Memoirs: Chapter Six
The Rome office of the New York publishing firm (McGraw-Hill) was run by a lesbian couple, one of them butch and dragonish, the other motherly and helpful. We never discussed our sexual orientations, as discretion was the rule in those days.
At all events, our small office was just one room nested in the larger enterprise known as the Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale. This for-profit organization (owned by the Sansoni firm) was devoted to producing encyclopedias. The current one was a fifteen-volume Encyclopedia dell'Arte Universale, to be sold on a subscription basis. McGraw-Hill had undertaken to translate this work into English as the Encyclopedia of World Art, with a few supplementary articles and adaptations. When I arrived nothing had yet been published, so I was in on the ground floor. In the ensuing months and years there were many delays, owing to the complexity of the project and (for us) the fact that the Italian texts were often rhetorical and florid, to the point of vacuousness. The impoverished writers were paid by the word, and logorrhea was supreme.
I had been hired because I combined art historical knowledge with proficiency in Italian. Moreover, I suppose that being young and accustomed to living as a student, I was cheap, at least by American wage standards.
In reality I had never taken a course in Italian. I had had three years of high school Spanish, though, and had a certain flair for languages. As far as reading went, it was fairly easy to convert the Spanish knowledge to Italian, watching out for the usual hazard of false friends. My reading was almost all in art-historical texts, where a general knowledge of the subject matter helped a lot.
Yet speaking and understanding when I was spoken to were other matters entirely, A few days after I arrived, the election of a new pope was concluded. The Italian in the office gathered around a little portable radio as the results were announced. I could hardly catch anything. Someone told me that the new pontiff had chosen the name of John XXIII. I remarked indignantly that there had already been a John XXIII, because I had seen his tomb in Florence on my earlier trip. It turned out that this man was an anti-pope, and didn't count by the Vatican's reckoning.
It was sink or swim, and daily communication with the Italians in the office helped. What really made me fluent, though, was my 19-year old boy friend - the first live-in lover I had had. He knew hardly any English, and not being very educated spoke colloquial Italian, without the embellishments and fancy vocabulary of my coworkers. After I made some progress in the language, people started saying; "How well you speak Italian." This was a diplomatic untruth. I learned that I was truly speaking it well when no one took the trouble to comment, we just talked "a quattr'occhi" - four eyes, as the expression went.
Not long after I moved to Italy, my landlady and I decided to experiment with bleaching our hair. My locks had always been a kind of dirty blond, but with the bleach it became almost blindingly blond. I should have just gone with a few highlights, but I couldn't resist keeping the total blondness, quite a rarity in Italy. Of course the dark roots kept showing. To be fair to myself, this was probably my only excursion into personal vanity. For most of my life I have felt that, while good grooming is important, we need to stick which what nature has given us.
There were of course amatory experiences. For a while I was content to go with some of the hustlers I met on the Via Veneto. But there was also a more substantive attachment. I had met Enzo C. when he was a bell boy at the pensione, or boarding house, I lived in after leaving the premises of the landlady. Then, after I had moved to my own apartment on a hill top in Trastevere, the 19-year old came to live with me (he had been fired from the pensione). Enzo adored Americans, and was what we now term "heteroflexible," so we got on pretty well in bed. I tried, though without too much success, to curb my lust. He was gorgeous, though.
The whole affair lasted only about eight months. He got involved in a serious auto accident, and panicked out of fear of possible legal consequences. He ran off to join the French Foreign Legion, and was lost to me. We corresponded for several years, and finally, in 1963, had an unsatisfactory reunion in Corsica, where he was stationed.
While Enzo was with me, and after he left as well, I took incessant trips throughout the Italian peninsula. I would get up early on Saturday morning and take the train, spend the night at Assisi or Naples or wherever and return on Sunday evening. Visits to northern Italy and Sicily required more time, but this could be managed during the holidays. My reason was primarily to see art historical sites, mainly churches and museums.
But there was something more. The American fascination with Italy was then at its height. In many ways the country, especially Rome where I lived, had replaced Paris as the place to which everyone wanted to expatriate himself. Italian films were all the rage, so I went the the movies a lot. This was the period when Federico Fellini made La Dolce Vita, a 1960 film that captured a lot of what I remember in the Rome of those days. Generally speaking, Italian movies did not have subtitles - even the US ones were dubbed - so the experience did a lot to advance my proficiency in colloquial Italian.
Above all, the country was cheap. Even ordinary restaurants were pretty good, and I could afford to eat out twice a day. Italian boys were often very sexy, and it didn't hurt to give them a few dollars after the coupling. Sometimes, of course, the general poverty was overwhelming, as when I went to the flea market at Porta Portese and saw the stuff that people were forced to sell. Still, there was hope. As President Kennedy remarked, a rising tide lifts all boats. In Italy in those days the tide was rising - slowly to be sure, but it was rising.
My later experience in visiting developing countries points to a general rule. As a society begins to emerge from dire poverty (and remember that Italy was prostate after World War II), the people experience a sense of relief, almost euphoria at being able to have some economic security and to acquire a few creature comforts. Even though these benefits are spartan by later standards, the recipients are generally content and quite pleasant to be with. Later on, they come to take these advances for granted, and simply focus on getting more, This happened to Italy in the sixties with its dreadful political rancor, punctuated by many strikes. Even today, when the country is truly prosperous, the malaise continues.
Some foreigners in Italy were unable to break the spell, and stayed on after their jobs ended. I could tell that some of these expatriates were forced to lead a hand-to-mouth existence, So when my employers in New York asked me to come back and work in the home office on Forty-Second Street in Manhattan I complied.