Yesterday, Franco Zeffirelli died in Rome at age 96.
Italian Americans of a certain age remember him as the director/producer/designer who brought Romeo & Juliette to movie theaters in 1968. It was a lavish, colorful production of Shakespeare that broke new ground in reaching the unlettered masses. It was a highbrow extravaganza, in English – actually Shakespearean English – starring 16-year old actress Olivia Hussey, who was born in Argentina to an English mother. Some critics thought it too cultured for the American rabble, but the immortal storyline and mind-blowing costumes and scenery made it a cinematic success (made for only $1.5 million, grossing $50 million!) and a great date for courting couples, including me and my future wife. Remember, 1968 was a year of war, riots, and assassinations. American youth found cinematic relief and some identity in these teenage star-crossed lovers. (Hussey later starred as Mother Mary in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth in 1977.)
I had the pleasure of meeting Zeffirelli in 1996 when the Italic Institute honored him at the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf=Astoria in Manhattan. Our link to him was through a member who shared center-right credentials with the Maestro when Zeffirelli served in the Italian Parliament. Though raised during the Fascist era, and politically conservative later in life, he was inculcated with liberal English values and that language by his tutor Mary O’Neill. The 1999 movie Tea with Mussolini (co-starring Cher of all people) was Zeffirelli’s testament to this dichotomy in his life.
Socially, Zeffirelli wasn’t so conservative. He was homosexual – but shunned the word gay – sharing a bed for three years with Italian director Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, 1963) until he learned his lover was sabotaging his career.
My introduction to Zeffirelli was in his Waldorf suite where I soon learned that he was an avid scotch drinker (part of his Anglo-philia, no doubt) and had a hankering for one of our Institute’s younger members – the straight adult son of an officer. Suffice it to say, the Maestro had to settle for his scotch and accolades that night.
Another thing I learned about Zeffirelli was that his English tastes included Jack Russell Terriers. He owned six of these small dogs originally bred in England to kill rats. It was a breed my young daughter also loved and cajoled me into buying, twice. (If you watch Frasier TV reruns, “Eddie” is a Jack Russell.)
Honoring Franco Zeffirelli was a coup for our Institute. No other Italian American group had honored him. He was not an American celebrity, nor was he someone who would “give back” by buying multiple tables and attracting journal ads. It’s no secret that large and small Italian American organizations raise significant cash from galas honoring wealthy businessmen or celebrities. Making businessman “Joe Blow” King for a Day guarantees that Joe’s family and subcontractors will buy tables and journal ads. Likewise, honoring dirt-bags like Bobby DeNiro and Marty Scorsese will attract their idol worshippers at $500 a seat.
From our first gala in 1988, we chose to honor Italic people who actually contributed something to humanity or to our positive heritage – people like Sonia Gandhi, the Italian lady who married into the Gandhi family and was head of India’s Congress Party; or General Anthony Zinni, who oversaw our nation’s Middle Eastern forces. In all, we honored some forty Italic people from various walks of life, with no strings attached. The surprise was that we always made a profit and never compromised our mission or the image of the Italic people. We discontinued our galas when this high standard didn’t suit some of our fundraisers.
A side benefit of honoring people like Zeffirelli, Gandhi, and Zinni is demonstrating the unity of the Italic people and the amazing diversity of talent within our community. Other groups continue to honor Joe Blow, invariably a wealthy businessman whose only claim-to-fame is his wealth and ballroom generosity. It’s a formula that has worked for decades with few questions asked.
Although our galas are a thing of the past, our honorees are still well known and, even in death, live honorably in the memory of the Italic people.
Maestro Franco Zeffirelli is among them. -JLM