Despite their contributions to the golden age of American movies, Herman (“Mank”) and Joseph Mankiewicz ended up feeling betrayed by Hollywood. Beneath their witty, convivial personae, both were driven by a rivalry as intense as Cain and Abel’s. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote in “Raising Kane,” her controversial two-part l971 New Yorker article that restored Herman’s status as the author of Citizen Kane, “There wasn’t room for two Mankiewiczes in movie history.” Joe was eaten up by envy—his desire to best his brother was arguably a goad to his tremendous achievements. Joe would win four Academy Awards in two years: best director and best adapted screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives, in l950, and both awards again for All About Eve the following year. No one has since matched that accomplishment.

In theater you had the Barrymores; in politics, the Kennedys; and in Hollywood, the Mankiewiczes. The careers of Herman and his younger brother, Joe, spanned the history of the movies—from writing intertitles for silent pictures to the advent of talkies, to Herman’s writing the first-draft screenplay for Citizen Kane, to Joe’s great debacle, Cleopatra, and his last film, in l972, Sleuth. As Joe Mankiewicz once bitingly remarked, “I’ve been in on the beginning, the rise, peak, collapse, and end of the talking picture.”

Was Hollywood big enough for two Mankiewiczes? Older brother Herman (left) and Joe, in 1935.

Their children and grandchildren have kept alive the brothers’ legacy. Herman’s son Don co-wrote the Susan Hayward film I Want to Live!, sparking a national debate about the death penalty, and he wrote for two iconic television heroes: Marcus Welby, M.D., and Raymond Burr’s wheelchair-bound detective in Ironside. Joe’s son Tom, who died in 2010 at the age of 68, wrote the screenplay for Diamonds Are Forever and reworked the script for Superman, launching the Superman franchise with Christopher Reeve. Herman’s younger son, Frank, was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary during his run for the Democratic nomination for president in l968.

Frank, who died at 90 in 2014, was the one who announced Kennedy’s death to the world after he was shot in Los Angeles. Don and Frank’s sister, Johanna Davis, died shortly after publishing her first novel, in the summer of 1974. In a freakish accident, she was struck and killed by a taxicab while walking with her 11-year-old son, Timothy, outside her home in Greenwich Village. (Her son was not injured.) Johanna was 36 years old.

Third-generation Mankiewiczes include Frank’s two sons, Josh (a journalist for Dateline on NBC) and Ben (a film critic and commentator who hosts Turner Classic Movies).

The Mankiewiczes’ rise and fall in Hollywood throws light not only on the history of film in America but also on the Jewish immigrant experience.

The Family Man and the Philanderer

Joe couldn’t put enough distance between himself and his Jewish background—in his social connections, in his three marriages, in his movies, in his pipe-smoking, tweed jacket, Ivy League manner. Throughout his life, he was followed by a certain shame of being Jewish.

Herman did not try to re-invent himself. His wife, Sara, from a prominent manufacturing family, was devoutly Jewish. Unlike Joe, Herman didn’t suffer from a sense of shame; he allowed Sara to sign him up in the first synagogue in Los Angeles. (There were many Jews in Hollywood who hid their Jewishness but privately attended synagogue.)

Joe, however, would go far to re-invent himself. He chose as his second wife the Viennese actress Rose Stradner, who was adored by the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels himself, Hitler’s propaganda minister, had begged her to leave Hollywood and return to Germany. “I’d seen the correspondence,” Joe bragged. “Goebbels asked her to come back because she was ‘1,000 percent Aryan.’”

Rose Stradner, Joe’s second wife, in The Last Gangster, 1937. Her suicide would further cloud the family legacy.

In their dealings with Hollywood moguls, Joe prospered (where Herman did not) in part because he was dealing with shrewd but uneducated Jewish-immigrant men, such as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, and Joe recognized in them the yearning for assimilation and acceptance that he himself felt. These studio bosses were more comfortable with Joe than with Herman, because Joe represented a level of sophistication and worldliness they aspired to, whereas Herman was more like a character out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story—an embarrassing truthteller who reminded them where they came from.

Joe chose as his second wife the Viennese actress Rose Stradner, who was adored by the Third Reich.

