Myths about Mario Lanza: the Man by Derek McGovern
Mario Lanza was once described by an RCA liner notes writer as having had the "cosmic misfortune" of possessing the personality of a devil coupled with the voice of an angel. Yet to others, such as his Rome publicity agent, Sam Steinman, Lanza may have had his fair share of flaws, but he was "more sinned against than sinner." However, this has not stopped tabloid writers and even several biographers from feasting on his misdeeds (both real and imagined).
But for every allegation that he was a crude, out-of-control sybarite or an insufferable egotist, there is ample testimony emphasizing a very different Lanza. To several young sopranos, for example, such as the New York City Opera's Elaine Malbin, who at the age of nineteen recorded two duets with the tenor in Hollywood, "[Lanza] was very sweet and very charming." Five years later, Gloria Boh found him similarly down to earth and "really a nice guy." She added: "Meeting him for the first time was just like meeting a member of your own family."
This essay—an extension of our forum discussion "Lanza the Person"—addresses four of the most frequently regurgitated myths about the man. (Rumors about Lanza's voice, training, and musical ability are challenged in the article Myths about Mario Lanza, the Artist.)
Myth # 1
With Jarmila Novotna, 1950
Mario Lanza was a monster
Lee Milazzo argued in the American Record Guide in 1999 that, "Mario Lanza lived a life of excess. He drank so constantly and so heavily that he was usually uncontrollable and frequently unconscious. He ate in such binges that not even his 50-inch chest and 19-inch neck could hold the pounds. . . . He pursued women as if he were a hunter and they were prey. He was so impossible to work with that his name was a curse word in Hollywood and elsewhere. . . . If all of this makes Lanza sound like a monster, he was . . . ".
Lanza was clearly no saint—and when drunk could be a boorish nuisance—but the assessments of dozens of individuals who were close to him throughout his life invariably underscore his fundamental decency. Let's therefore examine each of the statements that comprise Milazzo's "monster" allegation.
Eating and drinking. It is certainly true that Lanza was capable of both gaining and losing extraordinary amounts of weight in a short period. One only needs to compare photos taken of the overweight singer arriving in Naples in May 1957 with those of his return to that city six weeks later for proof of dramatic weight loss. There is also testimony from many of his friends, including George London and Sam Steinman, that Lanza had a serious drinking problem. (London pinpoints the beginning of Lanza's battle with alcohol to 1950, two years after he had arrived in Hollywood.) Whether he was technically an alcoholic depends on one’s definition of the term, but there can be no doubt that he was, at the very least, an episodic (or binge) drinker, and that his health and personal relationships were negatively affected by his drinking.
However, the extent to which he overate and drank has been sensationalized. Lanza’s accompanist Constantine Callinicos once recalled a British newspaper describing the tenor on his first visit to London as the “Farouk silhouette”—after the morbidly obese penultimate King of Egypt—despite the fact that he weighed only 182lb—or 82.5kg—at the time. There were, in fact, sustained periods in Lanza’s life when his weight remained healthy and stable, and he was frequently able to control his drinking when he was working. (Lanza would never be accused of performing in public while intoxicated, for example.) Moreover, contrary to popular belief, Lanza did not eat himself to death; rather, it was the repeated crash dieting that severely compromised his health.
Womanizing. The principal sources of the tales of Lanza’s supposedly rampant womanizing are his friend Terry Robinson (in a 1980 biography of the tenor co-authored by Raymond Strait) and his one-time manager Al Teitelbaum, a convicted fraudster and author of a tabloid-style biography published in 1971 under the pseudonym “Matt Bernard.” Their tales (all of which involve either unnamed or deceased women) are contradicted, however, by several individuals who worked closely with Lanza, including Callinicos, Steinman, and conductor Paul Baron (interviewed by this writer in 1982). While all three were critical of other aspects of Lanza's behavior, they were adamant that the tenor was not a womanizer. Lanza may have been unfaithful to his wife on rare occasions, but it is difficult to imagine how he could have habitually "pursued women as . . . prey" without these men being aware of the fact.
Relationships with colleagues. Lanza’s name may have been a “curse word” among the MGM executives with whom the tenor clashed during the initial filming of Because You’re Mine—a film that he considered an unworthy follow-up to The Great Caruso—and, later, during the pre-production period of The Student Prince, but many of his co-stars, including Keenan Wynn, James Whitmore and Ann Blyth, found him a friendly and unpretentious colleague. MGM Musical Director John Green, with whom Lanza worked on three films, later recalled: “I was very fond of him. He was capable of such warmth, and he had a nice sense of humor. You could have great fun with Mario.”
