Joe on Cleopa­tra.” Image cour­tesy of the author. 

My great Uncle, the writer and direc­tor Joseph L. Mankiewicz, died at the age of eighty-three in Feb­ru­ary 1993. I didn’t know him very well, although he lived not far from where I grew up in Green­wich Vil­lage. I met him only once or twice as a boy, and my mem­o­ries were of a remote old­er man, shroud­ed — or so I thought — in the shame of hav­ing made what I’d been told was the biggest bomb in Hol­ly­wood his­to­ry, Cleopa­tra. Still, when I met him as an adult for the first time a few years before he died, I was struck by our fam­i­ly resem­blance. He was pudgy, sweet, and kind; he remind­ed me of my beloved Uncle Frank and my Mom. He seemed like a mensch.

Then, at his funer­al, some­thing struck me. The ser­vice was held in a church not far from Joe’s adopt­ed home of Bed­ford, an hour north of New York City. After­wards, try­ing to squeeze through the exit to the church amid the throng milling around, I very near­ly knocked the open­ly mourn­ing actor Hume Cronyn down the church steps. I sud­den­ly real­ized some­thing. Wait a minute,” I said to my cousin Ben. Aren’t we Jewish?’

It is a ques­tion that has rever­ber­at­ed around cer­tain fam­i­lies for decades, espe­cial­ly those hav­ing any­thing to do with Hollywood.

The movie indus­try, as Neal Gabler’s sem­i­nal book How the Jews Invent­ed Hol­ly­wood makes abun­dant­ly clear, was found­ed almost exclu­sive­ly by Jews. They were men from the East Coast who had been fur­ri­ers and hab­er­dash­ers in their for­mer lives but who moved into the nascent busi­ness as it grew in the ear­ly 1900’s, before they even­tu­al­ly moved the whole damn thing West for sun­nier climes. It was a bet­ter life out there, and the men who ran the stu­dios — men like Adolph Zuck­er, Louis B. May­er, and the Warn­er Broth­ers — quick­ly real­ized the pow­er of their new art form. They weren’t just mak­ing mon­ey (though they were, hand over fist); they were craft­ing the Amer­i­can mythol­o­gy in a whole new way, in flick­er­ing light beams pro­ject­ed on large screens across the country.

They weren’t just mak­ing mon­ey; they were craft­ing the Amer­i­can mythol­o­gy in a whole new way, in flick­er­ing light beams pro­ject­ed on large screens across the country.

It was heady stuff, and also dan­ger­ous; the men under­stood that the sto­ries they told would have to be Amer­i­can with a cap­i­tal A. With­out excep­tion, the stu­dio heads became full-throat­ed pro­po­nents of Mom, base­ball, and apple pie. The movies would show immoral­i­ty — every­body loves a vil­lain, after all — but the right­eous virtues would have to win out.

In fact, one of the ear­ly screen­writ­ers laid out the basic Hol­ly­wood sto­ry rules in a let­ter to a pal back East; he told him that in the movies, the good guys had to win, the bad guys had to lose, and both the hero and hero­ine had to remain vir­gins. This stood in direct con­trast with the vil­lain, who, at least until the final reel, can have as much fun as he wants — cheat­ing and steal­ing, get­ting rich and whip­ping the servants.”

The writer of that let­ter was Joe’s old­er broth­er, my grand­fa­ther: Her­man Mankiewicz.

In many ways, Her­man was the exem­plar of the East­ern writer who came out West to write for the movies. The first born child of a dom­i­neer­ing, immi­grant Jew­ish father from Ger­many (but Pop was a rip-snort­ing athe­ist,” his boys lat­er insist­ed), Her­man became, in many ways, the pro­to­typ­i­cal self-loathing alco­holic: large-heart­ed, bril­liant, hilar­i­ous, self-destruc­tive, and com­plete­ly con­vinced he was bet­ter than the indus­try he was help­ing cre­ate. Her­man soon sent anoth­er mis­sive back East, and this one, with the excep­tion of Cit­i­zen Kane (which he co-wrote with Orson Welles), became per­haps his most well-known lit­er­ary lega­cy; it was a telegram to his old friend, Ben Hecht, implor­ing him to join him out West:


Then, most cru­cial­ly, Her­man added the kick­er: DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.”

The height of New York sophis­ti­ca­tion, Her­man and Sara with Ben and Rose Hecht at Coney Island, 1926.” 

The telegram start­ed the flood. Before long, the stu­dio lots were swamped with East­ern writ­ers, play­wrights, and nov­el­ists who under­stood — explic­it­ly or implic­it­ly — that movies were beneath their high­er call­ing, but who found the easy mon­ey irre­sistible, and were only too will­ing to churn out the prod­ucts that were trans­form­ing the nation’s self-image.

Because it was clear: the sto­ries would bear no traces of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. The writ­ers them­selves, whether Jew­ish like my grand­fa­ther (and great-uncle) or Herman’s con­fr­eres Hecht or George S. Kauf­mann, or non-Jews like Nun­naly John­son and Charles MacArthur, were writ­ing Amer­i­can sto­ries now. In one mogul’s col­or­ful phrase, the idea was to hide the Jew.”