Herman was a devoted family man, although he kept company with hard drinkers, gamblers, and fast-talking, sardonic newspapermen—fixtures of American pictures in the 30s and 40s. An alcoholic and a gambler, Herman made fortunes and lost them. (One wag sorrowfully observed that a million dollars slipped through Herman’s fingers “without leaving any residue.”) Joe, however, became wealthy and stayed wealthy, married two WASPs and a Catholic, philandered spectacularly, and began remaking himself into a mainstream American aristocrat who would eventually leave Hollywood for New York, in a failed bid to become a gentleman playwright.

By l992, when New York’s Film Forum honored Joe with a five-week retrospective called “All About Mankiewicz,” beginning with a special screening of his most adored film, All About Eve, Joe had long outlived his career. After being introduced as one of America’s greatest screenwriters and directors, Mankiewicz, then 83, complained that he had wasted his life. “I should have been a schoolteacher,” he said, “like my father.”

What turned Joe into a bitter, unhappy man after a career that had brought the world The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; A Letter to Three Wives; All About Eve; Five Fingers; The Barefoot Contessa; Suddenly, Last Summer; Cleopatra; and Sleuth? Jean-Luc Godard called Joe “the most intelligent man in all contemporary cinema,” and Gore Vidal described him as “the American Lubitsch.” But when Joe died a week shy of his 84th birthday, he had not worked in 22 years, an absence screenwriter Robert Benton calls “one of the great mysteries of American cinema.”

“A Mafia of Geniuses”

Chris Mankiewicz holds some of the answers to that mystery. Chris is Joe’s older son from his second marriage, the son whose estrangement from his father seems to date almost from infancy. “It isn’t a conventional family,” he said. “It’s like a Mafia of geniuses. I couldn’t wait to leave the family. Couldn’t wait to get out. So much is expected of you.” Chris’s younger brother, Tom, once recalled, “When I started to write for the movies, I was terrified. I would sit down and say, ‘Oh, Jesus, I’m the son of the guy who wrote All About Eve.’”

Joe’s ambition and competitiveness was on the scale of a Greek tragedy. And his devotion to actresses—as director, as lover, as would-be chronicler in an unfinished “history of actresses”—belies the role he played in the undoing of Rose Stradner, to whom he was married for 19 years and who was one of the models for All About Eve’s Margo Channing. But before Joe would cut a swath through the industry’s most alluring and troubled actresses, he was locked in a struggle to unseat his older brother, beloved in Hollywood for his wit and personal magnetism, and honored with an Academy Award for the Citizen Kane original screenplay.

“When I started to write for the movies, I was terrified. I would sit down and say, ‘Oh, Jesus, I’m the son of the guy who wrote All About Eve.’”

As in that other Cain and Abel story, East of Eden, the brothers’ rivalry was born in a struggle to please their father. Franz Mankiewicz’s dictatorial ways made both sons feel that their best was never good enough. He was a strict taskmaster who alternately bullied and ignored his sons. A German-Jewish émigré who worshipped German culture, he started his American life as a schoolteacher in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and wound up as a professor of education at the City College of New York and the founder of a roundtable for German intellectuals. (Albert Einstein was a member.)

“Pop was a very brilliant man,” said Tom Mankiewicz of his grandfather. “He expected a lot of his children. My impression was that Dad was always out to make Pop proud, but that Herman buckled under the pressure.” Herman reacted by dissolving his gifts in alcohol; Joe worked, plotted, and schemed to win the awards that would outshine his older brother and prove his worth to his father.

Joe on the rumor-swirling set of Cleopatra. At a cost of $31 million, it was the most expensive film ever made at the time.

But before Joe, the only Mankiewicz in Hollywood was Herman, known affectionately as “Mank” by the film community.

Twelve years Joe’s senior, Herman was a titanic figure among screenwriters. He’d come to Hollywood during the silent era as a flippant former journalist who quickly acquired friends and admirers at the writers’ table. Soon after arriving, he famously sent a telegram to Ben Hecht: “There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.”

A friend of Joe’s explained, “Joe was the kid brother all right. Herman rode him, patronized him, did everything but send him out for cigarettes. Well, that was understandable. Herman was a god among the writers, Joe was strictly nobody.… But at the same time Herman did a lot for him. He showed him the ropes, gave him advice, steered him around, did all sorts of things.”

The producer John Houseman knew both Mankiewiczes. He recalled Herman as a “neurotic drinker and a compulsive gambler, [who] was also one of the most intelligent, informed, witty, humane and charming men I have ever known.” As a young teen, Herman had worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, lowered down into the mines. But he passed the entrance exam for Columbia University, enrolled at 15, and graduated three years later. Herman migrated to Hollywood in 1926 after making his name back East as The New Yorker’s first drama critic and the second-string drama critic for The New York Times.