Temperament and character. Vincent Price, Lanza’s co-star on his first film (Serenade) after leaving MGM, found the tenor quite unlike the temperamental star portrayed in the press. He also defended Lanza from accusations of egotism: “Mario doesn’t have a big ego. He is a man who happens to own one of the greatest voices of our time. For him to pretend he is unaware of this would be foolish and unbelievable. There’s a big difference between being aware of your talent and being an egotist, believe me!”
To the Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese, with whom Lanza worked closely on Serenade, the tenor "was not a complicated man. He had a great voice and a big soul. He was marvelous company, and he was a gentle man." Moreover, these were not aspects of Lanza's personality reserved for his friendships with the famous. As Antonio Fabianelli, his janitor in Rome for over two years, recalled: "I never felt as if he was my employer. He treated me as his equal, like a brother. He was kind, warm and considerate, and his tragic death was a personal loss to me."
(Note: The sources for most of the quotes in this section are interviews by Armando Cesari conducted between 1977 and 1980. See his Mario Lanza: An American Tragedy. 2nd ed. Baskerville, 2008.)
Lanza in 1952 with Joe Pasternak, producer of The Student Prince
Lanza didn’t appear in The Student Prince because he had become too fat to fit into the costumes.
Lanza's weight was never a major factor in his non-appearance in The Student Prince, and in fact he was slim throughout the pre-production period, as photos taken at the time reveal. The genesis of the problems concerning his non-appearance in the film can be traced back to the creative disagreements that he had with director Curtis Bernhardt, particularly over his interpretation of one of the songs (“Beloved”) that he had prerecorded for the film. Finding himself unable to work with Bernhardt, Lanza embarked on a protracted battle with Studio Head Dore Schary—a man with little interest in musicals, and with whom he had clashed on his previous film—that ultimately resulted in the cancellation of his MGM contract. Ironically, MGM eventually made the film with Richard Thorpe—the very director whom Lanza had requested (to no avail) as the ideal replacement for Bernhardt.
With lyricist Sammy Cahn (left) and composer Nicholas Brodszky
Lanza was not intelligent.
This accusation, possibly deriving from Time Magazine’s 1951 anonymously penned cover story in which, among other things, Lanza’s literary tastes were alleged to “lean to body-building and movie-fan magazines,” is one of the most frequently expressed slurs against the tenor.
One only needs to listen to Lanza in unscripted interviews (some of which can be heard in our Multimedia section) to ascertain that he was both articulate and intelligent, qualities also frequently mentioned by his friends and colleagues. MGM Musical Director John Green: “I found it fascinating, musically, to work with Mario. He had a sensational ear, and he was bright . . . Mario was not stupid at all!” Screenwriter Andrew Solt, who worked with Lanza on his final film (For the First Time), concurred: “[Lanza was] highly intelligent, very smart, and fast and funny.” [Source here.]
Lanza in 1957 (in a scene from Seven Hills of Rome)
Lanza died as the result of a Mafia ‘hit.’
This lurid tale, implied but never substantiated in Terry Robinson’s and Raymond Strait’s 1980 biography, was also promoted by the late U.S. tabloid journalist James Bacon, who claimed that Lanza’s friend Rocky Marciano had informed him that a ‘hit’ had been ordered on the tenor by Mafia Boss “Lucky” Luciano in retaliation for his failure to perform at a Mafia-backed concert in Naples.
Lanza’s demise had nothing whatsoever to do with the Mafia, nor was the tenor scheduled to sing in Naples at the time of his death. The Naples "concert" in question had, in fact, occurred more than two years earlier, when Lanza was unwittingly the pawn in a political rally involving the local Mafia. In July 1957, Lanza had been invited to Naples to receive the Enrico Caruso Award from Caruso's youngest son, Enrico Jnr. Lanza was pressured into singing at the event, which he had by now learned to his dismay was a political event in disguise. (See"A Mario Lanza Scrapbook" for further reading.)
In reality, Lanza was in chronically poor health during the last six months of his life, and, at the time of his death, had been suffering from a variety of diagnosed ailments for the previous twenty-one months. These included abnormally high blood pressure, liver damage, arteriosclerosis and phlebitis. Although an autopsy was not performed on his body, the cause of death was almost certainly one of the following: a heart attack, a cerebral hemorrhage, or a massive pulmonary embolism. See "A Fatal Zest for Living", by Armando Cesari and Philip A. Mackowiak, MD, for informed speculation on what really killed Mario Lanza.