Thus it was that even as the storm clouds of Nazism gath­ered over Ger­many in the ear­ly 1930s, Hol­ly­wood most­ly ignored it. The Ger­man-Amer­i­can movie fans could not be offend­ed, and, more cru­cial­ly, the Ger­man for­eign mar­kets were sim­ply too lucra­tive to risk. So while Hollywood’s shores were swelling with émi­grés from Nazi Ger­many, like Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht, the movie stu­dios turned a blind eye to Hitler’s rise to power.

While Hollywood’s shores were swelling with émi­grés from Nazi Ger­many, like Fritz Lang and Bertolt Brecht, the movie stu­dios turned a blind eye to Hitler’s rise to power.

But my grand­fa­ther, non-con­formist to the last, had oth­er ideas. In 1933, he set about on a quixot­ic attempt to make a movie about the dan­gers of fas­cism, tar­get­ing the biggest idiot of them all: Adolf Hitler. Much in the way Char­lie Chap­lin did sev­en years lat­er with The Great Dic­ta­tor, Herman’s pro­posed movie, The Mad Dog of Europe,” would tell the satir­i­cal sto­ry of a fic­tion­al dic­ta­tor; he set the screen­play in Tran­syl­va­nia and changed the dictator’s name all the way to Adolf Mitler.

Her­man spent years devel­op­ing the idea, and even employed a rare strat­e­gy to try and mol­li­fy stu­dios who might be loath to bite the Ger­man hand. He wrote the orig­i­nal idea as a play, then had his friend, the pro­duc­er Sam Jaffe, option the mate­r­i­al, the bet­ter to shield the stu­dios from the idea that they had actu­al­ly com­mis­sioned an orig­i­nal work attack­ing the Nazis. The screen­play itself was com­pelling, telling a haunt­ing, pre­scient tale of two fam­i­lies riv­en by the hor­rors of fas­cism— You’ve thrown away loy­al­ty and love and hon­or,” one char­ac­ter tells anoth­er who has become a col­lab­o­ra­tor with the Nazis. Every time he opens his mouth, he lies,” anoth­er char­ac­ter declaims of Mitler.

The screen­play is sound and sol­id, and read­ing it, it’s easy to imag­ine the movie that might have sprung from it — intel­li­gent, bit­ing, dra­mat­ic, and even wise.

But it was nev­er made. The huge mar­ket in Ger­many for Amer­i­can films made such a pic­ture not only unplayable in Ger­many, but unpro­duce­able in Amer­i­ca. Always skit­tish about their Jew­ish­ness, the stu­dio heads knew that putting forth any such staunch­ly anti-Nazi film would only remind the movie-going pub­lic of the non-Chris­t­ian nature of the men who ran the busi­ness. Assim­i­la­tion was and would remain the car­di­nal rule for the mach­ers, who were glad to have put their days as fur­ri­ers, hat-mak­ers, and uphol­ster­ers in the rear-view mirror.

And so Hol­ly­wood hon­chos reject­ed The Mad Dog of Europe” in favor of main­tain­ing the coop­er­a­tive rela­tion­ship they had with the Ger­man gov­ern­ment. Mov­ing from one pro­duc­er to the oth­er, and one stu­dio to the next, Her­man even­tu­al­ly tried all the larg­er inde­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies, but it was no use. Georg Gyssling, the Ger­man con­sul in Los Ange­les and a Nazi, went so far as to threat­en the Hays Office that if The Mad Dog of Europe” were made, his gov­ern­ment might ban all Amer­i­can films from show­ing in Ger­many. At one point the Nazis upped the ante, say­ing that if the film were pro­duced, actu­al harm would come to the Jews in Ger­many. Final­ly, Joseph Breen, the mor­al­iz­ing Catholic who ran the vol­un­tary motion pic­ture code under which the stu­dios oper­at­ed, weighed in, declar­ing: Because of the large num­ber of Jews active in the motion pic­ture indus­try in this coun­try, the charge is cer­tain to be made that the Jews, as a class, are behind an anti-Hitler pic­ture and using the enter­tain­ment screen for their own per­son­al pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es. The entire indus­try, because of this, is like­ly to be indict­ed for the action of a mere handful.”

The movie was doomed. Louis B. May­er, the head of MGM, laid it out explic­it­ly: We have a ter­rif­ic income in Ger­many, and as far as I’m con­cerned, this pic­ture will nev­er be made.”

Her­man nev­er got over the irony: his attempt to reveal the truth about Nazi Ger­many was stopped by the Nazis in the Unit­ed States, a land of sup­posed free­dom and democracy.

The only thing to do, if one was a Jew who want­ed to suc­ceed in Hol­ly­wood, was to con­tin­ue to play the game. In sub­se­quent years, as my grandfather’s career, Cit­i­zen Kane notwith­stand­ing, con­tin­ued its grad­ual descent, he would see his brother’s star rise, and soon, Joe, near­ly twelve years younger and a far more polit­i­cal ani­mal, would eclipse him, becom­ing first a suc­cess­ful pro­duc­er (The Philadel­phia Sto­ry, Woman of the Year, etc.), then start­ing to direct, and soon ascend­ing the top lad­der of Hollywood’s peck­ing order by win­ning Acad­e­my Awards for Best Direc­tion and Screen­play hon­ors two years in a row, for A Let­ter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Her­man took it all in ruefully.

Would he have been sur­prised to learn that his brother’s funer­al would be held in a Church?