He started out earning $400 a week writing intertitles when films were still silent; at his height he was making $3,000 a week—unheard of during the Depression.

“Joe was the kid brother all right. Herman rode him, patronized him, did everything but send him out for cigarettes.”

Joe at first worshipped and emulated his older brother. He was 19 when he graduated from Columbia University; like Herman, he spent a year in Berlin. He began writing intertitles for UFA, the German film studio. Herman brought Joe to Hollywood to work for Paramount as a “junior writer” for $60 a week. Like Herman’s, Joe’s rise was meteoric. He was 22 when he was nominated for the best-adapted-screenplay Oscar for Skippy, a 1931 Jackie Cooper vehicle about shantytown boys.

The rivalry between the brothers began to show itself. “Here was a guy,” Tom Mankiewicz recalled, “who brings his kid brother out to Hollywood, who puts his nose to the grindstone, is very ambitious, gets nominated for an Oscar at 22, and off he goes. And by the time he’s 27, he’s producing Philadelphia Story at MGM. It’s very natural when your younger brother suddenly becomes this huge force to be reckoned with. And then when the Oscars start coming in! And he’s not only winning for writing, but he’s a director! He’s a filmmaker on a large scale. Add to that, Herman was in terrible financial straits most of his life. Dad [Joe] paid his bills two, three, four times. I think Herman really started to resent Dad when Dad started paying off his debts.”

Before he was ostracized by Hollywood: Herman (second from right) dining with (from left) actors Will Wright and Phillips Holmes and producer Sam Jaffe, at the Paramount commissary.

“Someplace along the way, you see,” a family friend said, “the two brothers passed each other, one going up, the other going down. What that may have done to Joe’s heart—and his ego—is something to think about.”

Mank’s Second Act

By the end of the 30s, Herman’s boozing and gambling had left him virtually unemployable.

He was becoming Hollywood’s “loser-genius,” in the words of Pauline Kael, but an entertaining one, holding court at Chasen’s and Romanoff’s. F. Scott Fitzgerald described him as “a ruined man who hasn’t written ten feet of continuity in two years.… He is a nice fellow that everybody likes and has been brilliant, but he is being hired because everyone is sorry for his wife.” When Scott Fitzgerald starts pitying you for being a ruin, then you know you’re in trouble.

And then Orson Welles entered the picture.

He hired Mank to write scripts for his Mercury Theatre radio program after Herman broke his leg in an automobile accident in New Mexico, and the two outsider geniuses decided to collaborate on an original screenplay. The rest is legend.

“I have always thought of his Hearst idea as a coin Pop carried around in his pocket, and then he finally spent it,” Mank’s elder son, Don Mankiewicz, said. “It was a story he had never been able to sell anywhere else.” Mank and Sara had been William Randolph Hearst’s guests many times at San Simeon, going up on weekends to the fabulous castle north of Santa Barbara. (San Simeon became the model for Kane’s lavish estate, Xanadu, in Citizen Kane.) Hearst appreciated Mank’s jovial presence at his table, treating him as a kind of court jester. But Mank—like Lear’s Fool—would have the last word. The court jester turned on his powerful host, holding him up to scorn and pity as the thinly disguised subject of Citizen Kane.

Mank recovered from his broken leg at the Rancho Verde, a retreat on the edge of the Mojave Desert, accompanied by his secretary, Rita Alexander; a German nurse; and the producer John Houseman. After 12 weeks, he came down from the mountain with a 268-page script called “American,” the script that would become Citizen Kane.

When Scott Fitzgerald starts pitying you for being a ruin, then you know you’re in trouble.

Herman knew he had written something great, and it dawned on him that he had “made a bad deal” when he’d given away credit. Contractually, Welles had the right to deny Mankiewicz his due, but Herman raised so much hell that Orson was forced to put Herman’s name, before his own, on the script.

In February of l942, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best original screenplay. Neither Herman nor Sara attended the ceremony. Welles stayed away, filming an unfinished feature in South America. The best-original-screenplay award was announced: Herman J. Mankiewicz had won for Citizen Kane. The roar of the crowd shouting, “Mank! Mank!,” drowned out the name of Orson Welles. Herman had finally redeemed years of disappointment and failure. In his bathrobe and slippers, he grabbed Sara, and they danced around the room. He later delighted friends with the acceptance speech he claimed he would have given had he attended the ceremony: “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’s absence, because the script was written in Mr. Welles’s absence.”

