Who really wrote Citizen Kane? Orson Welles? John Houseman? Or Herman J. Mankiewicz, that self-destructive Hollywood...


MANK: The Wit, WorM, and Life of Herman Mankiewicz

Who really wrote Citizen Kane? Orson Welles? John Houseman? Or Herman J. Mankiewicz, that self-destructive Hollywood character, family man, and unfulfilled genius? Pauline Kael's Citizen Kane Book gave Mankiewicz about 90% credit for Kane and revived his irresistible, pathetic personality far better than does journeyman Meryman; but this anecdote-rich biography has enough of blank in it--with generous quotes from 150 long-suffering friends and relations--to be, like the life, alternately funny, fascinating, and painful. Son of a demanding teacher-father-rival (Meryman oversimplifies the German-Jewish background into ""Teutonic""), brilliant Herm learned to go for facile achievements instead of disciplined work: he sponged and breezed his way through Columbia, then swept adoring, religious Sara Aaronson off to a honeymoon in post-WW I Berlin--pretending he had a newspaper job there. Two hand-to-mouth years later, back to N.Y. for stints as second-string drama critic, failed playwright, New Yorker editor (during its first, forgettable year), and Algonquin Club regular (Meryman, weakest when filling in period background, recycles the usual thumbnail psychographies of Parker, Benchley, etc.). Frittering, frittering. What should lazy Mank have been writing? Political columns, argues Meryman unconvincingly (he had a ""fully developed social consciousness""). Instead, Mank followed the money itch to Hollywood, where he was the king of titles for silents, then a key figure in the upgrading of scripts for talkies. But, despite (or partly because of?) wife Sara's unwavering loyalty, drink and gambling and self-loathing made a shambles of Mank's career from 1935 to his death in 1953--feuding, envying brother Joe (All About five), in and out of work, ill, short of cash, and bitter about Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Meryman does an adequate job of weighing all the evidence on Kane's creation, pronounces ""Herman Mankiewicz wrote Citizen Kane,"" but later says the co-credit with Welles ""seems fair,"" and that the script was ""true creative symbiosis."" Similar fuzzinesses and slapdashes make one leery of Meryman's critical or psychological judgments, but there are lots of vivid viewpoints to choose from here: spunky Sara, seductive Orson, edgy brother Joe. . . or Helen Hayes, who says: ""He even made me feel amusing, which was an accomplishment."" A stellar cast of dozens, with a wretched but socko leading man.

Pub Date: Aug. 29, 1978


Page Count: -

Publisher: Morrow

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1978