Cover image for Mario Lanza : tenor in exile
Mario Lanza : tenor in exile
Bessette, Roland L.
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Publication Information:
Portland, Or. : Amadeus Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
270 pages, 36 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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ML420.L24 B53 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
ML420.L24 B53 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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Traces the life and career of the opera singer from his childhood, his recording and concert career, and his movie stardom, to his untimely death at the age of thirty-eight.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

With a clear lyric tenor voice, Mario Lanza (1921^-59) won the hearts of a greater fandom than any previous operatic singer had. Meanwhile, he was plagued with bipolar disorder. His overprotective mother had transferred her desire for a singing career to him, and his father lived on a disability pension, listening to opera recordings day in and day out. Those factors influenced a personality lacking discipline. Lanza spent freely on a lavish lifestyle, behaved destructively and antisocially, and gullibly took on oppressive professional obligations. But when he sang well, he was hailed as the successor to Caruso. In films, his approach to his parts, many based on his personal life, was natural and easygoing. Self-abuse led to his early death from a blood clot. Bessette offers a standard biography of a man who accomplished little in his brief life, one that is complete but, like Lanza's life, repetitious. Lanza still has his fans who will read it, but he is remembered best through his recordings and early films. --Alan Hirsch

Publisher's Weekly Review

Born in 1921 to an idle war veteran and the disillusioned daughter of an Italian shopkeeper, Alfred Arnold Cocozza seemed an unlikely candidate for greatness. But in his family's crowded South Philadelphia apartment, the influence of his father's opera records combined with his own exceptional voice ("He was fond of simply vaulting, from silence, to a ringing and sustained high C") to turn the unruly boy into the most popular tenor of his day‘Mario Lanza. After a few years of vocal training, a miserable stint as a military entertainer during WWII and some success as a concert and radio singer, Lanza discovered his best medium in Hollywood. In film, he found an escape from his paralyzing stage fright and a vehicle for his dark good looks. At the apex of his career, he played the legendary tenor of the century in The Great Caruso and introduced millions to the beauty of opera (Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti all credit Lanza as an early influence). But his career soon began to spiral downward as his indolence (he never bothered to learn sight-reading, limiting his repertoire) and shocking crudeness conspired with more prosaic Hollywood vices (notably womanizing, alcoholism and eating disorders) to alienate him from the Metropolitan Opera and MGM. Bessette, a lawyer and Lanza fan, does an admirable job of unearthing a great store of anecdotes and opinions about the controversial singer. 50 b&w photos. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The story of tenor Mario Lanza is painfully compelling. Born in Philadelphia, the only child of Italian immigrant parents, he compared himself to Caruso from the start. Success in films came early, and he portrayed his idol in The Great Caruso in 1951, the highlight of his career. But Lanza was undisciplined and never developed musical skills to equal his great talent. His charisma, boyish enthusiasm, and warmth served him well in his youth but were not enough to compensate for the cancellations, drunken rages, malicious pranks, and paranoia that ended his career in Hollywood. He spoke always of an operatic career but only sang two complete performances on stage. He died in Rome in 1959 at the age of 38. Attorney Bessette has written a thorough and entertaining story, marred by digressions and occasionally amateurish phrases (e.g., "a once-prodigal talent whose tomorrows were growing short in the early winter of life"). Earlier Lanza biographies are out of print, however, and this one will be useful for larger collections.ÄKate McCaffrey, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Beginning I never think about my voice.... It's just been there since I was born. Mario Lanza, 1957 Nothing distinguished 31 January 1921 from any other day in South Philadelphia, the section of the city known as Little Italy. Men, many of them recent immigrants, scurried from their modest dwellings to the streetcar lines and on to their places of employment in the chilly, early morning darkness. Not much later, the women began their daily marketing, spiritedly exchanging greetings and haggling over price and quality in stores like Salvatore Lanza's Italian-American import shop at 636 Christian Street, amidst the salami, mortadella, capicolla, tins of olive oil, and European-style breads. In a small bedroom above this earthy din, with the rich, ethnic sounds and aroma as much a part of the house as the red-brick exterior, Alfred Arnold Cocozza was born.     