Inside the Dramatic True Story Behind Mank and the Battle for the Soul of Citizen Kane

Yes, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles feuded, but it was the long reach of William Randolph Hearst's publishing empire that did everything it could to bury Citizen Kane upon arrival.

By Natalie Finn Apr 22, 2021 1:00 PMTags
Gary Oldman, The true story of MankNetflix/Moviestore/Shutterstock

Much like Citizen Kane itself, Mank could easily have been twice as long, at least.

Clocking in at 131 minutes, David Fincher's black and white homage to old Hollywood focuses on the 60 days given to the brilliant, often besotted and infamously prickly scribe Herman J. Mankiewicz to churn out the script for Orson Welles' feature directorial debut. Those scenes of genius at war with itself are interspersed with behind-the-scenes studio politicking, actual politicking (left vs. right is not new) and Mankiewicz's conflicted friendship with Marion Davies, the longtime companion of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst, who was the fairly obvious inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane.

Meanwhile, the tension between Mankiewicz and Welles, the quadruple-threat auteur who was hailed as quite the phenom and given as close to creative carte blanche as was possible for a studio system newcomer, starts to build. Ultimately Welles is outraged—and smashes a case of booze—when Mankiewicz tells him he wants credit for writing Citizen Kane, causing a rift between them that was to never be repaired before the writer's death in 1951 from complications of alcoholism.

Of course the whole story is even more complicated.

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Mank—which leads the Oscar field this year with 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Gary Oldman as the titular raconteur and Best Supporting Actress for Amanda Seyfried as Davies—concludes with Mankiewicz accepting his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane from home (which is ironic considering the current awards season we're having) and getting in one more dig at Welles, his co-winner, who also skipped the ceremony in February 1942.

The cinematic speech, however, was based on what Mankiewicz once said he would have said if he'd given a speech. Though firmly rooted in fact and accurate characterizations of Mank, Welles, Davies, et al., Fincher's film—working off a screenplay by his late father, Jack Fincher—includes a number of fictional touches.

Because as pithy and cutting as Mankiewicz's witticisms are, making us more than happy to go with his version of events, in reality Citizen Kane—original working title: American—was basically unmakeable as he first wrote it. Too much expository dialogue, too many conversations, too much explaining, too many words.

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Welles had made his name as cofounder of the Mercury Theater in New York and shot to stardom after his 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast proved far too believable for some listeners (it went viral, basically). For his directorial debut he had a particular vision, and it was to let the actions of his protagonist, publishing mogul and kingmaker Charles Foster Kane, largely speak for themselves. He wanted to show, not tell.

In turn, visiting the set, Mank would be concerned that there was "very little evidence of action" in the film, and that it was unfolding "too much like a play."

"Mank didn't have a clear enough image of who the man (Hearst or whoever) was, merely saw him as an egomaniac monster with all these people around him," Welles later reflected, per Harlan Lebo's 2016 history Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey. "So I don't think a portrait of a man was ever present in any of Mank's scripts. My Citizen Kane would've been much more concerned with the interior corruption of Kane. The script is most like me when the central figure on the screen is Kane and it is most like Mankiewicz when he's being talked about. I don't say that Mank didn't see Kane with clarity—he saw everything with clarity. No matter how odd or how right or how marvelous his point of view was, it was always diamond white, nothing muzzy."

How they ended up working on the movie together in the first place is also the stuff of Hollywood legend.

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In September of 1939, Mankiewicz was laid up with a broken leg in New Mexico, having been on his way from L.A. to New York with socialite Thomas Phipps when Phipps rolled the car outside of Albuquerque. Welles, who had previously met the writer over lunch at the venerable 21 Club in Manhattan, hired the immobile talent to write for his Mercury Theater's Campbell Playhouse radio program.

Recalling Welles and Mankiewicz's first meeting at 21, actor John Houseman (the Mercury Theater co-founder who was later tasked with keeping Mank, and his script, in line when the writing of Citizen Kane commenced) wrote to Mankiewicz's widow, Sarah, after his death: "I can just see them there at lunch together—magicians and highbinders at work on each other, vying with each other in wit and savoir-faire and mutual appreciation. Both came away enchanted and convinced that, between them, they were the two most dashing and gallantly intelligent gentlemen in the Western world. And they were not so far wrong!"