Joe was listening to the radio broadcast at home, and he responded to his brother’s win with envy. He turned to his wife, Rose, and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever win.… He’s got the Oscar, and I’m still a producer at Metro, goddamn it.”

The roar of the crowd shouting, “Mank! Mank!,” drowned out the name of Orson Welles.

“It was certainly hard for Joe to admit that Herman was capable of anything so good, let alone great,” said one of Joe’s last collaborators. “He envied that Oscar so much that it’s the framing device of All About Eve.” Throughout Joe’s career, his films would tell stories of usurpation and succession, such as All About Eve, Julius Caesar, Sleuth, and—most spectacularly—Cleopatra, in which Joe’s script makes clear that Antony’s desire for the Egyptian queen is in part fueled by his desire to supplant Caesar.

“It must have galled Joe,” a friend observed, “that no matter how hard he worked, no matter how glittering his success, his brother maintained a kind of supremacy. Herman was the one who was the legend, the one who was famously brilliant, the one everybody loved.” And now he was the one who had written a masterpiece. Joe complained that he knew what they would put on his tombstone: “Here lies Herm—I mean, Joe—Mankiewicz.”

“A Woman’s Director”

But ambition was only one of the traits that would shape Joe’s career: the other was his obsession with actresses. After A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve, Joe became known as “a woman’s director.” But he did more than just direct actresses; he was one of the biggest womanizers in Hollywood. Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Loretta Young were among his many amours. “Women just fell for him,” his son Chris said. “He wasn’t that handsome, but he would appeal to them. Instead of saying, ‘Oh Jesus, you’ve got the greatest ass, I’ve got to go out with you,’ he would say, ‘Tell me about your life,’ or ‘I don’t think you had a good childhood, I think you should see an analyst.’ And he was suddenly talking to you like a person, not like you were a piece of meat, which is what they were used to. This is the same man who, on the side, would tell me, ‘Well, you know, Chris, I fucked Jean Harlow.’ He used to say, ‘Yes, George Cukor and I are supposed to be the great women’s directors. The only difference is that he flattered them—and I fucked them.’”

While Herman remained devoted to Sara, Joe’s first two marriages did little to impede his pursuit of other women. His first, to the actress and socialite Elizabeth Young, lasted three years. She was beautiful and classy, an haute WASP. Her mother was a Schermerhorn, her father a New York judge; it was a coup for “a Jewish boy with a Polish name” to marry into New York society.

Joe’s second marriage, to Stradner in l939, would last much longer and prove far more problematic. It was a mismatch that would end horribly. Joe’s treatment of Rose would bear out his ambivalence toward those fabulous beings known as actresses—his belief that you can be an “actress” or you can be a “woman,” but you cannot successfully be both.

Joe directed Elizabeth Taylor—seen here with her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher—in Cleopatra. Taylor had begun her affair with co-star Richard Burton on the set.

Rose Stradner embodied three of Joe’s obsessions: the theater, the German language, and the cult of the actress.

Joe’s prominence as a producer-screenwriter-director did little to enhance Rose Stradner’s career, which had flourished on the Viennese stage. “She was too good an actress and not enough of a glamour-puss” to find success at MGM, Joe believed. Rose and Joe’s two sons, Chris and Tom, were born in l940 and l942. By then, Rose had turned to alcohol to relieve her disappointment over her career. She had taken it for granted that she would become a star in America, but it was Joe who had become the star. “Dad was getting more and more attention,” Tom said, “and she was getting less and less. My father knew about actresses—he knew they were not comfortable just being ornaments.”

While Herman remained devoted to Sara, Joe’s first two marriages did little to impede his pursuit of other women.

Joe continued his philandering, pursuing an affair with the young and vulnerable Judy Garland. “During the majority of his womanizing in the 40s, almost every woman was a little disturbed,” Tom said. “I don’t know where the fascination with complicated women came from, because certainly that’s in his movies, too. His women tend to be better written than his men.”

“One of my father’s games with all of his actresses was to play shrink and to put everybody into analysis,” Chris said. Joe talked to Judy about psychoanalysis, giving her books on Freud, which won him the ire of Sam Goldwyn at MGM, and Judy’s mother. Joe had studied pre-med at Columbia with a thought of becoming a psychiatrist; Chris claims Joe sent his screenplays to the Menninger Clinic so his characters could be analyzed.