The child's father, Antonio Cocozza, was born in 1893 in Filignano, a rustic farming village in the Abruzzi region of Italy. Life in the Abruzzi, a thinly populated area, was limited by the paucity of arable land and a harsh climate; hardscrabble farming and grazing resisted even the most concentrated efforts. At the age of twelve, Antonio emigrated to the United States, pursuing no formal education after he arrived. Although he would later work a lathe, fashioning small locomotive parts for a company that did not do as well, his first job found him varnishing cabinets for the Victor Talking Machine Company, the employer his son knew as RCA Victor.     By all accounts, Tony Cocozza was a man of ordinary intellect, energy, and potential who never forgot the land of his childhood; throughout his life in America, he quoted Italian folklore and axioms and then explained them in English as if they were edicts from the court of Solomon. Bicycle racing was a particular but short-lived interest; he once participated in a competitive event at Madison Square Garden. He also played the French horn, to the dismay of those forced to listen. Another passion was opera, though he mostly listened to recordings or radio broadcasts and seldom attended a live performance. Tenor voices, especially those of the lachrymose, Italianate variety, were a special fascination for him. For hours on end, he listened to recordings of Enrico Caruso, whose great emotive voice reached the inner recesses of his heart and soul. His son would share this instinctive appreciation of the tenor voice. Unfortunately it was not the only thing passed from father to son.     In 1918 Tony was drafted into the 37th Division, 145th Infantry, and endured the devastation of combat in the Battle of the Meuse Argonne, an experience from which he never completely recovered. For his brief participation Tony received a Purple Heart and citations for gallantry and bravery. Besides capturing a German soldier, he was sprayed with mustard gas, stabbed in the lower spine with a bayonet, and hit by Boche dumdum bullets, which shattered and crippled his right arm. Although he claimed that the Veterans Administration had declared him totally disabled, Government records show only a 60 percent disability pension for the injury to his right arm. MGM, his son's eventual employer, hailed him in press releases as one of the most highly decorated veterans of World War I, which hyperbole only cheapens a legitimate record of sacrifice and service.     The infant's mother, Maria, was also born in the Abruzzi. When she was barely six months old, her mother, Ellisa, and she emigrated to the United States, where her father, Salvatore Lanza, was already peddling vegetables and fruit from a horsedrawn cart in South Philadelphia. Maria, or Mary, as she was soon called, was the first of their eight children     Salvatore Lanza was earnest, tireless, and stubborn. Through sheer force of will and frugality, he advanced from peddling to the establishment of a store at 636 Christian Street. He prospered and eventually owned the property at 636 Christian and a summer cottage in Wildwood, New Jersey, outright. Truly it was the American dream of the time. Like so many others who began with passage on an ordinary liner and cleared immigration at Ellis Island, the Lanzas achieved a far better standard of living than the Abruzzi would have afforded them.     Ellisa Lanza, a solid, hard-working woman who tended to the home and rearing of their children, was overwhelmed by her domineering husband. She and her family somehow maintained their sanity in cramped quarters above the store, where the children rotated shifts behind the counters. The work ethic paid off, for most of them. Hilda became a laboratory chemist; Arnold was successful as a manufacturer and distributor of cleaning and industrial supplies; Robert, tall, elegant, and handsome, was a sought-after dress designer in New York City; others became principals and educators. But their eldest, Mary, her protestations to the contrary, never had a chance at a career or true independence.     Mary maintained that she had always wanted a career in opera but that her father forbade such pursuits. It is more likely that Salvatore, a competent and moral businessman, did not assess his daughter's talent as overwhelming. True, she could operate the pianola that saw much service in the small formal parlor at 636 Christian, but home and studio recordings have captured her heavy-handed keyboard technique and pleasant but thin vocalizations. When interviewed in 1962, Mary maintained that her son Mario had had the career she had been denied.     In 1920 Tony Cocozza, wearing his military uniform, entered the store at 636 Christian Street, intending to buy salami. He did not. Instead he talked to the lively, bright-eyed fifteen-year-old who was tending the counter. Salvatore viewed Tony as a good prospect for his eldest daughter: he was older and received a disability pension; with an income from honest labor, he would be a good provider. Tony courted Mary in his own way, and they eventually married. Their only child soon followed.     