Daniel P. Mannix a.k.a. The Great Zadma

What a treasure trove is the life and work of Daniel P. Mannix IV (1911-1997). I first latched onto him because of his involvement in sideshow, circus, and magic (viz., “The Great Zadma”), although his most consistent lifelong pursuits were literary. He had a degree in journalism from Penn and wrote countless books and articles — it’s just that he lived and wrote about so many fascinating things!

Mannix was from a long line of Navy men. His father attained the rank of Rear Admiral and authored the book The Old Navy: The Glorious Heritage of the U.S. Navy, Recounted through the Journals of an American Patriot, which Daniel IV edited and had published in 1983, one of his last works. Mannix briefly attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and served with the rank of lieutenant during World War Two (in a photo lab).

Mannix’s first love was animals. Raised largely by grandparents on a Pennsylvania farm, he raised and trained wild critters, which led to his first two books, The Back Yard Zoo (1934) and More Back Yard Zoo (1936). Later he became a hunter and trapper for zoos and circuses, as well as a wildlife photographer, leading to numerous books and articles about his adventures in places all over the world, and two documentary film shorts, King of the Sky (1953) and Parrot Jungle (1958). He was photographing herpetologist Grace Olive Wiley in 1948 when she was bitten and killed by a venomous cobra.

My pathway to his story, however, was the fact that he had been a sword swallower and fire eater in carnivals and sideshows. Mannix wrote several articles about the experience in the mid 1940s, which then became the book Step Right Up (1951), reprinted as Memoirs of a Sword Swallower (1964). He also published an article entitled “Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others” in RE/Search in 1976. Mannix was also a magician, magic historian, and collector of magic memorabilia. In 1959 he wrote the biography The Beast: The Scandalous Life of Aleister Crowley, as well as a book about the shadowy Hellfire Club. Even better: he was a major fan of L. Frank Baum, a member and organizer of the International Wizard of Oz Club, an editor and author of an Oz encyclopedia, and a contributor to The Baum Bugle!

Yet, none of this extremely cool stuff is what Daniel Mannix is probably best known for today. Three movies were adapted from his books. The best known is the Ridley Scott film Gladiator (2000), which was inspired by Mannix’s 1958 non-fiction book Those About to Die (later reprinted as The Way of the Gladiator.) The 1981 Disney animated film The Fox and the Hound was based on Mannix’s eponymous 1967 children’s book. A distant runner-up is the 1959 movie Killers of Kilimanjaro with Robert Taylor, Anthony Newley, and Donald Pleasance, which is based on an account of man-eating lions in Mannix’s book African Bush Adventures (1954).

This far from exhausts Mannix’s fascinating life’s work. For example, he wrote The History of Torture (1964), a topic not unrelated to his interest in sideshow, dark magic, and danger; and 1962’s Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1518–1865, surely inspired by the extensive time he spent in Africa. In 1978 he wrote the novel The Wolves of Paris, based on a true story about a pack of wild wolves loose in 15th century Paris!

Mannix’s wife, sometime collaborator, and biographer was Jule Junker Mannix. Their daughter Julie married Frank von Zernick, a producer responsible for over 150 made-for-tv movies, mostly in the true crime/exploitation vein, but also a series of four films about Native Americans made between 1993 and 1996: Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, and Lakota Woman. Julie and Frank’s daughter is Danielle von Zerneck, best known for playing Ritchie Valens’ girlfriend Donna Ludwig in La Bamba (1987). She is married to James Fearnley of The Pogues. This family will just not stop being interesting.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous