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'So As I Was Saying': Frank Mankiewicz's Sons On Their Father's Life, Memoir


Frank Mankiewicz could tell a story, and he had plenty of them to tell. He grew up in Beverly Hills. His father wrote "Citizen Kane." He became a Hollywood lawyer, an original member of the Peace Corps, an aid to Robert F. Kennedy, George McGovern's campaign manager, a Washington public relations executive and president of NPR. He was my boss and my friend. Frank died at the age of 90. His stories are in a new book called "So As I Was Saying: My Somewhat Eventful Life." Frank Mankiewicz is best known for telling the world of Robert Kennedy's death.


FRANK MANKIEWICZ: Sen. Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968.

SIEGEL: That event led to this story remembered by his sons Josh and Ben Mankiewicz. Josh is a reporter for Dateline NBC. Ben is a host for Turner Classic Movies and a commentator for the online network "The Young Turks." He starts us off.

BEN MANKIEWICZ: After that horrible day where Robert Kennedy was shot - and then in the madness there, my father had thrown aside the notepad which he had written notes for what Bobby might want to remark upon after winning the California primary, and it included some notes of the senators as well. And he'd thrown it, you know, somewhere in the Ambassador Hotel, and he got a call a few days later from a young man who identified himself as a student at Biola, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles - again, emphasis on Bible.

And he said, you know, I think I have your notepad. And then he read to dad some the things on the pad, and my dad recognized that, yes, that is the pad, wow, wonderful. I'd love to get that back. And the guy said, well, I'd be happy to give it to you for the sum of $25,000. This is, again, maybe three days after the death of Sen. Kennedy. And dad then does something that I've certainly never seen him do, but in the book, he tells a story that he feigned a conversation with a police officer next to them.


B. MANKIEWICZ: He lowered his voice. Are you listening to this conversation? OK, good, good, good. Yeah.

JOSH MANKIEWICZ: Officer, are you taking this all down?

B. MANKIEWICZ: Are you taking this all down and then threatening, you know - I don't think our father ever threatened anyone, but he said, you know, you will send me that right now and I will - if I get that in the mail in a couple of days, I will drop all charges. And the student from the Bible Institute of Los Angeles did go ahead and send the notepad.

SIEGEL: Were the two of you, Josh and Ben - were you raised on Robert Kennedy stories?

J. MANKIEWICZ: Yeah, I mean, I was 13 when Sen. Kennedy died, and through my dad, I had the thrill of meeting him. You know, my dad's life was shaped by some, like, a few major events - his service in World War II, his service with Robert Kennedy, which I think made him understand the politics that, while it could be thought of as a dirty business, could also be joyous and honorable. And finally, the personal tragedy - the death of his sister at a very young age in a traffic accident.

But the Kennedy Association, with sort of, you know, feeling like you are about to climb to a mountaintop and then having that sort of yanked away at the last minute - that was something that he never recovered from.

SIEGEL: For those events you could excuse a man of terminal pessimism, but that wasn't his view of life.

J. MANKIEWICZ: Not at all. He was the most relentlessly optimistic person I knew. I remember just a couple of days before the 1988 presidential election in which Michael Dukakis got steamrollered by George H.W. Bush. My dad released a forecast of which states he thought Dukakis was going to win. And I remember looking at this. I was covering politics back then. I'm thinking to myself, none of this is supported by anything I'm hearing or any poll. I mean, this is, like, out of the ether, and he was so happy about it. He said, this is going to be great; this is going to be terrific, and I'm going to forecast. And of course, we all know how that election came out, and that didn't change him a bit.


J. MANKIEWICZ: He was the most relentlessly optimistic person I have ever met from the way a presidential election was going to go to, you know, we won't have any trouble making it to the movie theater before the film starts even though it starts in 10 minutes and we live 20 minutes away.

B. MANKIEWICZ: That's right.

SIEGEL: Your father used to play - I guess it was lawn tennis - in Beverly Hills at a house that, at one point, was owned by Ginger Rogers, and he tells a great story about what happened there.

B. MANKIEWICZ: Yeah. So dad would go play tennis on Sundays. Everyone in Hollywood, apparently - your Sundays - there was nothing else you could do on Sunday in Hollywood except go play tennis. Everybody played tennis, and my father would go to Ginger Rogers' house. And they'd play mostly doubles, some singles, and afterwards, there'd be a big feast. And Ginger Rogers' mother was there sort of supervising. And as they sat down to eat, Ginger Rogers' mother, who was then a known Hollywood conservative was complaining about all the money that her daughter had to pay in taxes, bemoaning the enormous tax rate that her daughter faced, to which Ginger Rogers' perked up in the middle of the dinner and said, oh, mom, it beats working at the dime store.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) Yes, Ginger Rogers obviously didn't completely share her mother's world view.

B. MANKIEWICZ: That doesn't - that didn't appear. And I think - didn't think it was right for her mother to be so clearly in the presence as it was Hollywood of many, many liberal tennis players.

SIEGEL: Ben Mankiewicz, Josh Mankiewicz, thanks for talking with us today about your father's book "So I Was Saying: My Somewhat Eventful Life" published posthumously. It's by Frank Mankiewicz.

B. MANKIEWICZ: Thanks, Robert.

J. MANKIEWICZ: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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