When Franz died after a fall, a few days after moving to Los Angeles to begin a professorship at U.C.L.A., it fell to Joe and Herman to accompany their father’s body back to New York by train. The two brothers squeezed together in a small compartment. Herman was inconsolable, drinking whiskey from a flask, rambling incoherently about a stolen bicycle from his youth, his “Rosebud,” while Joe remained silent, smoking a tobacco mixture called “Barking Dog” in his ever present pipe. Franz had been the most important figure in the lives of both men; later in life, Joe kept a forbidding portrait of his father hanging in his study.

Mank in Exile

Citizen Kane revived Herman’s career, and his work on The Pride of the Yankees—the Gary Cooper film about Lou Gehrig—earned him a second Academy Award nomination. But Herman’s renaissance came to an end with another automobile accident, followed by a suit brought against him by Lee Gershwin. One afternoon, in March of 1943, Herman was driving home after drinking at Romanoff’s. He swerved into oncoming traffic and hit a station wagon head-on. He was unhurt, and he climbed out of his car to apologize. Turns out, the other driver was a neighbor, Lee Gershwin, along with her secretary and laundress. Lee—the imperious wife of Ira Gershwin—sustained a small cut on her head, but was otherwise unharmed, as were her two passengers. Unfortunately for Herman, the accident occurred in front of a bungalow on Benedict Canyon belonging to Hearst’s paramour, Marion Davies. Hearst was present, and Mank’s misfortune would turn out to be a gift to the powerful publisher, who quickly seized the opportunity to punish Herman for Citizen Kane, making sure that the accident—and Lee’s subsequent lawsuit against Herman—became front-page news. The two Hearst papers in L.A. began a campaign that virtually forced the city attorney to bring charges for felony drunk driving.

The outsize news coverage and subsequent trial was a petty act of revenge on Hearst’s part. Herman’s son Frank remembered buying up all the copies of the Hearst Herald-Express at the PX when he was stationed at Camp Roberts, then dumping them in the trash so his fellow cadets wouldn’t read about his father’s humiliating court case.

A pesky and groundless plagiarism suit brought by a Hearst biographer in l947 did further damage to Herman’s spirits. He began drinking dangerously. The phone stopped ringing. “You see,” he told a colleague, “I have finally achieved that delicate balance I have been looking for all my life, where I won’t work with fifty percent of the producers and the other fifty percent won’t work with me.”

Herman had found a way to squander the gift of Citizen Kane. He thought he could return to journalism and attempted three pieces for his old friend Harold Ross at The New Yorker. Ross rejected them all. Herman turned to Joe, now a powerhouse at Twentieth Century Fox, to find him work as a screenwriter. But the business had changed by the early l950s, and Herman’s younger colleagues in the Fox commissary no longer hung on his every word. They had heard it all before, and Herman’s drinking and gambling had worn everybody out. They ignored him, leaving him alone at his end of the writers’ table. His generation of screenwriters had been cynical, irreverent newspapermen and playwrights who thought that writing for the movies was a lark at best and hackwork at worst; the new generation of screenwriters wanted to write for the movies; they saw film as an art form, the greatest game on earth. They were serious.

Herman had exhausted it all—his health, the industry’s goodwill, his talent. The only thing he had left was his family, who continued to love and admire him. His daughter, Johanna, compared her father’s last days to the map of Kane’s newspaper empire, with all the lights going out one by one. “That’s the way I think of my father,” she would say years later.

Herman, a writer to the end, kept the best lines for himself: “When I came out here, I came for a few months. I don’t know how it is that you start working at something you don’t like, and before you know it, you’re an old man.”

The new generation of screenwriters wanted to write for the movies; they saw film as an art form, the greatest game on earth.

While Herman languished, Joe crowned one success with another. Herman watched as Joe followed A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve with People Will Talk, Five Fingers, and Julius Caesar, which Herman particularly admired. (Joe said, “Quite understandably, he found it much easier to like my direction than to like my writing.”) Life magazine sent a journalist to interview Herman about Joe for a piece they were doing in the wake of Joe’s coup of winning four Academy Awards in two years. Herman, unwell, sat in his house drinking soup out of a thermos, talking to the reporter about his younger brother, who was now being heralded as Hollywood’s greatest wit, a realm that had been Herman’s.

