Herman Jacob Mankiewicz was born on November 7, 1897, in New York City, New York, the United States, into a Jewish family of German ancestry. His Berlin-born father, Franz Mankiewicz, had immigrated to New York from Hamburg in 1892 with his wife, Johanna Blumenau, a seamstress.
The family settled in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, after his father got a teaching job there, but later relocated to New York City in 1913. He grew up with a sister and a brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who would later become an Oscar-winning Hollywood director, screenwriter, and producer.
He obtained his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Columbia University in 1917, following which he briefly served as the managing editor of the 'American Jewish Chronicle'. Later that year, he became a flying cadet with the United States Army and went on to serve as a private first class with the Marines, A.E.F. in 1918.
He took various jobs in the following years, including working as the director of the American Red Cross News Service in Paris before returning to US in 1920. He got married and took his wife to Berlin, where he was assigned as a foreign correspondent for George Seldes at the 'Chicago Tribune' from 1920 to 1922.
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Career & Works
While still working as a correspondent for the 'Chicago Tribune' in Berlin, Herman J. Mankiewicz served as a publicist for dancer Isadora Duncan prior to her return tour to America. Back in US, he became a reporter for the 'New York World', but soon shifted to writing drama in collaboration with prominent Broadway playwrights.
During this period, he wrote for several magazines, including 'Vanity Fair' and 'The Saturday Evening Post', and worked as a drama critic for the 'New York Times' alongside George S. Kaufman between 1923 and 1926. He collaborated with Kaufman on the play 'The Good Fellow' and with Marc Connelly on 'The Wild Man of Borneo'.
He worked with intellectuals like Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, and Robert E. Sherwood on a revue, and had established himself as a "gifted, prodigious writer" before turning 30. A member of the Algonquin Round Table, he also wrote a weekly column for 'The New Yorker' in 1925-26 as the first ever staff theater critic of the publication.
Thanks to his impressive work, he got noticed by film producer Walter Wanger, who offered him a motion-picture contract paying $400 a week and a bonus $5,000 for each accepted story. Soon after signing the contract, a drunken Mankiewicz was found asleep on his desk while writing his review of the performance of Gladys Wallis as Lady Teazle in 'School for Scandal'.
He subsequently moved to Hollywood and began working on 'titles' for Paramount Pictures under the supervision of the producer B.P. Schulberg, working on at least twenty-five silent films in 1926-28.
Soon after joining, he famously sent a telegram to Ben Hecht mentioning that while working for Paramount, his only competitors were idiots. This attracted the attention of many emerging writers.
He became the head of Paramount's scenario department at the end of 1927, and the following year, brought over his younger brother, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, to work under his supervision.
When he began screenwriting for the talkies in 1929, he was the highest-paid writer in the world, and went on to work on comedies like 'Laughter', 'Monkey Business', 'Horse Feathers', and 'Million Dollar Legs'.
While his career flourished in the early 1930s, by the latter half of the decade, he was deep in debt due to his drinking and gambling habits, and had angered many with his foul mouth. He was mostly fixing works of other screenwriters, and despite being the first of ten writers to work on 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939), his contribution to the black-and-white 'Kansas’ sequence was not credited.
Mankiewicz became broke following a serious car accident that left him bedridden for thirty-four weeks and as many weeks in a brace when he was approached by Orson Welles to co-write a screenplay on budget. The screenplay of 'Citizen Kane' earned them an 'Academy Award' in 1942, and while it helped Mankiewicz get his groove back, there have been controversies over which of the co-writer wrote what.
He incurred the wrath of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who is generally thought to be the inspiration behind Kane. Once after Mankiewicz became involved in a minor car accident, all Hearst newspapers made major headlines about it and even had him stand trial on a felony charge, which affected him greatly.
In 1942, he co-wrote the screenplay of 'The Pride of the Yankees' with Jo Swerling, for which he received a nomination at the 'Academy Awards'. He continued to work on several movies, including 'Stand By for Action', 'Christmas Holiday', 'The Enchanted Cottage', 'The Spanish Main', 'A Woman's Secret', and finally, 'The Pride of St. Louis'.
Family & Personal Life
Herman J. Mankiewicz first met Shulamith Sara Aaronson in February 1918 at George Washington University, where she came accompanying her older sister Naomi, and they quickly became attracted to each other. While he was enlisted in the military, they continued to write to one another, and on his way back home, he rushed to visit her in Washington, where they got engaged.
They were married on July 1, 1920, after he was able to convince her father and the two families met. They had three children together: Don Mankiewicz, who became a screenwriter; Frank Mankiewicz, a future politician; and Johanna Mankiewicz Davis, who became a novelist.
Mankiewicz, whose behavior has been described as "erratic even by the standards of Hollywood drunks", died of uremic poisoning, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles on March 5, 1953.
He was portrayed by John Malkovich in 'RKO 281' in 1999, and a biographical film on him named 'Mank', starring Gary Oldman and directed by David Fincher, was announced in July 2019.