By January 1940, however, Welles' stock at RKO was nosediving as his first two proposed films—an adaptation of Heart of Darkness and then a political thriller called The Smiler With a Knife, based on the novel by Cecil Day-Lewis (Daniel's father)—failed to pan out.

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Meanwhile, Mankiewicz was continuing his recuperation at the home on Roxbury Drive that he and Sarah were renting while they were forced to lease their larger house on Tower Road in the Hollywood Hills (in addition to being a drinker, Mank was a gambler, and they frequently had financial trouble). Welles would come to visit and they'd sit in the tiny main bedroom and talk ideas, "just the two of us yelling at each other, not too angrily," Welles later recalled.

Basically, Welles needed someone as irascible as he was to collaborate with, someone who was smart, talented and could handle working with a guy who had endless expectations to live up to. Mankiewicz, who had a blisteringly caustic view of the industry and was always down to bet large, was just the guy. 

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"We started searching for the man it was going to be about, some big American figure," Welles recalled, per Lebo. "Howard Hughes was the first idea but we got around pretty quickly to the press lords."

They decided on a film about an all-powerful newspaper publisher as told from the perspective of his friends and enemies. Mankiewicz came up with the idea of speeding through the story of a man's life via newsreel, which is how press mogul Charles Foster Kane is hastily eulogized when his death is announced at the beginning of Citizen Kane. In one of his less generous moods, Welles once claimed that Mank's biggest contribution to the film was the whole Rosebud conceit, which he himself didn't love but obviously stuck with. 

Welles hired Mankiewicz to write the screenplay and then enlisted Houseman to oversee the process (much of which involved keeping the wordsmith sober long enough to get work done). On Feb. 19, 1940, Mankiewicz—who as part of his contract agreed to forgo having his name on the film (a not uncommon practice then; he was also an uncredited writer on The Wizard of Oz)—started drawing $1,000 a week from RKO, with another $5,000 due upon completion of the script.

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Joined by stenographer Rita Alexander, he and Houseman checked into the Kemper Campbell Ranch in Victorville, about a three-hour drive from Hollywood, for six weeks. 

After hours of playing cribbage, Mankiewicz, his leg still in a cast, would get down to writing, usually in the late morning, dictating to Alexander who'd then type up the day's work when they were done, often close to midnight. Houseman edited the pages as they went. The writer was theoretically allowed one drink a day, and not until 6 p.m., when they'd get into their limo and visit a local pub, then straight back to the ranch.

Mankiewicz presented Houseman with a tongue-in-cheek shopping list, including "12 bottles of good scotch, four bottles seltzer water, one box legal pads, Remington Standard 12, sexy steno." Signed, "Manky."

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Mankiewicz spent six weeks writing and rewriting the increasingly sprawling story about a reporter's search for the meaning behind a dying publishing tycoon's final word, dipping into real-world events and historical figures, as well as his own experiences as a journalist. (Kane's best friend Jed Leland being too drunk to turn in his inevitably bad review about Susan Alexander's disastrous singing debut had actually happened to Mankiewicz when he was working for the New York Times.)

He introduced the snow globe as a plot device, he himself in possession of a snow globe that was a gift from Sarah, and sometimes he'd shake it and watch the snow fall, deep in thought.

Asked by Alexander at one point how the story would end, Mankiewicz is said to have told her, "I don't know, I'm making it up as I go along!"

Welles, busy working on his own treatment back in L.A., would say he had given Mankiewicz 300 pages of dialogue and screen directions before the latter even left for Victorville, but according to Lebo there's no evidence that the director-producer-star had written much at all until after he was presented with Mank's first draft. In the meantime, he looked over 100 pages on a visit to Victorville in early April 1940 and then more pages were sent to him in Hollywood. Welles told RKO that American would be ready to start shooting in July.

But according to his personal assistant, Kathryn Trosper, Welles' response after reviewing a week's work from Mank and Houseman was, "This stuff stinks." Richard Barr, an associate producer on the film, recalled Welles deeming the material "dreadful."

By mid-April, the first draft was 267 pages long, enough for two movies. At the same time, the pages were numbered from 1 to 325, with pages 212 to 271 left blank to leave room for more on Kane's relationship with eventual second wife Susan. They wrote another 44 pages over the next two weeks and Mankiewicz and Houseman returned to Los Angeles in May.


The film was officially announced, with Welles in attendance, on May 27, 1940, at RKO's annual meeting at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was briefly renamed John Citizen USA, but finally—after even a contest among the staffers at RKO failed to strike gold—on June 11, 1940, RKO head George Schaefer dictated in a memo that the title of the picture, "Orson Welles No. 1," would be Citizen Kane.

