- - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SO AS I WAS SAYING … MY SOMEWHAT EVENTFUL LIFE

By Frank Mankiewicz with Joel L. Swerdlow

Thomas Dunne Books / St Martin’s Press, $26.99, 267 pages

For most readers with long memories, the name Frank Mankiewicz brings to mind one searing image, that of Mr. Mankiewicz at 2:30 in the morning of June 5, 1968 standing on top of a car outside of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles reporting on the medical condition of his boss and friend, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Twenty-six hours later, in a more formal setting, he would announce his death.

Like the senator, by that point Mr. Mankiewicz had led several interesting lives. As this engaging book lays out, in short chapters (with long titles), prior to mid-1968, Frank Mankiewicz had been: a son and nephew of Hollywood royalty; a combat veteran of World War II; a political activist; a lawyer; a founder of the Peace Corps and later its man in Peru; and a young old hand on Capitol Hill.

Unlike Sen. Kennedy, Frank Mankiewicz would go on to lead several more lives of interest, including campaign manager of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid; Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s back-channel emissary to Fidel’s Cuba, CEO of National Public Radio, and a Washington-based public relations executive (whew).

The pre-Kennedy years provide a plethora of interesting anecdotes, many of them truly witty, such as the comment his brother, Don Mankiewicz, made upon hearing their father had died on the same day as Joseph Stalin: “Well, we split a doubleheader.” Such wit, on the part of both brothers, was hardly surprising, given that their father was a charter member of the famous Algonquin Roundtable.

Frank Mankiewicz then segues into a brief discussion of his profound dislike for euphemisms, especially the use of “pass away” for death. “One does not say Hitler ‘passed away’ in the bunker in April 1945. Did John Dillinger ‘pass away’ or did Bonnie and Clyde ‘pass on’ in a hail of gunfire? … Another of my linguistic pet peeves is the way ‘gender’ has replaced ‘sex’ Do we suppose, before he passed away in the bunker, Adolf Hitler had gender with Eva Braun?”

Occasionally a reference struck me as a bit outdated, such as when he says of the panoply of decorations he witnessed on a visit to the Pentagon: “never so many medals and ribbons in one room, I thought, since Audie Murphy had dined alone.”

Words and their correct and creative meaning and usage were of vital importance to Mr. Mankiewicz, who says he fell in love with James Joyce while in high school and reread “Ulysses”’ many times over the years. This helps to explain why he became successful both as a journalist and respected communicator.

Also of interest, and especially to this reviewer who has been of like mind for many years, is Mr. Mankiewicz’s fondness for a well-written obituary. “I’ve noticed that the three most common words in the paid death notices are ‘cherished,’ ‘adored,’ and ‘loving,’ for spouses, children, and grandchildren. People never say they think ‘fondly’ of the deceased.” He’s also bothered by another well-taken point, that obits never mention friends.

Chapter Twelve (“In Which I Am Certified by Robert F. Kennedy, I Assure Him That Debating Ronald Reagan Will Be ‘Easy,’ We Visit the JFK Gravesite in Arlington, I discuss My Favorite RFK Speech, and RFK Runs for President, Making Remarks That Still Haunt, Inspire, and Challenge Us”) introduces a deeply reflective Frank Mankiewicz to the reader, and by itself is worth the price of the book.

The wonderful bits of new-to-me (and I would guess lots of readers) information about the relationship of brothers Robert and Ted Kennedy when they served in the Senate together, culminate in this paragraph: “After the California primary as I left the hospital room — and RFK — for the last time — I noticed Ted Kennedy standing by the sink in the adjoining bathroom, in semidarkness. I had never seen, nor do I expect ever again to see — a human face so contorted in agony. Ted’s face twisted, his eyes unseeing and beyond tears, beyond pain, truly beyond any feeling I could bring myself to describe, a sight impossible to banish from memory.”

The rest of the book alternates between insider anecdotes, humor, and a noticeable overreliance on the first person singular pronoun (but then that’s a danger inherent in all books of this sort, and, in fairness, the man did have a lot to brag about).

“So As I Was Saying” takes a while to get going. First there’s a brief preface by Frank himself, then a short foreword by each of his sons, Ben and Josh. What follows is unusual and most interesting, a seven and a half page “introduction” by Joel Swerdlow, the Washington-based author and educator who knew Mr. Mankiewicz for 40 years before they began collaborating on this book. Not only is it a fitting tribute to Mr. Mankiewicz, who died (at age 90) after the book was finished but before it was published, but it also indicates why all that is to follow reads so well.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.

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