More than 40 years after his premature death, the mystique of Mario Lanza continues. He remains a legendary figure, a crossover icon embraced and remembered by an entire generation for bridging the gap between popular and classical music, the acknowledged inspiration of today's Three Tenors. Bessette tells his story with a novelist's eye for the inherent tragedy of Lanza's brief life, the contradictory facets of his personality, his passion for life, and his self-destructiveness.
Born in 1921 to an idle war veteran and the disillusioned daughter of an Italian shopkeeper, Alfred Arnold Cocozza seemed an unlikely candidate for greatness. But in his family's crowded South Philadelphia apartment, the influence of his father's opera records combined with his own exceptional voice ("He was fond of simply vaulting, from silence, to a ringing and sustained high C") to turn the unruly boy into the most popular tenor of his day--Mario Lanza. After a few years of vocal training, a miserable stint as a military entertainer during WWII and some success as a concert and radio singer, Lanza discovered his best medium in Hollywood. In film, he found an escape from his paralyzing stage fright and a vehicle for his dark good looks. At the apex of his career, he played the legendary tenor of the century in The Great Caruso and introduced millions to the beauty of opera (Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti all credit Lanza as an early influence). But his career soon began to spiral downward as his indolence (he never bothered to learn sight-reading, limiting his repertoire) and shocking crudeness conspired with more prosaic Hollywood vices (notably womanizing, alcoholism and eating disorders) to alienate him from the Metropolitan Opera and MGM. Bessette, a lawyer and Lanza fan, does an admirable job of unearthing a great store of anecdotes and opinions about the controversial singer. 50 b&w photos.