Tom Mankiewicz (1942-2010) had a long and varied career as a scriptwriter and director in film — the James Bond movies and “Superman” I & II — and television — “Hart to Hart.” And there are stories aplenty here about his professional life and the many famous names he came into contact with. Long before he got his first lowly job as a glorified gofer, though, his family name and its attendant connections made him a true insider. This enormously entertaining memoir gives the reader the benefit of a superb raconteur’s vast store of anecdote and incident.
Dad was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the legendary director of, among other blockbusters, “All About Eve” and “The Barefoot Contessa,” uncle Herman J. adapted “Dinner at Eight” and wrote “Citizen Kane” and the clan has continued on with Don (“Marcus Welby”) and John (“Miami Vice”) down to today’s Josh and Ben. Tom was smart enough to realize that there would always be some people who would say he got jobs because of his name, so he decided not to let it bother him. After all, nepotism was so endemic in Hollywood that Ogden Nash even memorialized it in his couplet about Universal Pictures’ founding father Carl Laemmle:
“Uncle Carl Laemmle/ Has a very large faemmle.”
And, as Tom says about the Mankiewicz clan, there are certain characteristics that seem embedded in their DNA.
“The Mankiewicz family was and is a complex network of literate, competitive achievers. The majority of us have written for a living. While capable of real affection, most of us rarely show it. Rather, we caress with one-liners (usually acerbic and at someone else’s expense) or shrewd (we are totally convinced) observations on film, literature, politics, or the state of the world in general.”
This life of one man as a Mankiewicz displays all these traits, the acerbic wit, the supreme air of confidence and yes, a lot of genuine affection. For although the book is very funny in places and does indeed pull of a lot of jokes at others’ expense, they are leavened by a generally benevolent humorous tone. And when it comes to mentally ill Mom, who committed suicide when Tom was a teenager, and acerbic, towering Dad, there is a lot of forgiveness and just plain love. This is another of those Hollywood children’s tales refreshingly most definitely not Mommie or Daddy dearest.
There are many hilarious tales about Uncle Herman, whose boozing and gambling led his wife to be known almost universally as “Poor Sara,” a sobriquet coined by her husband, always the master of the witty, self-deprecating quip. But he could manage a dig at others along with himself, even under the most embarrassing circumstances. Dead drunk at a fashionable dinner party, Herman threw up all over dinner table, but assured his fashionable hostess: “Don’t worry. The white wine came up with the fish.” Tom was still a child when his uncle died unsurprisingly young, but he cherished his widow. “‘Poor’ Sara was an absolutely delightful person, totally dedicated to Herman and her children… . She had deeply adoring memories of Herman. She could talk about him for hours, and you’d never know he ever made a bet or had a drink.”
Outside the family circle, there are still more delightful tales, from a youthful fling with the much older, beautiful star Jean Simmons to finding himself a beard for Elizabeth Taylor in the house in Rome she was sharing with husband Eddie Fisher, who sulked upstairs while lover and “Cleopatra” co-star Richard Burton just happened to drop by. With paparazzi staked out in trees all round the property, Tom writes, “I don’t know if there’s been a human in a fishbowl quite like that, before or since.” Even Burton was astonished at the media attention Taylor attracted: “I’d no idea she was that famous,” he remarked to Tom. Tom had the sense to duck out of that Roman villa, but it took a sharp intervention from Gene Kelly regarding Simmons before he took the sage advice to “cut it out before you get in over your head, if you’re not there already.” This delightful book is just bursting with good stories.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.