Herman died on March 5, 1953, before his one great movie, Citizen Kane, was rediscovered as an American masterpiece. His son Frank recalled, “I don’t think at the time he died that he really knew what they accomplished.”

In the competition between Joe and Herman, Joe had won. Herman’s obituary described him as “the elder brother of Joseph Mankiewicz, Academy Award-winning producer-writer-director.”

Joe with Ava Gardner at the opening of his 1954 film, The Barefoot Contessa. “I should have been a schoolteacher,” he would later say.

Rose Stradner came to feel that she had given up a rising career to marry Joe. “There was a tremendous amount of professional jealousy between wife and husband,” Dr. Fred Hacker, a family friend, believed. Her decline accelerated when she turned 40, an age Joe had written about as the most difficult for an actress, the age of Margo Channing in All About Eve. “Forty years of age,” he said in an interview. “Four – O … the single most critical chronological milestone in the life of an actress. I knew these women.” Rose, at 40, underwent a traumatic hysterectomy while Joe was filming The Barefoot Contessa in Rome. Her outbursts may have been triggered by her own fear of aging and losing her sexual attractiveness, made worse by Joe’s womanizing.

Of Joe and Rose’s two sons, Chris was outwardly critical of his father’s affairs, siding with his mother. “I remember one of his pet theories that he went on and on about was the Don Juan complex, how Don Juan figures actually show their contempt by bedding down all these women,” he said. “And I kept thinking, ‘Physician, heal thyself!’”

Joe and Rose tried separating a number of times, once for as long as six months, in addition to Rose’s month-long stays at the Menninger Clinic and at a private sanitarium in Connecticut. Dr. Hacker recalled that “Joe was advised many times to get a divorce.… He always promised that he would at some future date, that he would only remain until a particular crisis was over,” but the two stayed yoked in their misery, “like a couple of big elks with … horns locked, battling till [they’ve] both starved to death in the snow,” as Joe wrote in The Barefoot Contessa.

The Curse of the Mankiewiczes

By the mid-l950s, after Joe had abandoned Hollywood to re-invent himself in New York, Rose had become a social liability. Her breakdowns and her arrogance alienated her from their social circle. Joe felt Rose timed her outbursts to coincide with each new film. Nonetheless, he worked through the worst domestic crises; the only agitation betrayed was a nervous skin condition that caused Joe’s fingertips to bleed. He wore white film-cutter’s gloves on set.

Joe and Rose moved to Mount Kisco, New York, in the summer of l957. It would be the second-to-last summer they would have together. Their boys were learning to drive; the grounds and the house were beautiful. Joe had begun to fulfill his ambition to write for the theater, and had embarked on his magnum opus, an endless play called Jefferson Selleck, and he would drive to their New York City apartment at 730 Park Avenue each day to write.

“I was in my freshman year at Columbia,” Chris said. “I regret to say I was out at the all-night movies in Times Square…. One night, when I got back around two or three in the morning, I got a stack of messages to ‘call your father as soon as you get in.’ That wasn’t like him—he usually had his secretary call. So I called, and somebody was there and said, ‘You’d better come right over to the apartment.’ I went up there and saw my father, and Larry Kubie—a very infamous psychiatrist—and a lot of other people. And someone said, ‘I have to tell you, your mother is dead. She killed herself.’”

The New York Times ran three news reports on Rose Stradner Mankiewicz, one on September 28, l958, describing her death:

The Bedford Town police said Mrs. Mankiewicz, 45 years old, was lying on the floor next to a writing table with a note in her hand.

In the note, most of which was indecipherable, Mrs. Mankiewicz indicated that she was “tired.” … The note was said to have been written with pen and addressed to her physician.

The police listed the cause of death tentatively as natural, pending an autopsy tomorrow in the Westchester County Hospital.

Two months later, on November 26, The New York Times reported that Rose’s death “was ruled a suicide today by Dr. William Best, assistant medical examiner…. [from] an overdose of sedatives while ‘temporarily mentally disturbed.’”

“I got a stack of messages to ‘call your father as soon as you get in.’ That wasn’t like him—he usually had his secretary call.”

