mankiewicz to Hollywood for a gig as a screenwriter.

How Mankiewicz Became Hollywood’s Script Doctor

Film work at Paramount came easy to Mankiewicz. First, he started with silent films and then transitioned to talkies. As head of the studio’s scenario department, he was one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood.

At any chance, Mankiewicz let the studio execs know he was the brains of it all. As a result, his wisecracking, fast-talking style marked the movies of the time.

Herman J Mankiewicz Worked On Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Wikimedia CommonsScreenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz worked on more than 60 films, including “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” starring Marilyn Monroe.

In all, Herman Mankiewicz worked on nearly 60 film scripts, many of which are among the best-known Hollywood films of the era, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Dinner At Eight, and Wizard of Oz. Although most of his films were witty and wry, he kept up with current events.

In 1933, Mankiewicz took a break from the studio to write The Mad Dog of Europe. The screenplay was a thinly-veiled swipe at Adolf Hilter’s rise to power in Germany.

The topic hit close to home. Mankiewicz’s parents were German-Jewish immigrants, and most of the studio heads were Jewish as well. However, the film was dead in the water. With a clear anti-Nazis message, they feared Hitler would ban all American movies. And they were right.

As a result, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of education and propaganda, did not allow films in Germany written by Mankiewicz.

Yet, that would not be the last scandal to haunt Mankiewicz’s name in Hollywood.

Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, And The Citizen Kane Writing Scandal

Working on films to no credit was common under Hollywood’s studio system. As directors craved more control, studio contracts laid out who would get credit for what and how much. So when RKO studios decided Herman J. Mankiewcz would get no credit for writing Citizen Kane, he did not think twice.

Orson Welles

Library of CongressOrson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten on March 1, 1937.

RKO studios wanted its “Boy Wonder” Orson Welles to write, direct, and star in the film. They paid Welles $100,000 (around $1.75 million today) for the job. On the other hand, Mankiewicz made $1,000 a week and a $5,000 completion bonus to take no credit.

Since Welles knew Mankiewicz’s work from the CBS Radio Series, The Campbell Playhouse, he asked him to help write the script. But Herman J. Mankiewicz’s drinking and gambling hurt his name in Hollywood. So, Welles reportedly asked his partner in the Mercury Theater, John Houseman, to help keep Mankiewicz on track.

Orson Welles In Citizen Kane Written By Herman J Mankiewicz

Wikimedia CommonsHerman J. Mankiewicz co-wrote “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles, pictured here as Charles Foster Kane in the film.

The studio agreed to the team, and the rest imploded from there.

With Welles’ notes, Mankiewicz wrote seven drafts of the film. The final script was 156 pages. In the end, both Mankiewicz and Housemen felt it was a team effort and wanted credit in the final film.

Welles refused, per his contract. However, as the buzz around Citizen Kane grew, Mankiewicz waged a war to keep his credit. He knew the film would be a big success, and it was.

The Citizen Kane credit feud between Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles was the talk of the town. After Mankiewicz threatened Welles with legal action, the studio settled the fight with joint credit on the film.

How William Randolph Hearst Inspired Citizen Kane

When Citizen Kane won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, both Mankiewicz and Welles received credit but neither man showed up for the award. The feud was to follow them beyond their graves.

In the 1971 essay for The New Yorker, “Raising Kane,” film critic Pauline Kael called Mankiewicz the true “loser-genius” of the film. On the other hand, critic Peter Bogdanovich countered with “The Kane Mutiny” in Esquire, citing Welles as an equal co-author of the script.

William Randolph Hearst Inspired Citizen Kane

William Randolph Hearst, photographed here in 1910, inspired screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s Charles Foster Kane character in “Citizen Kane.”

Decades later, Mankiewicz’s son Frank wrote in a memoir that his father agreed to share credit with Welles as a favor. However, Welles wrote “not one word” of the movie.

Although there are many hot takes on who wrote what, the proof is in the plot. The film’s Charles Foster Kane character was a carbon copy of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst thanks to Mankiewicz.

When he first arrived in Hollywood, Mankiewicz made friends with director Charles Lederer. He was nephew to Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. As a result, Mankiewicz entered Hearst’s social circle.

At parties and other high society socials, Mankiewicz made the guest list. However, his drinking got the best of him, and Hearst quickly shut him out. Bitter and full of despair, Mankiewicz turned his wit on Hearst.

Using what he knew from access to Hearst’s inner circle, Mankiewicz wrote the script for Citizen Kane.

Blackmail, Bullying And Other Scandals Behind Citizen Kane

Scandals rocked the making of Citizen Kane from start to finish and Hearst wanted the film shut down over its portrayal of his mistress Marion Davies.

Marion Davies

Wikimedia CommonsActress Marion Davies may have inspired the “rosebud” reference in the film Citizen Kane.

Particularly, Hearst was furious with the film’s “rosebud” reference, which may or may not have been his name for Davies’ “womanly divide.” However, others insist he was upset that people took the film to be an exposé of his life.

As a result, Hearst tried to have Welles branded a communist. Meanwhile, Mankiewicz called the American Civil Liberties Union to stop Hearst’s newspapers from attacks in the press.

“This is not a tempest in a teapot, it will not calm down, and the forces opposed to us are constantly at work,” Welles’ lawyer and manager Arnold Weissberger said in a 1941 memo. Researcher Harlan Lebo published it in his book, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker’s Journey.

Despite bullying and a very public feud over credit, Citizen Kane pressed on to become the greatest film of all time, at least according to critics. However, Mankiewicz’s story did not have a Hollywood ending.

Herman J. Mankiewicz: Triumph And Tragedy In Hollywood

After a decade in the film industry, Mankiewicz felt he never left his mark in Hollywood. After early success, his work was drying up. He was 44 when he started working on “Citizen Kane” with a cold career. In contrast, Orson Welles was 25 with more career to go.

The film they created together was their finest work, and Mankiewicz wanted to hang on to that.

For this reason, Orson taking sole writing credit angered him. “I’m particularly furious at the incredibly insolent description of how Orson wrote his masterpiece,” Mankiewicz said in a letter to his father. “The fact is that there isn’t one single line in the picture that wasn’t in writing – writing from and by me – before ever a camera turned.”

The most famous scene in Citizen Kane, where Orson Welles character Charles Foster Kane speaks his last word "Rosebud". Rosebud was apparently the name William Randolph Hearst gave to his mistress’ "womanly divide".

Indeed, Mankiewicz was the smartest person in the room. But his drinking problem got in the way of a true triumph. He died from bad kidneys in 1953. His last film, The Pride of St. Louis, did not come close to the success of Citizen Kane.

On his destructive behavior, Mankiewicz wrote: “I seem to become more and more of 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. I haven’t decided yet about making it bomb proof. It would seem to involve a lot of unnecessary labor and expense.”

Similarly, Welles saw the loser and genius in Mankiewicz. Ultimately, giving him the credit he deserved in a quote about his death. “He saw everything with clarity. No matter how odd or how right or how marvelous his point of view was, it was always diamond white. Nothing muzzy.”

Now that you’ve read about Herman J. Mankiewicz, Hollywood’s genius screenwriter who struggled for his due credit, check out these 48 photos of vintage Hollywood. Then check out these Hollywood couples, young and old.

Emell Adolphus
Emell Derra Adolphus is a New York City-based writer and magazine editor with more than 10 years of experience covering Black and LGBT-focused topics. He is currently working on his debut novel.