perm_identity Gimme a Word

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 175 ~ December, 2011

I’ll always remember Ferrucio, though he isn’t in my daily consciousness.  He’s gone now, but I received an unexpected email from one of his Italian students who remembered my parents, and was grateful to my father and Ferruccio, two psychiatrists who were both interested in acting.  In fact, Ferruccio, Dr. Ferruccio di Cori, was Jason Robards, Jr.’s analyst, as well as having many other top theatrical folks as patients, whom he never mentioned, not willing to breach the trust of confidentiality, and in some circles he was fondly known as “the Shrink of Broadway.”

Ferruccio knew I was a writer before many others.  He also knew I had an appreciation of Eugene O’Neill from an early age, similar to Robards, though I never deluded myself in thinking I could act, unlike Robards, who was a master, especially as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.  Actually, by fifth grade, I was determined to never act in anything, my three grade school attempts being woeful experiences.  My demons could never be exorcized through playing characters, I was stuck with trying to understand myself and what I perceived as the uncomprehending world around me through other means.  Pretense was anathema to me, and yet, acting fascinated both my father and Ferruccio; my father through utilizing videotape in therapy and Ferruccio through staging psychodramas, encouraging patients to perform in spontaneous scenarios.

I met Ferrucio at a crucial point in my family history, though, of course, no one knew how crucial at the time.  I was completing my thesis for a MFA in fiction writing and working as a “gopher” for a small opera company on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, even though I knew nothing about opera and had never even seen a production until I somehow landed at Chamber Opera Theatre of New York through a graduate school work-study program.  It was also right after my father, seemingly out of nowhere, needed quadruple bypass heart surgery at the age of fifty-seven, despite never smoking or ever having a problem with alcohol; the most I ever saw my father drink was two martinis, where more often than not he wouldn’t finish the second glass, complaining he was feeling a bit tipsy, which was incomprehensible to me.

Ferruccio was a bright presence in my parents life, full of energy and curiosity.  He looked like he should be short, but he wasn’t, though he was certainly less than six feet tall.  He was about 15 years older than my father, and if I was casting him in a play, I would probably want him to play Geppetto in Pinocchio. But he would be a confident, dynamic, energetic Geppetto who would easily overshadow any wooden would be puppet star.  Ferruccio was self-absorbed, no doubt about it, but I think that helped him relate to and understand others.  He had long gangling arms, a bushy grayish white mustache and thick eyebrows, the same color, above his ever present glasses.

The first night I really witnessed Ferruccio in action was when he joined my mother and me for a performance of L’Ormindo at Marymount College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  We, but really because of Ferruccio, were invited by the opera director to a cocktail party hosted by an elite woman who lived in a building that shot out of the ground at a corner on Second Avenue as a straight, magnificent, black tower.  Those at the party were not the run-of-the-mill type I usually would hang out with, but Ferruccio was a loyal friend and ally to my mother and me, and I got along well with the opera director, who was a personable former singer from humble beginnings, so we were a pretty solid independent mercenary unit.

I’m not sure whether it was based on his own magnetism, or his forceful personality, strengthened by the legitimacy of being invited by the opera director, but within moments, Ferruccio was the center of attention in the living room of the apartment high above the streets below.  “Gimme a word,” he commanded in an English growl with traces of an Italian accent.  I don’t know who went first, but it was a regular routine Ferruccio went through from time to time, asking people to give him a “word” and then he would spontaneously dash off a poem based on that word.  It wasn’t masterful poetry, but given the circumstances, Ferruccio created pretty solid, little poems, certainly better than I could write, even if I had struggled and taken my time.

More and more people at the cocktail party began to crowd around Ferruccio, who was sitting near my mother and myself, his allies, his inside audience, whom he would never abandon.  Everyone was clamoring to “Give” Ferruccio a “Word.”

He must have obliged the rich and famous with ten to twelve poems, finishing with a rhyming couplet on a napkin based on the word “Love” to the applause of all, since it was dedicated to the widow of an international diplomat who was the hostess of the affair.

As we were leaving, and Ferruccio and the opera director arranged to have dinner one night in Manhattan with me, my mother asked Ferruccio how he was so free-spirited and comfortable at the party.  “What was there to be nervous about?” Ferruccio responded, and then referring to the hostess, he playfully added, “She was just a Bimbo with bucks.”

Ferruccio and the opera director were travelers on the international stage, whereas my world was encompassed by the commute from New Jersey to Manhattan via bus and then subway.  Ferruccio and the opera director were both familiar with Italy, with Rome, not to mention other spots where various international opera festivals took place.  It always surprised me how I could fit in with intelligent folks who were successful, when I certainly felt I wasn’t, and questioned whether I ever would be, whatever success was supposed to mean, which could obviously prompt all sorts of debates about relativity and subjectivity. I suppose, at least with Ferruccio and the opera director, quiet observation and wide reading of literature and history proved to have its benefits, and both Ferruccio and the opera director trusted me with personal details, which I knew had not been shared with others, or at most one or two.