In that first loaded draft, there were just way too many subplots in the story including a murder, an attempted presidential assassination, corporate espionage and a son who's killed while partaking in an antigovernment plot to invade an armory in Washington, D.C. In some of the early materials the main character was Charles Foster Rogers, as well as Charles Foster Craig.

But as moviegoers would eventually see, the original version still opened on Kane's decaying Xanadu, the dying man cryptically whispering "Rosebud" as a snow globe tumbled from his hand, followed by the "March of Time" newsreel as Kane's legacy is debated by the type of reporters he used to lord over.

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Welles and Houseman gathered at Mankiewicz's house (he and Sarah were back on Tower Road) on May 23 to discuss paring the story down. "He would rather talk for three days than change two lines," Trosper observed of the meeting, per Lebo. "Before you knew it, Plato, Kant and Mencken were involved in whether the leading lady should open or shut the door."

However, he and Welles continued to hammer and chisel away, individually and at Mankiewicz's place, sometimes joined by actor Joseph Cotten, one of Welles' Mercury Theater players whose Hollywood breakthrough came playing Leland in Citizen Kane on his way to becoming a major movie star.

The final draft of the script was dated July 16, 1940, although that's still not the exact version that made it onscreen, Welles making cuts and tweaks throughout the production. In fact, the final-final version is considered lost.

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Though Welles was indeed incensed by Mankiewicz's request to have his name on the movie after all, the request was granted, hence their joint Oscar win—the only Oscar Citizen Kane won out of nine nominations. (And Welles said yes before Mank could follow through with the threat to take out full-page ads in the trades to state his case.)

"I would say I wrote about 98 percent of that picture," Mankiewicz said, testifying in a lawsuit against Welles and RKO brought by Hearst biographer Ferdinand Lundberg, who claimed they had plagiarized his 1936 book Imperial Hearst. (Mank denied having ever read Lundberg's book, but three copies of it were found in his study after his death, according to David Nasaw's 2000 book The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst. RKO ultimately settled the suit for $15,000 and damages, plus several hundred thousand to cover court costs and Lundberg's attorney fees.)

Welles later told London's The Times, "I did not write any of Mr. Mankiewicz's script, he did not write any of mine. Combining the two and making a final screenplay from the best elements of both was, as producer-director, my responsibility." 

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Houseman, who became a prolific character actor, initially credited Welles with the vision for the landmark film, widely considered to be one of the best ever made, but attributed the words to Mankiewicz. He later backtracked, saying, "as far as I could judge, the co-billing was correct. The Citizen Kane script was the product of both of them."

In a 1971 essay called "Raising Kane," New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael came down on Mank's side, diminishing Welles' contributions and basically crowning Mankiewicz the sole author. That prompted its share of rebuttals, most famously from Peter Bogdanovich, a friend of Welles, who penned "The Kane Mutiny" for Esquire in 1972, slamming Kael's refusal to consult Welles before she rendered her verdict as a violation of "all the principles of historical research."

While the debate is obviously still open to interpretation, Welles wasn't opposed to sharing credit—at least 30 years later—for the film's quality.

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"Without Mankiewicz, it would've been a totally different picture," he admitted. "It suits my self-esteem to think it might have been almost as good, but I could never have arrived at Citizen Kane as it was without Herman. There is a quality in the film, much more than a vague perfume, that was Mank, and that I treasured. It gave a kind of character to the movie that I could never have thought of."

But while all of the above was fraught enough, and doesn't even include the process of actually making the movie, the real nail-biting began after the production wrapped.

It had been no secret in Hollywood and beyond that Welles was planning to make a movie nominally about a "well-known publisher," namely Hearst, who at the height of his reign owned 30 newspapers, ran a film studio and had U.S. senators on whatever the equivalent was of speed dial. There was no point in which Davies pleaded with Mankiewicz to not go through with it (as a scene in Mank goes), and Hearst didn't even file a lawsuit (didn't believe in them, all they did was make a story bigger). Nor did he and Davies ever watch the movie, not an early cut, nor the edited version RKO sent over that was returned, its seals intact.


But that didn't stop the campaign to bury it upon arrival with tactics as cutthroat as any modern-day smear campaign, only instead of social media there were syndicated columnists like Hearst loyalist Louella Parsons, who attended an early screening of Citizen Kane and was appalled on behalf of her dear friend Davies and the publisher who'd given her her big break.

