Part I of my Conversations with Lawrence Ferlinghetti appeared in the last, June 25th, 2015, issue of L’Italo Americano. Below we continue with the man and his lasting legacy.
Mr. Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1919, son of Carlo Ferlinghetti, from the province of Brescia, and Clemence Albertine Mendes-Monsanto. After the passing of his father and his mother’s illness, he was raised in France by his French aunt, speaking French as his first language. It was on a trip to the U.S. that his father changed their last name to “Ferlin”and Lawrence believed his last name to be such until he was 23. He learned the correct spelling was “Ferlinghetti” when he submitted his birth certificate to join the U.S. Navy in 1943.
Following his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served in the Navy in World War II as a ship’s commander. He received a Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1947 and a Doctorate de l’Université de Paris (Sorbonne) in 1950.
Awards and prizes bestowed on Lawrence have been many, among them the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch Award and San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in August 1998. Ferlinghetti’s paintings have been shown at galleries around the world. His art work can be viewed on the George Krevsky Gallery website at http://georgekrevskygallery.comLawrence recounted why he settled in San Francisco, arriving on January 1, 1951. “I’d lived in New York and there was not much opportunity there for a 21-year-old. Everything was still wide open in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s. It was just a provincial capital so you could do anything there.” In 1953, along with Peter Marin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. By 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house which has served for half-a-century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals.
The Italian Connection
One of Ferlinghetti’s many lasting legacies will of course be his newest book, Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1950-2013. He refers to his travels as “voyaging”, viaggi della vita, voyages of life and Europe as “going back, finding roots.” “I came late to my father’s Italy, first as a student of Italian, la bella lingua, and later to track down my father’s birthplace. So much came from that. I kept going back to Italy many times. I traced down my father’s birthplace in Brescia. Finding my father’s birthplace was very important. I found the whole family in Chiari.” Chiari is a commune in the province of Brescia, in Lombardy, northern Italy.
A particularly humorous journal entry recounts the events that transpired when Ferlinghetti travelled to Brescia to find the actual house where his father was born. Accompanied by a videographer documenting the excursion, the duo arrived in a rundown neighborhood. Ferlinghetti rang the bell at the door of an apartment building that now stood at the site of his father’s residence. After some time passed, a man opened a door and began hollering in the local dialect to go away, which they did, but on the way back to their vehicle the police arrived and had Lawrence and the videographer stand against a wall while their papers were checked. After a few phone calls and further investigation, identities were verified and the misunderstanding clarified but not before a record of the goings-on was sent to the newspapers, La Repubblica and Il Manifesto, making for quite a headline.
On another occasion, Venetian art collector and publisher, Francesco Conz, arranged a trip for Lawrence to visit Chiari. They arrived in a limousine in front of city hall where the mayor had arranged a reception in his honor and a high school band in medieval costumes greeted him. He explained, “The Ferlinghetti clan came. I saw the resemblance. They looked like me. They gave me some photos and one of my relatives looked just like my son Lorenzo”. When asked if he felt his new book was a life’s journey documented he replied “Oh, it certainly is. My whole life was a walkabout. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Italian was frequently spoken during our conversations. When asked about speaking Italian he smiled and explained “When I started going to Italian classes it was just natural. It came to me naturally”. His Italian is perfect and even the accent is splendid. Lawrence’s life has been a great adventure and conversations with the man are time spent with a legend. Hai fatto bene, Lorenzo.
2015 appears to be a landmark year, one of many landmark years, for Mr. Ferlinghetti.
With his new book to be released in October, the year will also mark the realization of another visionary project, the Piazza St. Francis, The Poet’s Plaza, a project he first envisioned back in 1998 and is now scheduled for ground breaking on October 2, 2015. Look for more on Ferlinghetti’s vision and San Francisco’s newest plaza in my next article. Make certain to mark your calendars for the book release event on October 20th at City Lights Bookstore.