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 thought her prospects for marriage were slim, my Uncle Frank decided that she should study to become a schoolteacher so she could support herself. Uncle Frank was the oldest brother, and traditionally the oldest brother had as much to say as the parents in family matters. Frank decided it was time for him to take charge and start planning my mother's future.
Education had been nonexistent in Calabria. Children worked the fields from a very early age, and people felt that reading and writing were not as important as learning the skills necessary to survive. The idea of taking a child out of its mother's care was seen as an absolute threat to the Italian family and was vehemently resisted. But this was America, and against the family's protests Uncle Frank arranged for my mom to attend school.
But as it happened, he was courting a young Austrian woman named Emma. Even though she was a Catholic, my grandparents were against Uncle Frank's involvement with somebody who wasn't Italian. They threatened that if he married this woman they'd take my mother out of school. In spite of the threat, Frank married Emma, whom he loved very much (more than tradition, I guess), and so my mother never had a chance to finish her education.
The Benedetto family was also busy establishing themselves in New York. My grandmother Maria continued to live in Little Italy, but my father's sister Antoinette and her husband Demetri moved to midtown in 1918. They opened a grocery store on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-second Street and lived in an apartment above. My dad went to work for them and moved into a spare room.
This part of town was remote; most everything was downtown, and it was years before the growth of modern day midtown. Ironically, this grocery store was on the very same spot that, years later, my recording label, CBS, would build their headquarters, informally known as "Black Rock," which is descriptive of the color and style of this massive structure. I was told by one of the presidents of the company that sales of my records subsidized at least ten floors of that building!
When my father was twenty-four years old, with a steady job, his thoughts naturally turned toward marriage and raising a family of his own. Now, in those days, tradition dictated that marriages be arranged, and family discussions began in earnest about the possible pairing of young John Benedetto to his attractive and amiable cousin Anna Suraci. By contemporary standards these arrangements must seem quite unusual: my parents were betrothed to each other by their parents, and they were first cousins. But both of these practices were common among immigrants who came from small villages. So on November 30, 1919, my mother and my father were married in lower Manhattan.
My father kept his job at the grocery store, and they lived at my uncle's on Fifty-second Street until my sister, Mary, was born in October 1920. By then the apartment was overcrowded, so my father's brother Dominick, who owned a general store in upstate New York, suggested that my father come to work for him. My parents moved with their new daughter to Pyrites.
Everything went well for a while. When my mother became pregnant again, my father asked Dominick for a raise, and my uncle turned him down flat. Hurt and upset, my parents packed up and moved back to Fifty-second Street, and that's where my older brother, John Benedetto, Jr., was born in 1923.
My grandfather and grandmother Suraci decided they had also had enough of city life. One night my grandfather told my grandmother of his dream of buying a house for just the two of them, a place with a garden. She looked at my grandfather and then she said very casually, "Oh, we have money to buy a house." All those years, Grandpa Antonio had just assumed that everything he made got spent on raising his seven children. But then Grandma went into the bedroom, reached under the bed, and pulled out that old trunk. Inside was ten thousand dollars in cash, a fortune at that time! My grandfather had never suspected that she'd managed money so well.
So Grandpa and Grandma were able to make another dream come true. They moved to a suburban part of New York known as Astoria, Queens, and they bought a two-family house at 2381 Thirty-second Street. Astoria was rural by today's standards, and compared to Manhattan, it was the country! With their ten thousand dollars my grandparents were able to buy their new house and the undeveloped lot right next door. I remember my grandmother had a goat and some chickens wandering around on the property, and a huge garden. Sooner or later, the rest of the Suracis and Benedettos moved to Astoria, and that house on Thirty-second Street became the heart of our family life for decades to come.
A few years earlier my parents had followed my grandparents to Astoria and had opened up a grocery store of their own. They and my brother and sister lived in the apartment upstairs.
In 1924, soon after my brother John was born, my father got sick. My parents were running the store and taking care of the kids -- the whole thing was a family affair -- but it was too much for my ailing father and my mother, so by the time my mother became pregnant with me, they were already thinking about selling the store. Despite these problems, my mother told me they were thrilled to be having another child, and they eagerly awaited my birth.
Copyright © 1998 by Tony Bennett