All dad’s are certainly ‘cool’—in their own special ways—but when you’re the son of famed director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) and the nephew of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, stories about your family are just a bit ‘cooler.’
Tom Mankiewicz was genuine Hollywood royalty. He grew up in Beverly Hills and New York; spent summers on his dad’s film sets; dined with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; and traveled the world writing for Brando, Sinatra, and Connery. A member of one of Hollywood’s most elite cinema families, Tom “Mank” Mankiewicz was destined for a career in film.
Dad made The Barefoot Contessa in Italy in 1953, directing his own screenplay. It was the first film he made for his recently formed independent production company (Figaro) and starred Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Dad was nominated for his writing. Edmond O’Brien won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Dad and Mother had decided to take me to Rome with them. I was going on twelve.
[ . . . ]
I remember one cold, cold night when the film was shooting in a cemetery. I’d been dressed for the day in shirt sleeves, and the wardrobe man got me a jacket. I was still shivering. Humphrey Bogart walked by and noticed: “Are you cold, Tommy?”
“I sure am.”
“Here, try some of this.” Bogart pulled out a flask, took off the top, and filled it with a thimbleful of scotch.
I’d never had a drink of hard liquor in my life, only an occasional sip of wine at home. But what the hell, he was Humphrey Bogart. I downed it, just like they do in the movies. My throat started burning. I coughed. And then, son of a bitch, my chest did feel warmer. Bogart grinned.
In a half hour he passed by again. “Still cold?”
“A little bit.”
He filled the top again. I drank.
Later on Dad came by to take me home. “Ready?”
I looked up at him with a stupid smile. “Yesss . . .” The smile remained plastered on my face.
Dad looked around, zeroing in on Bogart. “He’s drunk. It has to be you, you prick.”
“Christ, Joe, the kid was cold. I was just trying to help out.”
To this day I have the singular honor of having received my first real drink from Humphrey Bogart.
On another late afternoon I found myself sitting near the set with Ava Gardner and several cast and crew members. Ava was described in the film as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal.” She was certainly all of that at the time. A huge celebrity, constantly pursued by a gaggle of paparazzi, she had recently divorced Frank Sinatra and was currently keeping company with Luis Miguel Dominguin, the most charismatic matador of his day. Part artist in the bull ring, part rock star, he was impossibly handsome with zero body fat and a thin scar running down the side of his face. Sinatra had come to Rome in an attempt to get Ava back, but left empty handed.
During this particular week, Dominguin was fighting in Spain and Ava had time on her hands after shooting. “I want to go to the movies tonight,” she announced. “What’s at the Fiametta?” (The Fiametta was a little theater that ran American films in English, the only cinema in Rome to do so.)
“Who wants to take me to the movies?”
She looked around. Silence. “Anybody?” Silence. Clearly, the prospect of escorting a publicity magnet to a public venue was too intimidating to those sitting there.
“Tommy, how about you? Want to take me to the movies tonight?”
“Sure,” I said.
She grinned. “Great. It’s a date. I’ll send my car to pick you up at Joe’s.” She smiled at me and walked off.
A while later Dad had wrapped and was ready to take me home. “Guess what, Dad? I’m taking Ava Gardner to the movies tonight.”
His face darkened. “Like hell you are.”
“Why not? She asked me to.”
“Because I’m not going to have my twelve-year-old son’s picture in a hundred magazines escorting Ava Gardner in Rome for the evening. When you’re older you’ll understand how truly bizarre that’s going to look.”
My eyes misted over. I was about to cry. Dad noticed, softening. As usual, he solved the problem. That night, the public relations man on the film escorted Ava to the movies. I went with them. It was fine with me since secretly I knew I was the one who was really taking her.
Just a note, though it doesn’t really apply to a twelve-year-old and Ava Gardner. Actresses, especially beautiful or publicly famous ones, are quite intimidating to most men. At the end of a marriage or a publicized affair, you’d be surprised how often their phone doesn’t ring. Many guys are too scared to call. “Oh, she’d never go out with me. I’m not rich enough, good looking enough, famous enough, etc.” The truth is that most actresses are simply women with a fragile public occupation. They’re just as insecure and sometimes more so than anyone else. There is, after all, a certain pressure on them to be seen as publicly desirable, which sometimes forces them to make terrible personal choices in their lives. I’ve known several who got married just because they thought it looked good and relieved them of the need to date men in order to stay in the news.
I remember going to Disneyland in the late seventies with Kate Jackson and her little niece. She’d been somewhat known for a TV series called The Rookies, but now was one of Charlie’s Angels, which made her as instantly recognizable as anyone in show business. Suddenly, restaurants you couldn’t get into before are holding their best table for you. Going to be a little late? Don’t worry about it. Disneyland called out security to escort us, no waiting in line, as hundreds of fans screamed at and for her. Kate, a very private person, seemed almost scared. “You know, Mank,” she said, “I’m still little Skater (her father’s nickname for her) Jackson from Alabama. I haven’t changed. Everyone else has.”
I never knew where Dad went those nights he left our Rome apartment. All he would offer by way of explanation was: “Somewhere down by the train station where I can sleep.” A few weeks before the end of shooting, Bogie and Betty Bacall invited me to have Sunday brunch with them in their suite at the luxurious Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto. I arrived at the appointed time, picked up the house phone in the lobby, and asked for Mr. Bogart. He answered. “We’re in 675, you know, just a couple of doors down from where Joe keeps his suite.”
I could hear Betty’s voice in the background, warning him: “Bogie . . .”
“Come on up,” he said quickly.
It was a wonderful brunch. They were both so kind to me and such fun. When Betty wrote her autobiography By Myself, she inscribed a copy to me: “Tom. Remember Rome . . . Love, Betty.” By the way, the Excelsior Hotel is kind of near the train station. Say . . . two miles away.