The renowned recording artist shares a half-century of personal memories, from his childhood in Depression-era Queens, to the New York jazz scene of the 1940s, to his successes with a new generation of fans in the 1990s
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Tony Bennett lives in New York City. A book of his paintings, Tony Bennett: What My Heart Has Seen, was published in 1996.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My paternal grandfather, Giovanni Benedetto, who died before my father was born, grew up in the small, isolated village of Podargoni in Calabria, Italy.
Because the Benedetto family originally came from the north of Italy, they were fair-skinned and fair-haired, like northern Europeans, and quite unlike their fellow dark-haired, dark-skinned Calabrese. My father's mother, Maria, was so fair that she was known as "La Germanesa," the German woman. The Benedettos were essentially poor farmers, producing olive oil, figs, and wine grapes. My mother's side of the family was named Suraci, and they also made their living farming in Calabria. Like everyone else in the region, they were unable to read and write.
My paternal grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters. Maria Suraci married Giovanni Benedetto, and they became my father's parents, and Vincenza Suraci married Antonio Suraci (who by coincidence had the same last name), and they became my mother's parents.
My father, Giovanni (John) Benedetto, was born in 1895. The youngest of five children, he was named after my grandfather. When my grandmother was pregnant with my father, she dreamt that her late husband came to her from the "other side" and told her to name the boy "Giovanni," after him.
Italians at that time were very superstitious. My father was very sickly as a child, and although they didn't know it then, we later found out that he had suffered from rheumatic fever. But as family lore has it, everyone attributed his aches and pains to the fact that my grandmother grieved for her dead husband while she was pregnant, and her grieving had made my father a sickly child. The older people in the village served as the only available "doctors," and they made their diagnoses based more on old-fashioned superstition than on medicine. Nobody went to the hospital -- there weren't any -- and the only remedies were home remedies.
Despite the problems with his health, my father was essentially a joyful child. My Aunt Frances used to tell me that she often looked after my father while she and Grandma would be out working the land. They'd set my father down to play in the shade of the nearest tree. He'd smile happily and watch the blue sky above, and she'd never hear a peep out of him. From the beginning, I've been told, he loved music and song, and as a boy he had a wonderful singing voice. He would often climb to the top of the mountains in Calabria and sing out to the whole valley below. Singing is a part of my heritage. I'm convinced it's in my blood, and that's why I'm a singer today.
By the 1890s a widespread blight had forced thousands of farmers, including the Benedettos and Suracis, to leave their beloved homeland, and my mother's parents, Antonio and Vincenza Suraci, were the first of my relatives to make the trip to America.
The emigration of an entire family was a gradual process in those days. When they left Italy in late January 1899 with their two children, my Uncle Frank and my Aunt Mary, my grandmother was one month pregnant with my mother. When they arrived in New York, they had no relatives to greet them or show them the ropes. But some friends from their village had made the journey a few years earlier, and had written to tell them that they would have a place to live when they came over.
I consider my grandparents, as well as the many immigrants before and after them, to be the most courageous of people. It astounds me even to contemplate what it meant for them to leave behind everything they knew. They journeyed across the ocean without any idea of what they'd find on the other side, and none of them had ever ventured more than a few miles from the spot where they were born. It must have been terrifying, knowing that they would never see their childhood homes, or their own parents, again.
My grandparents packed up their essential belongings and took the train north to Naples. At the Naples Emigrant Aid Society they went through some minor processing and were then ferried out in a small boat to the middle of Naples Bay, where they boarded the huge steamship that would take them to America.
After three weeks crossing the Atlantic, the ship finally entered New York harbor and my grandparents put on their best clothes and stepped onto Ellis Island. There they were subjected to a series of humiliating and frightening questions put to them by the immigration inspectors. After they passed their physical examinations they were led into the great hall, where they waited for their names to be called. Because of the high rate of illiteracy, many new immigrants arrived without the right documents. The derogatory term "wop," an acronym for "With Out Papers," would be stamped on the forms of these unfortunates and officials would call out, "We have another 'wop.' Send him home." I can only imagine how my grandparents felt, not knowing whether they might at any moment be rejected and sent back to Italy.
But fortunately my grandparents at last heard their names called, had their entry papers stamped, and were loaded onto another small boat that took them to the southernmost tip of Manhattan Island at Battery Park. They made their way along the crowded streets to the address they had been given by their friends, a five-story tenement building at 139 Mulberry Street, and their first home in America. The following September, my mother, Anna Suraci, was born. She was the first of our family to be born in the United States.
Gradually my grandparents helped the rest of the family make it over. Once they found work, they sent money home to the family in Calabria to sponsor the rest of the family's passage. When the new arrivals got here, my grandparents took them into their home and helped them find jobs and a place to live.
At about the same time, my grandmother Maria Benedetto, now without a husband, began to contemplate joining her sister Vincenza in America. Most of the Benedetto family, including my Uncle Dominick, arrived in the early 1900s. Finally, in 1906, they sent for my grandmother and my father.
When the Benedettos arrived in New York, most of them settled, as had the Suracis, in Little Italy. Tenement buildings lined the narrow dirt streets and pushcarts crowded the sidewalks. The streets were packed shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people: men with big mustaches, wearing bowlers or Italian straw hats; women with their hair pulled back in a bun, wearing long dresses and brightly colored striped shawls and clutching woven baskets as they tested the street vendors' fruit and vegetables for that day's meal. Children were everywhere, playing in the muddy streets among the pushcarts, vendors, and the horses and carriages. This neighborhood was a far cry from the lush open fields of Calabria my family had left behind.
Grandpa Antonio Suraci really lived the "American dream," and took full advantage of the opportunities offered to him in his new country. He moved the family to a quieter neighborhood on Twelfth Street on the East Side between First and Second Avenues. It was here that my grandfather started a wholesale fruit-and-vegetable business catering to the pushcart owners. Every morning they congregated at his basement warehouse before sunrise to pick up the produce they'd sell all across downtown New York. My grandfather got up early in the morning every day and worked until the sun went down. He wasn't much at numbers, so he let my grandmother handle all the money. At the end of the day he gave her whatever he'd earned, and she paid all the bills and stashed whatever was left over in an old trunk she kept hidden under their bed. They had a big family at this time. Although my Uncle Frank and Aunt Mary were out on their own, my grandparents still had five children living at home.
My mother, like my father, had also been a sickly child, and I guess because he though
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Book Description Atria, 1998. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0671024698
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