Herman J. Mankiewicz? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have just returned from seeing an expensive Hollywood fiasco. While watching the film I was reminded of a vibrant telegram that a successful Hollywood writer reportedly sent to cajole another scribbler to join him. He made promises such as: “millions of dollars can be grabbed” and “the only competitors are idiots”. Did this telegram actually exist? Can you determine who sent it and who received it?
Quote Investigator: In 1954 the prolific Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht published a memoir titled “A Child of the Century” which included the text of a telegram he was sent before he began his acclaimed career in motion pictures. The screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz enticed Hecht to join him in Tinseltown with a dream of wealth in a note delivered by a Western Union messenger. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The telegram he delivered on this spring day in 1925 came from the unknown Scythian wastes of Hollywood, Calif. It read, “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
When Ben Hecht’s memoir was evaluated in a Binghamton, New York newspaper in 1954 the reviewer reprinted a section of the eye-catching telegram. The reviewer also highlighted Hecht’s sardonic attitude toward movies. Ellipses are in the original text: 2
The author went to Hollywood when a film magnate wired him: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.” He pays his respects by saying; “The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century . . . an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind. . . .”
In 1975 an article in “New York Magazine” discussed the historical eclipse of the movie business in New York by the industry in Hollywood. The telegram was used to help illustrate the geographical shift: 3
The disdainful attitude of Broadway toward the movies in the twenties was summed up in a famous telegram sent in 1925 by Herman Mankiewicz, once drama critic for the Times, then boozer-genius-layabout screenwriter in Hollywood, to Ben Hecht, once Chicago newspaperman, then Broadway playwright and character:
WILL YOU ACCEPT THREE HUNDRED PER WEEK TO WORK FOR PARAMOUNT PICTURES? ALL EXPENSES PAID. THE THREE HUNDRED IS PEANUTS. MILLIONS ARE TO BE GRABBED OUT HERE AND YOUR ONLY COMPETITION IS IDIOTS. DON’T LET THIS GET AROUND.
In conclusion, the primary evidence of the telegram known to QI appeared in Ben Hecht’s 1954 book. Hecht was the recipient of the message, but he stated that he received it many years earlier in 1925. Herman Mankiewicz, the sender of the message, died a year before Hecht’s book was published. Hence, the accuracy of the colorful text appears to depend on the veracity of Hecht. QI does not know if the telegram itself is held in a memorabilia collection.
Image Notes: Clapperboard image from OpenClips on Pixabay. Swirling money image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay. Publicity photo of Ben Hecht via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped
(Great thanks to a person who wishes to remain anonymous for the inquiry that led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1954, A Child of the Century by Ben Hecht, Quote Page 466, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1954 June 27, The Sunday Press (Binghamton Press Sunday Edition), Turbulent Autobiography: Ben Hecht’s Book Is Gay, Bitter, Vulgar by Van Allen Bradley, (Book review of “A Child of the Century” by Ben Hecht), Quote Page 10-B, Column 2, Binghamton, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1975 December 29, New York Magazine, Volume 9, Number 1, New York You Oughta Be in Pictures by Mark Jacobson, Start Page 34, Quote Page 36, Published by NYM Corporation, New York. (Google Books Full View) ↩