The Romantic Month of February, was chosen by co-author, Lawrence DiStasi, to launch his latest book “Esty”. Esty, a diminutive for Esther, was his Hungarian born maternal grandmother (his paternal grandmother was born in the Campania Region province of Benevento).
The book, Esty, is a novel-memoir, based on a handwritten manuscript that filled a school composition notebook his mother (Esty’s daughter) Margaret Weisz DiStasi handed him several years before her passing. The manuscript was an attempt by his mother to document for her “writer son” the “real story” behind the big family “Romanzo” and how grandmother Esty and her daughter Margaret suffered much for LOVE, including physical abuse and having their hair shaved off to make them less desirable. In her manuscript, Margaret recalled the full story of her mother Esty’s love for a Christian man in Hungary and how her own story seemed to mirror her own forbidden love for a Catholic man in New York City.
Esty is no hearts and flowers “Romanzo” like Abies Irish Rose, a religious conflict situation comedy sponsored by Drene Shampoo, on N.B.C. radio from 1942 to 1946, but a more raw, religious conflicts romance, mean streets.
DiStasi’s mother, Margaret, recalled how in the early 1930’s, she met Edmond DiStasi, at Nick and Avella’s, an upscale beauty salon on Fifth Avenue where they both worked, and fell in love. Margaret’s father, an Orthodox Jew from Hungary, absolutely forbid his daughter from dating, let along marrying a Catholic and in the dead of winter literally had to be rescued from parental imprisonment.
Unlike Rapunzel, Margaret had shorn hair and had to be rescued, not from a castle tower, but from a Brooklyn bedroom, where Margaret’s Jewish Orthodox father had imprisoned her. The “knight” who risked life and limb climbing up the icy fire escape to aid the damsel in distress was a Rudolfo Valentino look-a-like, known professionally at the swank salon he managed as “Mr. Edmond” and he arrived not on a horse but a La Salle auto to hatch a plan for her escape.
Of course, once the economic reality of setting up a new household and providing for newly arriving “bambini” began to unfold, the La Salle was the first thing sold. The couple lived a rocky relatively happy ever after, but it wasn’t EZ.
Esty author Lawrence DiStasi was the assistant project manager and director of the traveling “Una Storia Segreta” exhibit (the unknown story of the internment, evacuation and restriction of Italian Americans during World War II, Joe DiMaggio’s father was one of them) which premiered at the S.F. Museo Italo-Americano in 1994 and continued to travel throughout the country for seventeen years! In the year 2000, a Congressional hearing in Washington D.C. resulted in related National Legislation.
Most recently, DiStasi was the co-curator of the S.F. Italo-Americano exhibit Italian Americans at Bat, from the sandlots to the Major Leagues, an exhibit that traveled to Reno, Nevada, and is scheduled to travel to several other cities on the West Coast this year. Following is ordering information for other books authored or edited by Lawrence DiStasi. Note all prices listed include a $4.00 charge for shipping, handling and CA tax:
Big Book of Italian American Culture…..$24.00
Una Storia Segreta…..$26.00
Mail your check, payable to: Sanniti Publications, P.O. Box 533, Bolinas, Calif. 94924. By telephone call (415) 868-0538
Sanniti Publications celebrates the paternal side of the DiStasi family tree and his Sanniti heritage. Author Larry DiStasi explained that he came across the history of I Sanniti when he was in Italy with his family in 1968. “We went to visit our one surviving cousin in Benevento, who had been the station master there and was retired. He took us on a private tour (it was closed that day) of a museum called Museo del Sannio, whose director he knew. It was a revelation to me, focusing on the pre-Roman people who had inhabited the area, including nearby Telese where my father was born. I Sanniti had fought the Romans to a standstill around the 3rd century BCE, until they were finally defeated.
Remembering that visit, when it came to give a name to my small publishing operation in 1996, when I reprinted the Big Book of Italian American Culture, I chose Sanniti Publications as a way of celebrating that history”. In a book about The Appian Way, by Latin scholar Robert Kaster, he describes how the Appian Way goes through Benevento and around that ancient city (it was originally called Maleventum, for the wind that blows there, but the Romans named it Beneventum). In one incident, he tells about meeting an old man who rattled off some dialect Italian ending with the phrase: “Benevento prima di Roma!” Later, Kaster saw a sign which explained the old man’s pride.
The sign said “Forche Caudine”, the battle famous to many students of Latin. In 321 BCE, a Roman army marched east to wipe out the last native tribe to hold out against Roman rule. Unfortunately for the Romans, what they thought were shepherds were actually soldiers directing them to use the shortcut where the Caudine River cut a pass called the Caudine Forks. Once inside the pass, they found that the Samnites had blocked both their way forward and the way back. They were trapped. When food and water ran out, they were at the mercy of the Samnite soldiers, who decided not to kill them, but rather to humiliate them.
They stripped every Roman soldier of weapons and all else, and made the entire army pass under a yoke (iugum) signifying its utter defeat and subjugation (a condition of submission comparable to that of an ox or a horse). The entire humiliating affair was described by the Roman historian Livy as a fate “grimmer to them than death as they looked upon their disgraced ranks”. It was this that the old man was referring to when he said “Benevento prima di Roma”.