In other words, Bessette has it the wrong way around: he describes a
man born with the seeds of self-destruction already in him; Armando,
on the other hand, describes a larger-than-life extrovert who had
started out with all the promise in the world, but who through a
tragic combination of bad choices and events that, realistically, he
could not have foreseen (eg, his enormous success in films and the
unexpected degree of public and critical scrutiny that arose from
this), lost his self-confidence and self-respect - and thereafter
increasingly sought refuge in alcohol.
First of all, my opinion of Al Bernard/Matt Teitelbaum's book
(reportedly written while he was serving a well-deserved prison
sentence for fraud) hasn't changed one jot. It's a piece of trash with
not a single redeeming feature. The fact that its author has for years
been living - to quote Bessette - "in grand style" while *still*
receiving a percentage of Lanza's royalties (along with Sam Weiler's
heirs and sundry other individuals) only rubs salt into the wound.
Let's not forget that because of his association with Teitelbaum, not
only did Lanza get dragged into the whole sordid business of having to
testify to the Grand Jury for old Al - and at a time when his
reputation scarcely needed any further notoriety! - but he also ended
up naively (to put it mildly) signing away sizeable chunks of his
future income to Teitelbaum's various associates, such as lawyer Greg
Bautzer. Not content with having made so much money out of Lanza,
however, Teitelbaum then went on to write a book in which he portrays
himself as Mario's saviour!
The Callinicos book, on the other hand, is somewhat better than I
remembered it. It's got some good stuff in it, and is reasonably well
written, no doubt due in part to its co-author, professional
journalist Ray Robinson. Next to Armando's, it's also the most
musically accurate Lanza bio. I did scratch my head, though, over
Callinicos's assertions that Mario was in "magnificent" form at The
Vagabond King session in July 1959 and also, a month later, when he
recorded the first two numbers for The Desert Song. (Callinicos
doesn't say what these two numbers were, but the RCA Italia logs
reveal these to have been Then You Will Know and The Riff Song -
hardly the shining moments from that final album.)
What bothers me about Callinicos's book, however, is the number of
obvious inaccuracies in it. For instance, he claims that Lanza sang
badly (with only "the scar tissue" remaining of a great voice) at the
Albert Hall on February 16th, 1958, when we know that such a recital
never took place. Even allowing for the fact that he may have confused
the date with January 19th (which was when Mario appeared there for
the second and final time), it does seem a strange error for someone
to make only two years after the event. He also claims that the Albert
Hall audience was unforgiving and did not believe Lanza's excuse of
having injured himself a couple of days earlier. This doesn't tally at
all with the comments I've read from people who were actually at the
second Albert Hall concert.
More preposterously, Callinicos claims that Mario's final words were
"Betty, I love you...oh...oh." Considering the fact that Lanza was
alone when he was stricken - and was discovered already unconscious up
to 40 minutes later - this is a fairly outrageous fabrication! Coming
on top of the obviously bogus tale about a final Lord's Prayer
recording in September 1959, this deathbed story - no matter how
kindly intended - makes me wonder how many other parts of Callinicos's
book can be trusted.
The question mark over Callinicos's reliability gains particular
significance when one considers that Bessette relies heavily on the
former's assertions that Mario was already a troubled individual
*before* moving to Hollywood in his own portrayal of Lanza in Tenor in
Exile. Bessette's thesis is, of course, that Mario was mentally ill
his entire life with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. To support this
view about a period when his chief source (Teitelbaum) didn't know
Lanza, he has to rely on comments about Lanza's alleged misbehaviour
from Callinicos - who in turns quotes other individuals - and even the
anonymous high school teacher quoted in the equally anonymous Time
magazine author's cover story on Lanza, which claims that Mario was
"one of the biggest bums" to enter the US education system. Hmmn.
What I'd forgotten about this book, however, is just how relentlessly
Bessette lists every one of Mario's alleged misdeeds - cheerfully
aided in large part by Teitelbaum's unsavoury reminiscences. He paints
Lanza as so thoroughly unlovable an individual - violent, crude,
sex-addicted, often vile in his behaviour towards women - that you'd
have to wonder why anyone in their right mind would have wanted to
associate with him. There's no sense of balance and no attempt to
establish context; it's just page after page of Mario's supposed
misdeeds. Even when he's right - as he is about Lanza's initial
behaviour towards Doretta Morrow - he only tells half the story,
omitting the crucial fact that Mario profusely apologised for his foul
language and ended up enjoying a good working relationship with his
co-star. Furthermore, Bessette often doesn't name his sources - even
when he makes the occasional positive statement. I'm surprised that
his publishers (Amadeus) didn't insist on proper referencing.
What surprised me the most, however, is whenever I opened a page at
random, I discovered a glaring factual mistake. Some of these were
inconsequential (such as his laughably inaccurate translation of
"porco miseria"); some were simply sloppy (eg, he says Betty Lanza was
36 when she died). But the musical errors are perhaps the most galling
of all; for instance, he claims that Mario's 1949 Celeste Aida for RCA
was in a higher key than usual (??!!), and later says that Lanza's
haunting 1959 One Alone ends on a B. (It's actually a whole tone and a
half lower!) Compounding these mistakes were some of his musical
pronouncements: eg, asserting that the 1955 O Paradiso was strained
(while maintaining that the 1955 O Soave Fanciulla was very good!),
that the 1958 O Sole Mio was terrible, etc, etc.
