John Fante's earthly odyssey

il Centro
Cultura & Società
25 october 2001

Fiction and movies between great enthusiasm and deep disappointment for an author exploited by Hollywood
A volume on the life of the writer with Abruzzese origins
by Paolo Di Vincenzo

A full life, John Fante's life. About the American writer with Abruzzese origins here comes finally in the bookstores (two years after the original US edition) the Italian version of Stephen Cooper's biography, with the title "A full life" (Marcos y Marcos, 384 pages, 35,000 Lire) derived from the writer's greatest literary and movie success, "Full of life". Fante - who passed away in 1983 at 74 years of age - worked long as a script-writer in Hollywood and wrote books of great beauty, which only recently are being rediscovered by public and critics alike. A wop's Odyssey, to use the title of one short story by John Fante, which is a paradox since the Fantes were no wop's. " Wop", meaning without papers, was a term used for those immigrants, especially the Italians, who came in without documents. Nick Fante came to the States from Torricella Peligna, (the small village on top of a mountain in the Province of Chieti), to Ellis Island (on 6 December 1901) with a passport. Nick Fante, a violent mason, a Don Juan, a great spender and often drunk, was the father of John Thomas Fante, the hero of this biography.

Hunger, cold, prejudice
In the early 20th century Colorado, where Nick Fante went after landing in New York, was not a place where Italians were welcome. Nick lived between Boulder and Denver, where on 8th April 1909 (nine months and nine days exactly after he married Mary Capolungo) John was born. For a mason Colorado was not an ideal place. The long snowy winters obliged to periods of forced inactivity. The family came back to Boulder (in 1915), with little financial improvement, but at least they left Denver where the Ku Klux Klan was very active.

The road to Los Angeles
In 1930 John left Boulder, the freezing cold, his future prospects as a mason (precariously depending on his hot-tempered father) aiming at the sun of California and success as a writer. Things did not turn out exactly as he had planned (They hardly ever do) but surely he met with better fortune than his father. Another odyssey began, made of uncertain jobs as waiter or laborer, but above all of writing, pages, stories, letters asking for publication, polite but final refusals, requests for help, until one tale, "Chierichetto", sent to H.L. Mencken, the director of "The American Mercury" journal, received a reply. "Dear Fante: what's the matter between you and a typewriter? Please type this manuscript and I will buy it gladly". "Chierichetto" was published in the August 1932 issue, Fante was 23 years old. In Los Angeles he soon met those who would be his lifelong friends: lawyer, writer and journalist Carey McWilliams, the manager of the script-writing department at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Ross Wills, and a "paesano", Jo Pagano, "good friends, bad company" as Fante described them.

Hollywood's mermaids
Throughout his life John Fante hated his script-writing job, though it supported him in the early years and assured his a fine social position in the 1950's, 60's and 70's. In 1934 he had a first contact with Warner Bros, for the movie "Dinky". Meanwhile he went on writing with the novel in his mind. It is at this time that a Bandini project first appears. On 30 January 1937 he met a young woman poet, Joyce Smart, the daughter of a rich family. Her mother, of German descent, did not bear the sight of that "so much Italian-looking" young man. Her mother's hate produced an opposite effect on the daughter. On 31 July John and Joyce got secretly married in Reno, Nevada. Fante went on writing: "The road to Los Angeles", "Pater doloroso", "Wait for spring Bandini" the first books were published, and money started to come from them too. "Wait for spring" was published by Stackpole in October 1938 and it was a success, obtaining also fine reviews. "Ask the dust" came out one year later. In 1940, for Viking Press, New York, "Dago red" was published, and enthusiastically received by critics. Time called the volume "possibly the best collection of the year". In 1941, however, Hollywood's mermaids started to sing again and John started to attend the studios again; he met Orson Welles for whom he wrote two adaptations of a project, "It's all true", on the life in the States and in South America. One is the fictitious story of his parents. Another is about a young Mexican boy and his bull.