The three Cocozzas joined the maelstrom of 636 Christian Street, living with the nine Lanzas and frequent visitors from Italy. Alfred, who quickly became Freddy, was doted on by his parents, aunts, and uncles; one advantage of the extended family situation was that it temporarily camouflaged the troubled state of the child's immediate family. Neighbors remembered the little boy as rambunctious, insecure, and always nattily attired by his mother, a talented seamstress. Mary continued to work in the store and took in sewing projects. She later worked as a waitress in an ice cream parlor; for five years she hooked sample rugs, and for seven years she served with the U.S. Army Quartermaster as a corsetiere. When she bobbed her lustrous long hair, following the fashion of the 1920s, her father refused to speak to her for six months.     Tony, who was physically capable of performing many jobs, showed no inclination to do more than collect his disability pension and listen to his records morning, noon, and night. Given the clutter, population, and noise in the apartment, Salvatore regarded his son-in-law's constant presence and worn records as annoying. Eventually, he rented space and established Tony in a small candy store. The son-in-law dabbled at the enterprise, running a less-than-timely and unprofitable operation. In two years he was back underfoot at the crowded apartment. Tony Cocozza never functioned as the head of the household or--beyond his disability pension--made a significant contribution as the man of the house. He was too nervous to drive, fly, or work. Mary euphemistically attributed the problems to his exposure to mustard gas during the war.     Freddy was drawn, almost from birth, to the rich musical repertoire that was the constant background in the crowded apartment. He learned the opera storylines and was encouraged, by Mary, to argue with his elders about plot and quality of performance. He sang along with Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo. When he was seven, Freddy listened to Caruso's recording of "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci twenty-seven times in a row. The exercise seemed to imprint a method he later found difficult to abandon: that of learning a piece by listening to a recording or having it played on a piano as opposed to reading the music.     In 1930 nine-year-old Freddy and his parents moved to a two-story home at 2040 Mercy Street. Once again, Salvatore assisted. The home was modest--a replica of the brick row houses that lined both sides of the street--but the six rooms, bath, and small backyard seemed private and palatial compared with Christian Street. The positives were obvious, the negatives probably never pondered. The seeming advantages of a more isolated setting only highlighted his mother's growing anger and marital dissatisfaction. Tony, though affable, was less than Mary felt she deserved.     Freddy attended St. Mary Magdalene di Pazzi School at Seventh and Montrose, Nare Junior High School, and South Philadelphia High School for Boys (Southern High, in local parlance). He enjoyed baseball and boxing. He was very fond of dogs and loved horses with a passion he retained as an adult, stuffing every picture, drawing, or story he could find about them into a collection of bulging boxes under his bed. The boy was bright but could be truculent, defiant, and troublesome, finding it painfully difficult to acknowledge that anything should be done as expected by those who set the rules.     He grew into a sturdy teen with a naturally powerful physique, which he enhanced through spurts of intense, if not unconventional, weightlifting. Freddy's parents allowed him to exercise in a second-floor room, and he saw nothing wrong with simply dropping the weights when he tired. He was never admonished to do otherwise or show respect toward his home. Both Mary and Tony claim he was not spoiled, but every landlord who transacted business with Mario Lanza would have cause to regret his poor rearing.     Freddy was soon notorious in the neighborhood for his appetite. Overeating and indulgence inevitably merged, although they began on separate tracks. Tony was proud that he never said no to his boy. On weekends, he prepared breakfasts that included two pounds of steak smothered with six eggs and an entire loaf of bread, which feasts he served to his son in bed. Mary too held her son's loyalty through over-protection, indulgence, misplaced praise, and, among other things, food. Mario was never cared for as an individual who had to cope with failure or succeed on the basis of merit, which cost him the chance to develop personal independence and self-esteem. He developed a demanding attitude that was rejected outside of his home. Within that same home, his demands were met--too often--by food, his parents' best expression of love and satisfaction.     