Bessette does provide some fascinating details about the extent to
which Lanza was cheated financially by some of those around him (not
to mention unscrupulous film producers), and in the closing chapter he
makes some surprisingly touching comments about the man. But for me,
at least, it was a case of too little, too late. As we've already seen
in the reviews, it's Lanza the monster that commentators have
preferred to focus on - and this book gives them ample ammunition to
support that view, regardless of whether its "retrospective diagnosis"
of a bipolar disorder (which, in any event, is mentioned only at the
very end) mitigates any of the man's so-called misbehaviour.
I've always felt that Lanza's overall singing on the Coke Shows was
better in 1952 than it was in 1951 - possibly reflecting the pressures
he was under while filming Because You're Mine in the latter part of
1951 and at the very beginning of 1952. Coincidentally, one of the
above interviewees commented that Lanza's musicianship improved during
the 11-month period that he recorded for these shows.
But in other respects the fellow certainly makes some valid points!
I've always been an avid reader of biographies, and I find it
fascinating how often the telling of the subject's life is coloured by
the prudery, prejudice, snobbery, or just plain old self-righteousness
of the biographer. (Think of Albert Goldman's book on Elvis Presley,
which just oozes with hatred of the entire culture that spawned him.)
Edmund White once said that most biographers end up loathing their
subjects, and it's pretty obvious to me when reading, say, Mario
Lanza: Tenor in Exile, that that's exactly what's happened in the case
of Roland Bessette. His dislike of Lanza the person (though not the
singer) permeates practically every page.
I realize, of course, that it's Bessette's prerogative to disapprove
of his subject, but I feel his book goes out of its way to paint an
unflattering portrait of Lanza. Look at the sensationalistic quotes,
for example, that he begins successive chapters with towards the end
of the book: a dubious piece of British tabloid reporting from 1958
that has Mario denouncing Caruso as "a ridiculous legend" who
"couldn't even whistle" and an equally questionable putdown of Lanza
from (of all people) a Hamburg prostitute! Where are the positive
quotes from that period? Where are the comments of Coast, Ferrara, and
others? Lanza's life in 1958 can't be summed up accurately by those
In Armando's case, while it's clear from the start that he admires
Mario, his book never crosses the line into hagiography. The way he
approaches the whole Student Prince debacle, for example (and I'm glad
you brought this up!), is a model of objectivity -- and by the far the
most illuminating and well-researched account of that convoluted
episode that I've ever read.
Another thing I admire about his book is that, unlike Bessette,
Armando never attempts to use humour or sarcasm. Those qualities have
no place in a biography!
Incidentally, this July 1952 feature on Lanza could almost have been
written by Bessette (and, taking its lead -- if not much of its
"research" -- from the 1951 Time cover story, sets the tone of many of
the articles that appeared on Lanza during the remainder of his
What angers me about this piece is not so much what it states, but
what it omits.
I know that many people -- even those who love his voice -- subscribe
to the view that Mario was a "seriously screwed-up individual" (as a
certain Mannering acolyte and admirer of Bessette's book once insisted
to me privately), but how many of us could have walked in his shoes?
The negative press that Lanza received in his lifetime from 1951
onwards was relentless, and it was a rare day indeed when any of his
outstanding artistic achievements (eg, his singing in The Student
Prince and Serenade) received favourable comment -- let alone their
due praise! -- from reviewers.
In other words, if Lanza had not already developed a drinking habit by
the time this Hirshberg article came out, he might have been sorely
tempted to begin one! Very few artists would have remained unaffected
by what Mario endured at the hands of the press, and I think that if
he had indeed possessed the massive ego that Hirshberg asserts he
had, then he wouldn't have self-destructed.
As I wrote much earlier in this thread, I'm convinced that -- contrary
to what the Bessettes of this world would have us believe -- Lanza was
not born with the seeds of self-destruction already in him. The young
man that Toscanini's assistant (and future conductor of the Baltimore
Symphony Orchestra) Herbert Grossman came to know and like in the late
1940s was a celebrant of life, not a disturbed individual. To quote
"As to the state of Lanza's mental health, I can tell you that in our
encounters, including the rather extensive period preparing for what
turned into the [1948 David] Sarnoff audition, I saw no signs of
anything other than the characteristics you mention: an easy going,
fun loving nature, complete confidence in his ability (and why in
God's name, wouldn't he have had that in abundance?) and an excellent
rapport with colleagues (from Adler's point of view, had he been a
problem child in
any way, he wouldn't have nurtured, one might even say, adopted him)."
Moreover, Grossman wrote, "In the midst of all the fun, I, like
everyone else, found that, along with a voice that only could have
been a gift from God, he was, indeed, serious about his art."
Now where is any of that in the Hirshberg article??!!
As James Kilbourne once wrote,
"In a civilized world, Mario Lanza would have been cared for like the
Hope diamond. In his career, he would have been singing with Maria
Callas and Renata Tebaldi, not Jean Fenn and Kathryn Grayson.
Everything would have been done to help him develop his golden voice
and open his radiant heart. He would have been shown his own value
and, unburdened of all the small-minded sycophants and daily drivel
that make life difficult for all and impossible for the great, he
would have been granted the serene periods a great artist needs to
replenish his soul. Every morning, someone would have come to him and
said, 'Let’s go discover beautiful things together. Let’s get
healthier, stronger, smarter today.' Instead, he was surrounded with
an indifference that shown to an average artist would be an insult,
but to Mario Lanza was a grotesque monstrosity. How could his
self-esteem not be damaged by the chilling sense of unimportance that
surrounded all his efforts?"