It was Davies, though, who diluted the argument that Kane was merely a thinly veiled portrait of Hearst.

Both were media moguls and kingmakers who could start actual wars with their headlines, and both built themselves cliffside pleasure palaces that could house 50 families. But Charles Foster Kane torpedoes his own happiness time and again. His first marriage crumbles because he's always working and later his ex-wife and son are killed in an auto accident. Susan Alexander, Kane's second wife (played by Dorothy Comingore), is a not particularly talented singer who Kane tries to impress on the world as the next opera diva. Their relationship implodes and she descends into drunken obscurity. By the time he dies uttering "Rosebud," Kane is a ruined man, his castle, Xanadu, in disrepair. 


Davies met Hearst sometime after Christmas in 1915, when she was an 18-year-old chorus girl in Irving Berlin's Stop! Look! Listen! on Broadway. He had been married to wife Millicent, the mother of his five children, since 1903—and they never divorced, the publisher determining it would be less expensive to stay married and Millicent still reaping the perks of being Mrs. W.R. Hearst. But Davies—who unquestionably got a career boost from Hearst, who was 34 years her senior—was a charming, talented actress who got good reviews, and eventually became a producer herself. She'd remain with Hearst until his death in 1951, keeping his social life chugging along so long as his health allowed. 

"He sent me flowers and little gifts, like silver boxes or gloves or candy," Davies recalled in taped conversations preserved in her memoir The Times We Had. "I wasn't the only one he sent gifts to, but all the girls thought he was particularly looking at me…He had the most penetrating eyes—honest, but penetrating eyes. He didn't have a harmful bone in his body. He just liked to be by himself and just look at the girls on the stage while they were dancing. I think he was a very lonesome man."

Hearst, who like Kane unsuccessfully ran for governor of New York but unlike him served two terms in Congress, did suffer major financial losses in the 1930s, but his namesake media company lives on, his family still involved.

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Not that Kane didn't share certain qualities that were widely synonymous with Hearst, though inspirations for the character also included publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer (the Prize's namesake and Hearst's main rival in the New York tabloid wars at the turn of the 20th century), Samuel Ensell and industrialist Harold McCormick.

Referring to journalist Lincoln Steffens' indelible 1906 profile of Hearst for American Magazine, biographer Kenneth Whyte wrote in The Uncrowned King that agreeing to allow Steffens access for the story may have been one of his biggest missteps.

The article "depicted Hearst, at core, as a ruthless and dangerous bully," Whyte observed, "a man with power and money but without friends or a home or scruples, a man manipulated by his employees, living in shadows, psychologically damaged, obsessed with stories of murder and vice." The story "became a foundation stone of a Hearst legend that would continue to grow in scale and perversity and culminate in the fine but scurrilous motion picture Citizen Kane."


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Steffens would later write in his own autobiography that he was under pressure to go hard on Hearst, that his own bosses didn't care for the man's way of doing business, even if they agreed with his ostensibly liberal politics.

Really, Hearst was "an innovator who crashed into the business, upsetting the settled order of things, and he was not doing it as we would have done it. He was doing it his way," Steffens reflected. He was "a great man, able, self-dependent, self-educated (though he had been to Harvard) and clear-headed; he had no moral illusions; he saw straight as far as he saw, and he saw pretty far, further than I did then; and studious of the methods which he adopted after experimentation, he was driving towards his unannounced purpose: to establish some measure of democracy… proposed to give the people democracy, as others of this sort give charity or an art museum."

Kane, too, sets out to level the playing field, purchasing his first newspaper, the "New York Inquirer," when he's barely 25 years old to advocate for The People. By the time he's telling his wife that the people will think what he tells them to think... you know the ideals have gone awry.


Yet as the filmmakers stressed, Susan Alexander was nothing like Marion Davies, therefore their story wasn't really Hearst's story. Kane was "better than Hearst, Marion was much better than Susan—whom people wrongly equated with her," Welles said. But try telling that to the countless people who drew easy comparisons.

"The handling of Susan Alexander is a classic of duplicity," Kael wrote in "Raising Kane." "By diversifying the material and combining several careers, Mankiewicz could protect himself. He could claim that Susan wasn't meant to be Marion Davies—that she was nothing at all like Marion, whom he called a darling and a minx. He could point out that Marion wasn't a singer and that Hearst had never built an opera house for her—and it was true, she wasn't and he hadn't, but she was an actress and he did run Cosmopolitan Pictures for her...Susan's fake stardom and the role she played in Kane's life spelled Marion Davies to practically everybody in the Western world."

