The recent motion picture Mank concludes by giving Herman J. Mankiewicz most of the credit for writing the screenplay of Citizen Kane (1941), leaving Orson Welles out to dry. In real life as in Mank, the two men shared the 1942 Academy Award for Best Writing as co-authors. Despite the longstanding controversy over the extent of Welles’s authorship, Welles indeed had crucial input during the writing process, particularly with the character of Susan Alexander, Kane’s lover, whom he based on Ganna Walska, a failed opera singer and the wife of Harold Fowler McCormick, the heir to the International Harvester Company fortune in Chicago, Welles’s hometown. Readers of “A scheme of terraces,” my article in The New Criterion of December 2020, will recall that eccentric tycoon and his plan to commission the architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a love nest for his mistress Elizabeth Noble in the late 1920s. During this time, Ganna Walska was conspicuously absent. She has her own story to tell.
Harold McCormick had emerged in the early 1910s from the society columns to become a media figure with his exploits eagerly followed by the press. He liked gadgets, such as the “aeroyacht,” a tiny plane that he landed on the Loop at the edge of Lake Michigan, and he became an advocate for international peace. He and his first wife, the former Edith Rockefeller, became well known as deep-pocketed contributors to the opera in Chicago, donating an estimated $5 million by 1921, the year Edith divorced him. To reclaim his youth he subsequently had a transplant of animal glands, an event covered in the daily newspapers.
Ganna Walska was born Hanna Puacz in 1887 to Polish parents in Brest, Russia. When she met Harold McCormick, she was already on her second husband, one in a succession begun at age seventeen of short but financially successful marriages. McCormick naively introduced her to Alexander Smith Cochran, known as the “richest bachelor in New York,” whom she spontaneously recruited in 1920 as her third husband. McCormick and Walska decided they were really meant for each other, however. They divorced their spouses and married in 1922.
The Chicago press covered Walska and McCormick’s mutual infidelity, divorce proceedings, and her singing career in detail, and the accounts spread beyond the Windy City as well. From 1921 to 1931 The New York Times published over two hundred articles about them. With McCormick’s fortune backing her, Walska pushed forward with her career as an opera singer. Singing lessons and arranged performances followed, but the reviews were devastating. In 1925, The New York Times reported on “another of her heartbreaking attempts to convince the world that she is a great singer. Assuming the role of Cio Cio San, the heroine of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, she gave herself a do-or-die test of her powers.” To console herself, she bought the Duchess of Marlborough Fabergé egg at auction.
The critics remained unimpressed with her singing. The New York Times followed up with a review in 1927: “Mme. Walska Clings to Ambition to Sing.” The reviews were so bad that she retreated to Paris. Her career stalled, and the marriage was strained. Although McCormick had spent “millions” to establish her career, Walska refused to leave Paris to live with him in Chicago. McCormick visited Paris infrequently and retained his role in Chicago as a social celebrity. It was during this time that he dallied with Elizabeth Noble and engaged Wright to design the Noble Apartments.
By 1931 McCormick’s friends reported that his spirits were flagging. He and Walska divorced that year, reputedly costing him $6 million. McCormick lost what little remaining interest he had in running International Harvester, and he instead set his mind to winning back Edith Rockefeller, an ambition soon frustrated by her death in 1932. In recurring poor health, he kept up a habit of seducing young women by offering to marry them. When he reneged on his promises, they sued, always walking away with handsome settlements and noting often for the record what a nice man he was. In 1933, he took up whistling, giving recitals over the radio and in person at his Rush Street home in Chicago.
Orson Welles, who had a longstanding interest in the fate of tycoons, caught hold of the details of the McCormicks’ escapades and decided to incorporate them into a number of composite figures for what was initially a stage play. Importing aspects of McCormick’s life proved to be an essential means for Welles to temper his risky portrayal of Kane as a simulacrum for the infamous William Randolph Hearst. In early 1940 Welles created his final fusion of McCormick, the Chicago tycoon and playboy Samuel Insull, and Hearst in the character of Charles Foster Kane for the movie screenplay Citizen Kane. Welles made sure that the figure of Walska survived the revisions he and Mankiewicz made.
In Mank, Mankiewicz tells Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s lover, that Citizen Kane’s Susan Alexander isn’t based on her—though the real source isn’t mentioned. In actuality, Welles adapted the fiasco of Kane’s wife’s attempt to become an opera star from the tabloid accounts of McCormick and Ganna Walska.
Citizen Kane premiered on May 1, 1941, at the Palace Theater on Broadway in New York City, with domestic distribution beginning in September. McCormick died a month later, on October 16, 1941, in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of sixty-nine, without knowing that his identity had been melded into one of the great, tragic figures of cinema.
How Walska saw herself in the movie remains unknown. She mentioned nothing about it in her voluminous autobiography, Always Room at the Top. Unbowed, she married again twice. With her sixth and final husband, Theos Bernard, she bought an estate, intended as a retreat for Tibetan monks, in Montecito, California, near Santa Barbara. After divorcing Bernard in 1946 she renamed the estate “Lotusland” and spent the rest of her life designing and expanding its gardens with outrageous extravagance. Walska died in 1984 at the age of ninety-six.