Mary countered all criticism of her son with nothing but praise, but she could be harshly judgmental when she believed he had failed her. She raised Freddy to be her friend and discouraged his trusting anyone she viewed as competition for his loyalty. She urged him to be fearless, and Freddy quickly added his powerful fists and a willingness to engage in hijinks to his neighborhood notoriety. When Freddy initiated fistfights, his mother insisted that the other boy started the affair and thus deserved a beating. When he was caught shoplifting candy from a neighborhood store, it was a mistake; his friends, most of them bad influences, were the culprits. When he was accused of taking improper liberties with girls, it was because they were tramps bent on an amorous adventure with her irresistible son.     Freddy bore a startling resemblance to his mother, and Tony never contradicted his wife's claim to being the solitary contributor to the genetic assemblage that was their son. Mary was excessively proud that less than seventeen years separated her and her boy--and she took excessive credit for all that her son did well. It was Freddy and Mary who took long walks and went shopping together. Tony remained at home, listening to his records. His walks along the narrow, lively, densely populated streets of South Philadelphia were solitary.     When alone, Freddy tried to imitate what he heard on his father's records. Occasionally he attended operatic performances at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, which was within walking distance of his home, intently observing and evaluating every vocal nuance. Among his friends, he achieved another reputation, for crooning, and was soon known as South Philadelphia's answer to Buss Columbo. Young Cocozza frequently announced, clutching his throat for emphasis, that he had "a million dollars right here."     Mary later recounted several versions of stories that placed her as the only musical influence in her son's life, such as buying the violin he heaved in disgust from the second floor at 9,040 Mercy Street, but it was the voices at the Academy that called to and seduced him. When he was fifteen years old, he auditioned for Antonio Scarduzzo, a baritone of local reputation in Philadelphia. Scarduzzo advised him to wait, study languages, piano, and solfeggio (sight reading of music). It was pointless. Though he was able to sight read when prodded, he always fell back on his original method of learning new music by listening to records. Thankfully, his musical instincts were excellent, and he remained convinced that he would become a great singer, confidently predicting that he would be "the greatest, sensational dramatic tenor that ever lived."     Freddy spent much of every summer at his grandfather's cottage in Wildwood. One summer, Salvatore, ever hopeful of getting Tony or Freddy to drop a bead of sweat while engaged in honest labor, found his grandson a job driving a streetcar. The situation was short-lived. Freddy found it impossible to charge every customer an appropriate fare (young girls and friends rode free) or to keep to the established route. Arguments between the grandfather and grandson were loud and frequent, but they had no affect on Freddy's behavior or penchant for staying out until sunrise.     Freddy regarded high school as a distraction to his singing and neighborhood marauding, and his lackadaisical study habits translated to poor grades. Extremely dependent, he sought to fill his endless need for approval by acting the rebel. He was late for classes, slammed doors, sneaked up behind his unsuspecting fellows to blast a high note into their ears, or simply used his volume to let loose with an obscenity. He was on the verge of expulsion on several occasions and was not afraid to threaten teachers. A teacher from Southern High School described him as one of the biggest bums ever to come through the public school system.     During his senior year at Southern, Freddy angered a teacher and they exchanged words. Freddy--a menacing 200 pounds plus--slugged the faculty member, who had used an ethnic slur, and the administration at Southern High School decided that they would be better off without Freddy Cocozza wandering the halls. Given his past record, no amount of pleading from his mother could alter their decision to expel him for misconduct. Tony was once again philosophical: Freddy possessed a rare and lovely voice; he could not be expected to behave like other boys, nor could he be treated like an ordinary young man.     Mary enrolled Freddy at Lincoln Preparatory Academy, a private school in Philadelphia, so that he could earn his high school diploma; she still harbored a dream of Freddy becoming a lawyer. He had no interest in attending classes, and it is unlikely that he would have survived the more demanding expectations at the preparatory school. He spared himself the experience--and his parents the expense--by refusing to attend.     Alfred Arnold Cocozza, a Philadelphia lawyer? He possessed outstanding verbal skills and enjoyed argument for argument's sake. But he seldom viewed a problem in its whole form or saw an issue as it related to a cause or solution. Fortunately for the judges, clients, and adversaries who would have been confronted by this specter--let alone law school professors and fellow students--Freddy chose to make a positive contribution in another way. He began his serious training as a singer. Copyright © 1999 Roland L. Bessette. All rights reserved.