Obituary: Wolf Mankowitz
Saturday 23 May 1998
When London first became aware of him as a writer in the early 1950s, he had already made a name for himself as a dealer and authority on antique porcelain, especially Wedgwood. His experience came from working in street markets, then in his own lock-up shop, a practical schooling that he put to good account, becoming both a scholar and (with R.G. Haggar) the editor of the Concise Encyclopaedia of English Pottery and Porcelain (1957). In 1953 he had published his definitive book, The Portland Vase and the Wedgwood Copies, which paid much attention to the copies of that famous Greek antiquity made by Josiah Wedgwood.
Mankowitz's special talent was to make an abstruse and specialised subject read like a detective story, and The Portland Vase sold well. Wedgwood, even in mass-produced modern copies, remained fashionable and Mankowitz cashed in by opening a glittering new shop in the Piccadilly Arcade in London.
At the same time he was using his former experiences, both as a street trader and as a bright young boy with an observant eye - not least for the main chance - to write short novels, which were published by Andre Deutsch; these became very successful. Make Me An Offer (about an antique dealer in search of the Portland Vase) appeared in 1952 and A Kid For Two Farthings a year later. They were both filmed in 1954, directed by Cyril Frankel and Carol Reed respectively.
Next Mankowitz began to write for the theatre and scored a considerable success with The Bespoke Overcoat (1953), in which David Kossoff played Morry, at the Arts Theatre in London, a role he repeated many times. Nobody appeared to notice at the time that the play was an update of a Gogol short story. In 1958 he wrote a musical, Expresso Bongo, based on the career of Tommy Steele, which was filmed the following year.
He followed it with a great outpouring of novels, short stories, plays, musicals and film scripts (including The Millionairess in 1960 and the James Bond film Casino Royale in 1967), some of which were successful with the public. With his ebullient self-confident personality he was always able to convince producers, but in spite of the volume of work, by the mid-Sixties his name had lost much of its lustre. Most of his new plays, especially the larger-scale ones, did not stay long on the boards.
Exceptions were adaptations of French plays or other work done in collaboration, such as the film The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), directed by Leslie Norman, which was based on Willis Hall's stage play. Others worth noting are the novels My Old Man's a Dustman (1956) and A Night With Casanova (1991), The Mendelman Fire and Other Stories (short stories, 1957), and his documentary on Yiddish cinema in the 1930s, Almonds and Raisins (1984). The influence of Yiddish life and lore is evident in much of his work.
Born in Bethnal Green in 1924, Mankowitz was educated at East Ham Grammar School and Downing College, Cambridge, where he read English and was tutored by F.R. Leavis. During the Second World War he served as a volunteer coal miner and in the Army.
In addition to fiction and drama, he wrote books about Dickens, whose observation of urban life was not dissimilar from his own (Dickens of London, 1976), Edgar Allen Poe (The Extraordinary Mr Poe, 1978), and some historical subjects. He published a small volume of poetry in 1971.
Visits to Central America inspired his work and in 1971 he became Honorary Consul to the Republic of Panama in Dublin, a post which gave him some amusement, but little revenue.
In the Seventies he retired to a comfortable house and small property on the south-west coast of Ireland to continue writing and to take advantage of the government's generosity to writers, who pay no tax. There he turned to art and began to make collages; some have been exhibited in Dublin and London.
In 1982, he took a post teaching theatre at the University of New Mexico as well as being Adjunct Professor of English there. He stayed until the late Eighties before moving back to Ireland.
Wolf Mankowitz was a man of many parts with a voracious appetite for knowledge, an outgoing personality, attracted to women, a good talker, with an underlying interest in philosophy which developed particularly during his illness from cancer in his last years. Much of his work shows an ironic sense of humour, an understanding of human motivation and weakness, and a compassion for those unable to rise from the underside of society.
The works that are likely to survive longest, and which are most often revived in small theatres by such enthusiastic character actors as Leonard Fenton, are the early plays, and The Irish Hebrew Lesson (1978), written about the Black and Tans, although the author had the IRA in mind.
His compulsion towards success marred work that with more attention and time would have been better, but he became stoical about that at the end. At his best he was a craftsman with an ability to communicate with his public in all mediums and to make the complex simple and interesting.
Cyril Wolf Mankowitz, writer: born London 7 November 1924; married 1944 Ann Seligmann (three sons, and one son deceased); died Durrus, Co Cork 20 May 1998.
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