Children, the catholic religion, and Full of life
On 31 January 1942 (five years after their first meeting) a first son was born to Joyce and John: he was given the names of Nicholas Joseph. On 19 February 1944 a second son was born, Daniel. The family finances, thanks to the uninteresting though profitable job Hollywood, allowed to afford a larger house, which however turned out to be infested by termites. Old mason Nick came and declared: rotten foundations. Joyce, a true wasp (white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant), began to approach Catholicism, getting John to "return" to his religion. The Fantes gave the announcement during a party in the mansion of Carey McWilliams where among the guests was the candidate to Governor of California California, one Bob Kennedy. In 1946 the third child, Victoria Mary, was born, but when in 1950 Joyce discovered she was pregnant again, John did not take it easily. A bad period for the couple. But out of the difficult family situation a novel came out, "Full of life" (1952), which was Fante's greatest success. The story was deeply autobiographical, as most of his production, telling about the arrival of a child, of a wife converting to Catholicism, of a house infested by termites and of an annoying father-mason. Some years later "Full of life" was made into a successful movie, starring, con Judy Hollyday, Richard Conte, Salvatore Baccaloni and directed by Richard Quine.

The Oscar mystery
In 1956 "An evening-dressed Fante", Cooper writes, "was escorting Joyce to the Rko Pantages Theater, Hollywood, for the year's ceremony of the Oscar award. They were seated next to Mike Todd, the producer of "Giro del mondo in 80 giorni" and his new wife, Liz Taylor". Among the other nominations for the script-writing award was Jean Paul Sartre, though the Award went to one Robert Rich for the movie "La più grande corrida". "When Deborah Kerr called Robert Rich, Fante was curious as to who would rise the steps to the stage to receive the prize". But nobody stood up. And Fante believed that the film was actually made from the script of his project (which was never made into a film) for Orson Welles, "My friend Bonito".

Italy, at last
In 1957 he spent the summer in Naples to work, always with Richard Quine, to a script whose protagonist was to be Jack Lemmon. Fante, Cooper goes on writing, "found Italians were "civil, sophisticated, generous, gentle, polite, gentlemen and excessively generous ". He just could not bear the rich". In 1960 he came back to Italy, to Rome and Naples, where he worked for Dino De Laurentiis on a number of scripts, (one of which was made into a film "Il re di Poggioreale" dirested by Abruzzese Duilio Coletti and starring Ernest Borgnine as the protagonis). In that occasion Fante made a trip as far as Torricella Peligna, to see the village from where Nick left to the States. But he was disappointed with the conditions of the village, did not even step out of the car and drove back.

Fortune and decline
The Sixties were marked by financial success for John Fante. Thanks to "Full of life" he was a favorite writer with Catholic associations and his contracts in Hollywood went on feeding him with money. He worked, among other things, on "Maya", which was enthusiastically received in 1966. There were many other projects, however, which, though bringing a lot of money, were not accomplished. He also wrote a lot for TV. This meant money, but little satisfaction. Meanwhile he went on writing fiction, "Un anno terribile", "My dog stupid" (which was received with interest by Peter Sellers for a possible film) but during his life he was only able to see out of print "La confraternita del Chianti" (1977) and "Dreams of Bunker Hill" (1982). Meanwhile diabetes, diagnosed in 1955 and mostly ignored by Fante, was inexorably progressing.

The Coppola clan
Throughout the Seventies, through the young scriptwriter Robert Towne (the author of Polanski's "Chinatown") there were frequent contacts with Francis Ford Coppola, who was interested in "La confraternita del Chianti" for a film whose protagonist was to be Robert De Niro. In 1977 Coppola, during a pause while filming "Apocalypse now", organized a party for per John Fante at his home. Among the guests to the dinner party there was also Martin Sheen (the protagonist of "Apocalypse") and "Full of life" was shown. But in spite of these contacts nothing came out of the project.

Bukowski, the rediscovery and the end
Charles Bukowski loved Fante and he mentioned him in "Donne". His publisher, Black Sparrow press, asked him whether that Fante existed and whoever he was. Bukowski explained conveying his love for "Ask the Dust". "After being ignored for over 40 years", Cooper writes, "Arturo Bandini had now been given a second chance". In 1980 Fante's rediscovery began, but he was consumed by diabetes, and his life was due to end three years later, when he passed away at 74, blind and without legs. A full life.