Kael concluded, "It was, though perhaps partly inadvertently, a much worse betrayal than if he'd made Susan more like Davies, because movie audiences assumed that Davies was a pathetic whiner like Susan Alexander, and Marion Davies was nailed to the cross of harmless stupidity and nothingness, which in high places is the worst joke of all."


And the publishing industry took the story a bit personally. 

After a Jan. 3, 1941, screening of the film at RKO, Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote, "I was appalled. The film was too well done. An impudent, murderous trick, even for the boy genius, to perpetrate on a newspaper giant." As for Welles' reported insistence that he'd get away with telling the story as he envisioned it, she added, "Cockiness I can take; arrogance I abhor. Deciding that Mr. Hearst should know what was afoot, I passed on the information through channels."

Hopper's main rival in the gossip business, Louella Parsons, who basically owed her career to Hearst, wrote in her 1961 memoir, Tell It to Louella, "I must say now, so many years later, that I am still horrified by the picture. It was a cruel, dishonest caricature…I walked from the projection room without saying a word to Orson. I have not spoken to him since. When the lawyers and I talked with Mr. Hearst, the lawyers told him he had a foolproof libel suit and asked him to take it to court. 'No,' he said, 'I don't believe in lawsuits. Besides, I have no desire to give the film any more publicity.'"

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The Hearst syndicate, in turn, starved Citizen Kane of publicity, with the papers ignoring it and magazines such as Cosmopolitan refusing to even sell advertising space to RKO to tout the film, which was scheduled to have its grand premiere at Radio City Music Hall that February.

The Rockefeller family, which endowed the storied theater, pressured George Schaefer at RKO to recut the picture. Word got out that Parsons was on the hunt for dirt on Hollywood's biggest stars. In early February, Variety reported that Hearst pal Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was putting together a team of studio executives to buy the negative of Citizen Kane from RKO—and destroy it—to ward off Parsons. The head of Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox vowed to get every major theater chain to boycott the film.

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Reports of Welles' ties to leftist causes were next, and he was labeled a Communist sympathizer—one of the more damaging things a Hollywood figure could be called in that era.

Welles' edits went unacknowledged by Hearst, a new cut returned unwatched. Ultimately the Radio City premiere was canceled, Parsons having threatened to run a double-page exposé on family patriarch John D. Rockefeller Jr. 

"They were really after me," Welles told Bogdanovich, per Nasaw. "Before Citizen Kane was released, I was lecturing—I think it was Pittsburgh, some town like that—and a detective came up to me as I was having supper…He said, 'Don't go back to your hotel…they've got a 14-year-old girl in the closet and two cameramen waiting for you to come in.' And of course I would have gone to jail. There would have been no way out of it."

Throughout, however, Welles and Schaefer—the tough studio head who had taken a chance on the "marvelous boy" in the first place—kept holding screenings of Citizen Kane. Before long, seemingly all of Hollywood had seen it. 

For free, so that helped no one's bottom line, but audiences were entertained—and critics were enamored.

Finally, Citizen Kane opened in New York on May 1, two and a half months after its original premiere date, followed by Chicago, L.A., Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C. It was a modest success, but ultimately the studio lost $150,000 on the film, which cost less than $1 million to make.

Still, Welles never expected the movie, with its choose-your-own conclusions about an enigmatic, only sometimes sympathetic figure whose motivations remained his own, to be a mass entertainment, and he shrugged off the suggestions that the long arm of Hearst's empire succeeded in crushing his movie. 

"You know, the real story of Hearst is quite different from Kane's," Welles noted. "And Hearst himself—as a man, I mean—was very different."

Welles want on to become one of the all-time most fascinating talents in Hollywood as an actor and director, his feature debut considered a masterpiece. And W.A. Swanberg's 1961 biography Citizen Hearst was recommended for the Pulitzer Prize—but the honor was denied by the award's trustees at Columbia University because, so they determined, the subject matter wasn't an "eminent example of the biographer's art as specified in the prize definition."

Because some feuds die even harder.

Mank is streaming on Netflix. Citizen Kane is streaming on HBO Max.

Head to E! Online's Oscars page for a full recap of the 2024 Academy Awards.