There was something else wrong in the first New York Times report, which had stated that Rose’s body was found by the caretaker. Chris and his cousin Johanna, Herman’s daughter, knew differently. “Later I heard what Johanna had to say,” Chris said, “about how my father again totally manipulated the situation, in a dreadful way.” Johanna had recently graduated from Wellesley, paid for by Joe in keeping with a promise to his brother. He also treated her to a European vacation after graduating, and she had just recently returned to New York. “My father called Johanna several times during that day,” Chris said, “and said to her, ‘Josie, you’ve got to come with me. I don’t know—I think something’s wrong. I want to drive up to Mount Kisco and I need somebody to come with me.’”

Chris wondered why his father pressed Josie into service. “She didn’t want to come. According to Josie, he practically insisted that she had to come with him. And when they got there, he said, ‘Why don’t you go upstairs and look for her? I’ll go down here.’ And, of course, the bedrooms were upstairs, so he set it up that she would find the body.”

“Josie felt used and manipulated,” said Chris. “I was 18, so Josie must have been in her early 20s.… Again, it goes back to Herman and Joe. My father had made a promise to Herman that he would look after Johanna, but I know she felt used by this.”

Josie’s husband, the documentary filmmaker Peter Davis (Hearts and Minds, The Selling of the Pentagon), also believes that Josie felt manipulated by Joe. “She and Joe were close for a time, but not the last 10 years of her life. Josie’s disillusionment with Joe began with finding Rose’s body. He didn’t coerce her into going upstairs, but she was coaxed. He probably already had an idea of what had happened.”

To this day, Chris is bothered by the way his mother’s body was found. “If you were a husband,” he said, “you’d jump in the car and you’d just drive out there immediately to find out what was wrong; you wouldn’t sit there and negotiate for hours to have another family member go with you. If he’d gotten there two or three hours earlier, maybe she’d still be alive, who knows? It just reeks of something wrong.”

Franz Mankiewicz made his sons feel they could never measure up. He is pictured here with his wife, Johanna, and Herman, Erna, and Joe.

“I don’t want to be cruel,” Chris said, “but I do hold my father responsible for what happened to my mother, telling her, ‘Oh, what do you mean I’m having an affair? You must be joking!’ Guess how it ended up. Women have very good intuition about those kinds of things. I think my father was definitely gaslighting my mother.” Peter Davis, long after the tragic, early death of his wife Johanna said, “Chris was right to blame Joe for his mother’s death. Josie felt so, too, though not in a police-blotter sort of way.”

“If you were a husband, you’d jump in the car and you’d just drive out there immediately to find out what was wrong.”

After Rose’s death, Joe entered what he referred to as his “tragic phase”; his work changed “from high comedy to bitter ridicule,” with such films as Suddenly, Last Summer.

In December l962, Joe married Rosemary Matthews, a production assistant on Cleopatra whom he had known since l954, when she worked as a secretary and speech coach on The Barefoot Contessa. “She was very solicitous of Joe,” said screenwriter David Newman. “Rosemary took care of him…. She made sure that the lunch was done, and that the maid came in. She made sure the trains ran on time.”

Rosemary was a tall, brisk Englishwoman who died this year at 90. Joe compared her to Maggie Smith, whose emotional honesty and lack of “movie siren” status appealed to him. “In some ways,” Chris said, “he met his match in Rosemary.” She didn’t possess the glamour of the many women Joe had courted and bedded, but she was probably the only woman he was faithful to, for the 31 years of their marriage. “They say he had almost every female star in Hollywood,” Tom said. “He could really rattle them off. I mean, they came in all shapes and sizes. Almost all of them, with the exception of Rosemary, had tremendous problems. I’m convinced that he was utterly faithful to her. For the first time, he gave over control.” Peter Davis thought so, too. “The womanizing stopped with Rosemary,” he said recently, “because he had found his life partner.”

Chris found it surprising that his father was content to leave the stimulation of New York for the quiet of Westchester County, but he thought it was a shrewd move on Rosemary’s part. “If you get him out of the city, you get him out of temptation’s way. Rosemary got him and kept him for more than 20 years, and he just gradually withdrew. He was like the Prisoner of Zenda, up there with his wife. Who the hell is he going to talk to?”

They bought Bennett Cerf’s old house in Pound Ridge, called Willow Pond. Robert Benton remembers the living room at Willow Pond, with Joe’s four Oscars “watching over him” on the mantelpiece. Above Joe’s big leather chair in his study was the portrait of Pop Mankiewicz, whom Joe idolized his entire life.

Joe’s last film, Sleuth, was nominated for four Academy Awards in l972: the whole cast (that is, Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine) was nominated for best-actor awards, and Joe received his last nomination, for best director.