I’ve never been good at remembering names of restaurants, but Ferruccio took the opera director and myself to dinner at an exclusive club, though before dinner, we met at Ferruccio’s house, which was, and still is, a designated historic landmark, and was previously the home of Gypsy Rose Lee, who first occupied the townhouse on East 63rd Street in 1940. Walking down the street, one would see two doors to what appeared to be separate townhouses, each having a different address on respective doors, but in reality both doors opened into Ferruccio’s place, which had a large garden in the middle, with a soothing, gurgling fountain, on the two sides of his 26-room red clay tile roofed house, including a marble floored living room, where we drank champagne.

Ferruccio was Jewish and the opera director’s family was from Poland, so it didn’t take much to imagine the upheaval in the lives of their particular relatives.

I learned from Ferruccio about a major argument he had with his father, an argument which clearly showed the position of two generations.  Mussolini was in power, beginning his rise to officially become IL Duce, when Ferruccio was graduating high school.  The graduating class was supposed to wear a black armband in honor of Mussolini.  Ferruccio wanted no part of it.  He adamantly refused.  And that’s what the argument with his father was about.  Not that his father favored Mussolini, but he was looking out for his son, whom he didn’t want to cause unnecessary attention.

Flash forward, and I don’t know the specific details, but Ferruccio came to the United States, similar to Silvano Arieti, another psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who was born in Pisa where his family were members of the synagogue of which Guiseppe Pardo was the parnas, or president or trustee of the congregation, sometimes regarded as a steward. My father was friends and colleagues with Dr. Arieti, who specialized in treating schizophrenia and depression, winning a National Book Award in 1975 for Interpretation of Schizophrenia, and I believe it was through Silvano Arieti that my parents met Ferruccio, though it could easily have been Ferruccio who introduced them to Silvano, but I don’t think so.

I do know that Ferruccio lost his Italian citizenship, and it was a joyful day when it was finally restored some fifty years or so later, and Ferruccio subsequently moved from Manhattan to Rome when he was in his early 80s.  As far as I know, he was active to the end of his life, even teaching psychodrama at the Centro Teatro Ateneo (University of Rome Research Centre on Theatre and Performing Arts), which collaborates with the DSAS-Dipartimento di Storia dell’Arte e Spettacolo (Department of Art History and Performance Studies) in providing the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. courses in Performing Arts.

Obviously that email from Italy, from Ferruccio’s former student, triggered a number of possibilities on which to concentrate, as images and incidents, and connections, of this one to that one, and loss, and love, and the complications of feelings and human emotion, flashed through my mind.  The last time I saw Ferruccio was when he came to my parents house in New Jersey for Christmas dinner some 20 years ago.  I remember my younger brother was there, and my parents, of course, and I was with Christine, as we were coming toward the end of our third attempt at a serious relationship.  Ferruccio announced at that dinner that he was planning to move back to Rome, that he had sold the historic landmark townhouse in Manhattan, that he was looking forward to returning to Rome as his final and lasting home.

The highlight of the afternoon was a special videotape of Ferruccio using masks with crack addicts in therapy sessions at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn.

The masks were utilized, at the prodding of Ferruccio, the consummate director, to encourage the patients to feel more free to be open and truthful behind such protective covering.  In all honesty, I didn’t get it.  I watched politely but it all seemed rather trite and superficial, though my parents were exuberant in their praise for Ferruccio’s “genius” and his efforts to help the crack addicts confront reality.

Shortly after, I learned I had miscalculated the effectiveness of Ferruccio’s video because when Christine and I returned to my apartment, we were sitting on my living room couch when she suddenly broke out crying.  I was completely caught off guard, Christine was usually so upbeat, an active person with many interests, and rarely to never had I witnessed such emotion, her distress usually manifesting itself in severe migraine headaches, which tended to only occur when visiting her parents. I tried to comfort her, asking what was wrong.

“The masks,” she sobbed.  “I always wear masks.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I identified with what all those people in that tape were saying,” she continued, tears still streaming down her face.  “Nobody knows how I really feel about anything.  I don’t even know!”

She then went on to express her grief over her sister’s death, her sister who was two years older than her, whom she had shared an apartment with in Brooklyn when first out on her own, and a sister who had died of Hotchkins Disease only a few years before.  And then her resentment toward me came out, nothing personal, but since I no longer drank and never was partial to marijuana, she considered me an impediment to her desire to light up a joint.

Still in tears, she confessed how earlier in the day she couldn’t wait for me to leave her apartment so she could light up in peace and get stoned before coming over for Christmas dinner. Not much I could say. I hugged her, while she continued to sob, eventually calming down, the tears subsiding.  She decided not to spend the night, and that was the beginning of the peaceful drifting apart of us as a couple.

Many years have passed, Ferruccio outlived both my parents, and Christine eventually moved to Rhode Island, a state she said she loved because it still only had one area code, though I’m not sure that’s as significant as she thinks.  As for Ferruccio, regardless of my take, he was a master at using psychodrama to help individuals in therapy, creating spontaneous scenarios and dialogues, apparently leading to depths of insight and self-awareness that otherwise might never have occurred.

In closing, I suppose I’ll send an email to Ferruccio’s former student, though her English seems more passable than fluent, and I think I’ll try and locate the opera director, whom, I believe, still lives in Manhattan and teaches voice to singers, and perhaps we can share our memories of dinner with Ferruccio on that evening at another time far away, though a night which still seems very vivid in my mind.