Hey Oscar, What was Rosebud? (Hint: Not a Sled)

Dallas Adams is the founder of Citizen Chain Cyclery, a bicycle shop located in the North Beach section of San Francisco, California. Born and raised in the Silicon Valley, his past experiences include work with the YMCA, U.S. Department of Labor and Defense, Lockheed Martin, Arrow Electronics and the American Red Cross as a disaster volunteer. When considering his past, Adams will proudly tell you that his career focus has shifted “from bombs to bikes.”

Rosebud… the mysterious utterance in Citizen Kane was the last word of a dying man, the secret to his sorrow and known only to him. We come to find it was the name of his childhood sled, ultimately thrown into a furnace with a casual disregard, the name Rosebud in flames burning into our memory the movie’s final scene.

Herman Mankiewicz' Oscar
Herman Mankiewicz’ Oscar for Best Screenplay
  • Citizen Kane seen by many as the greatest film ever made
  • Rosebud: one of Film’s Great Dying lines
  • Rosebud: one of Film’s Great Quotes
  • Rosebud: one Cinema’s Great Secrets

Seventy years later people still ask, What was Rosebud?

Rosebud resonates with a truth all of us can understand, traveling through the innocent purity of childhood to finally face the fire and smoke of mortality and death. The final symbolic burning of Rosebud in the furnace of Kane’s castle represents the Kane himself, his final memories and innocence ending before our eyes.

Of course everyone has an opinion, and Rosebud seems to have generated quite a few over the years.

My first experience with Citizen Kane was watching it with my father on our black-and-white TV one night in the late 60’s when I was 12. In his late fifties he had actually seen Kane on its 1941 first run, sharing that with me.

He was a different man in the 40’s living a wild and carefree life as a trumpet player in a Big Band. The man I knew cared not for wealth and fame but for the welfare of others and peace of a quiet family life. Rosebud became to me the symbol of my father, peaceful, centered and thoughtful. Things I wish for yet find elusive to this day.

As the years passed I had viewed Citizen Kane as any other great film. However I was unaware of the truth of Rosebud’s origin. In one of my Psychology classes I remember a professor quoting Orson Welles, who explained the idea behind the word “Rosebud.”

“It’s a gimmick, really, a rather tawdry device, a dollar-book Freudian gag.”

Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz

Then in 1989 Gore Vidal, of whom I am a big fan, blew the lid off Rosebud forever with an outlandish claim! Rosebud was a nickname Randolph Hearst used for his mistress’ clitoris! According to Vidal the “real” Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz had found out about this and threw it in as a joke.

When I told my dad that story he laughed his head off. I had a new hero: Herman Mankiewicz.

Rosebud being a clitoris was fine with me and I was happy to leave it at that. Until 2007 and I needed a cool name for a Bicycle Shop.

A bicycle was one of the most prized possessions to a boy growing up in the sunny Santa Clara Valley in the 1960’s. Before the “Silicon Valley” there was “The Valley of Heart’s Delight” and it was by bicycle that is was best explored: Stevens Creek Dam, Blackberry Farm, Saratoga Springs, Villa Montalvo, Mt. Eden, and other names a 10 year old boy would be proud to say he had traveled to via bicycle. To Charles Foster Kane, Rosebud may have been a sled; to me Rosebud was my bicycle. So grew the idea for the name of my bicycle shop: Citizen Chain.

Citizen Chain

The naming of a bicycle shop can be as daunting a task as the decision to open one. With a name that referenced memories of the happy times of both my youth and my father, I felt I was halfway there. I bought the Internet domain name and began on the second more difficult endeavor of opening an actual shop.

Rosebud Sled from 'Citizen Kane'
The Usurper in ‘Citizen Kane’

It was late on a Sunday night in early September 2007. I was in my soon-to-be-opened shop working on the final t-shirt design when I heard a tap at the window. I opened the door to find Darryll, a friend and owner of the nearby Bike and Roll rental shop, just home from a New York City business trip. Two weeks earlier I shared with Darryll how Citizen Chain was a play on words, and how I viewed my bicycle as my Rosebud.

“Rosebud is a Bicycle!” Darryll said as a matter of fact. No hello. No howdy-do.

I protested figuring he had finally gotten my wordplay. “Yes it is my bicycle.” I said.

Shaking his head, Darryll proceeded to tell me about his New York trip. About being at a talk by David Byrne — yes that David Byrne — where he shared the pain of the recent theft of his bicycle. It was here that Mr. Byrne shared a little known secret that Rosebud was in fact based on a stolen bicycle, owned by a young Herman Mankiewicz. My mind began to spin. No way.

I began to type, searching Google. With Darryll looking over my shoulder my first Google search’s lead only to the basic sites, or my own new site. Then on my third entry I added the name of Mankiewicz and Wilkes-Barre to Rosebud and bicycle.

There it was. One article originally published on May, 1, 1991 titled “Listen Up, Cinema Sleuths: Rosebud Was Really A Bike” by Joe Butkiewicz, a writer for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. His reference was MANK: The Wit, World and Life of Herman Mankiewicz the Richard Meryman biography about Mankiewicz.

As the story goes, Rosebud was a bicycle given to Herman Mankiewicz for Christmas, just after his tenth birthday. Soon afterward, Herman’s bicycle, Rosebud, was stolen from the front of the public library as he studied. Blaming Herman’s irresponsibility for the loss, his parents refused to replace the bike. Rosebud was never returned, but Herman’s loss evolved into the immortal Rosebud of Citizen Kane.

1907 Cleveland Bicycle
A 1907 Cleveland Bicycle, possibly the same or similar to Mankiewicz’ stolen bike

The unfortunate loss of David Byrne’s bike led me to what? The little known fact that Rosebud was a bike is one thing. What else is there?

Osterhout Free Library
The scene of the crime: The Osterhout Library, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania

I am determined to find the truth. Herman and Rosebud, what was it about this bike and its loss that drove a wedge between a father and son. What happened to Herman’s bike?

I discussed the history of Rosebud with Herman’s son Frank Mankiewicz, during a telephone conversation in August of 2011. A charming man, I soon hope to interview in person, gave me the words I now view as my call to action.

It is time Vidal’s story be put to rest and the truth be told. Rosebud was a bike. It was my Fathers Bike.

–Frank Mankiewicz. August, 2011

Rosebud was a BikeRosebud was a bike The truth needs to be told, and will be. I promise.

Solving “The Greatest Bicycle Theft of All Time” may be a more difficult endeavor.

Stay tuned.

Dallas Adams is currently researching the fate of Rosebud, and solving “The Greatest Bicycle Theft of All Time.”

The Oscar Statuette awarded to Herman Mankiewicz for Writing Citizen Kane will be auctioned on February 28.

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