After Sleuth, Joe stopped working. He was offered important scripts to direct; Alan Pakula came to him with All the President’s Men. Joe was even offered The Godfather, according to Rosemary, “but refused to do it, partly because he was a little apprehensive about the reaction of the Mafia. He said, ‘I have a four-year-old daughter [Alex, born in l966]. What am I doing? You just don’t want to mess with those people.’”

There were many theories about why Joe had stopped writing and directing at the relatively young age of 63. Tom believed that “Dad had his demons. This was still a very complicated man, and the only way he could exorcise them was to stop working. It was the curse of the Mankiewiczes: ‘I’m pleasing everybody, I’m achieving,’ but it made life painful. It’s only when he got off that treadmill that he could handle the demons that were left.”

Joe wasn’t completely idle in Westchester County. He worked for years on a screenplay, “Jane,” that just got bigger and more unwieldy, full of rants, according to Chris. The first draft was 410 pages. Columbia Pictures took the project away from him, complaining that he was taking too long.

“Dad had his demons. This was still a very complicated man, and the only way he could exorcise them was to stop working.”

The important works reserved for his twilight years never materialized. His great opus was going to be a book on one of his obsessions—the history of actresses, titled The Performing Woman, but it was barely begun. “I think he regretted never having a play on Broadway,” Rosemary said. “He felt that he hadn’t fulfilled himself in that regard. I think he was depressed that he wasn’t getting a certain amount of recognition. He felt he didn’t do the great play or the great film.”

“Joe was very, very lonely up there,” his nephew Don said. “When I’d go to visit, he would talk almost nonstop for hours, because he finally had somebody he could talk to. Rosemary describes how she and Joe would go down to the Bedford movie theater and within a few minutes after the movie started, Joe would go up to the projectionist’s booth ‘to complain about the focus or the sound.’”

Pauline Kael Rides to the Rescue

In February of l971, Herman reappeared in Joe’s life. He was resurrected by Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” in The New Yorker. The article was written in defense of Herman J. Mankiewicz as the principle creative force behind Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles plotting to deny him credit. It was Oscar night l942 all over again. Joe—who had quietly stood by while Herman’s reputation withered—was “jealous of Pauline Kael’s touting of Herman,” said Peter Davis. Frank Mankiewicz, Herman’s eldest son, said, “It was a curious thing, Joe being silent all those years, when we all knew that my dad had written the whole damn thing.”

Orson Welles and Herman gave the world Citizen Kane, regarded by many as the best film ever made.

There were events celebrating Joe’s lifetime of achievements. “He’d go around to these homages the last 20 years of his life,” Chris said, but Joe dismissed these as “longevity awards.” He complained, “I’ve never been recognized at home for my body of work.… I don’t want some son of a bitch on PBS to list the best American pictures and not include any of mine.”

By the end of his life, Joe had become dependent on Rosemary. He underwent a back operation for painful spurs on his spine, which he did not consider a success. On February 5, l993, he smoked his pipe, had a glass of wine, and died quietly of heart failure.

Rosemary had to decide what to do with Pop’s portrait, the one that hung over Joe’s chair when they lived in the country. “It was one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever seen,” she explained. “It had the most stern look. Joe used to sit in the study and try to write, and feel the old man looking down at him.” No one in the family wanted it, and it ended up in Frank’s garage.

“I don’t want some son of a bitch on PBS to list the best American pictures and not include any of mine.”

Though Orson Welles never fully acknowledged Mankiewicz’s authorship of Citizen Kane, he later confided to Peter Bogdanovich that his favorite scene in the movie was written by Mank—the scene where the elderly Mr. Bernstein is remembering a moment in his youth:

“I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and … on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on … I only saw her for one second … but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

“It’s the best thing in the movie,” Welles said to Bogdanovich. “That’s Mankiewicz. I wish it was me. If I were in hell and they gave me a day off and said, ‘What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?,’ I’d see that scene of Mank’s. That was just right.”

On June l6, l998, the American Film Institute announced its list of the best l00 American movies of the 20th century. All About Eve was listed at No. l6. At the very top, at No. 1, was Citizen Kane, written by Herman Mankiewicz.

Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for Air Mail and the co-author, along with Nancy Schoenberger, of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee

Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood and Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero

David Fincher’s film Mank is currently in theaters and will premiere on Netflix on December 4