Mario Lanza died, at the tragically early age of thirty-eight, on Wednesday
7th October 1959. He had been hospitalised in Rome with phlebitis. A substantial
piece of clot had broken away and lodged in his pulmonary artery. The death
was listed as a heart attack. Several days later his body was flown home
to America first to his home city of Philadelphia and then to Los Angeles.
His death was mourned by countless fans around the globe. Truly one of the
greatest tenors of the century, his achievements are venerated by the Three
Tenors: Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras who have all praised his influence
on their careers.
Yet Lanza was a controversial figure and Bessette does not shrink from sketching
in the dark side of his turbulent life. Born in South Philadelphia of Italian
parentage, he was undisciplined and self-indulgent, spoilt from the
start by a doting mother. He learnt by emulation, listening over and over
to gramophone records of opera stars; he never learnt to sight read.
But the voice was prodigious enough, in tone, strength and range, to impress
the notoriously demanding conductor Koussevitzky at the beginning of his
The book tells of Lanza's meteoric rise to stardom first in concert, then
through radio, and recordings for RCA, through to films. His record royalties
approached $1 million per year. His career in Hollywood peaked early with
his third film The Great Caruso which turned out to be MGM's biggest
money-maker for 1951 and one of its most profitable films of all time. Yet
his rude, crude, boorish behaviour on-set antagonised too many people: he
would get into fights, curse and shout at technicians, insult his leading
ladies, and urinate anywhere that was handy including, on one occasion, a
lagoon that had to be refreshed, etc. Property owners came to regret Lanza
as a tenant because of his wrecking sprees. Ultimately all Hollywood studios
were loathe to hire him and he was obliged to move to Italy where his last
two films were made (he made only eight films). He was self indulgent in
terms of food (his figure ballooned alarmingly and he was endlessly working
out and dieting), alcohol and women. Bette Lanza, his wife, unable to cope
with his seductions of countless women, the competition from his domineering
mother and the pressures of a successful Hollywood career, sought solace
in drink and drugs and continually berated Mario instead of supporting him.
Lanza was basically insecure and subject to fits of intense depression and
paranoia which, coupled with weight and drink problems, caused him to cancel
many engagements and to funk appearances including a lucrative and crucial
engagement at Las Vegas. All this behaviour Bessette puts down to the clinical
condition, manic depression.
One wonders what further miracles of singing might have been achieved not
only in the films (Lanza had a flair for comedy), records and in concert
but also in opera had the talent been studied, directed, and disciplined
but then the raw energy, sensuality and spontaneity might have been sacrificed?
A compulsive, yet often harrowing read, the book includes a selected
bibliography, a compact disc discography and a filmography.