Sins of the Celebrity Father

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85789800One day in the mid 1990s when I was living in New York City, I walked into one of the city’s serpentine subway stations that connect the downtown and crosstown lines. As I entered the first stairway I could hear the faint strains of a violin playing the theme from “The Godfather.” With each new stairway down I heard the music a little clearer, and with each step my stomach tightened a little more. By the time I reached the street musician and his violin in the middle of a busy connecting corridor, my stomach was cramping so badly I could barely stand up.

I was in complete agony but that was nothing new. My stomach always twisted and turned in anger when I had to listen to my father’s music.

*****

In 2004 I wrote a piece about former tennis professional Roscoe Tanner on a sports blog I’d started called TennisDiary.com. Roscoe had a history of bouncing checks and now faced arrest warrants for unpaid child support in New Jersey and California. And he had the unfortunate habit of skipping town when one of his court dates rolled around.

I thought I was writing a piece about yet another badly behaving athlete that might draw a few comments from my regular readers. Instead, I was shocked to see a stream of comments grow into a large online community that spent the next few years fighting about Roscoe. By the time Roscoe’s issues were settled, that community would help me resolve those feelings towards my father.

Roscoe’s fans were the first to join the community. Most of them had fallen in love with Roscoe when he catapulted to instant celebrity early one Sunday morning in July 1979. NBC broadcast the Wimbledon final live for the first time and American sports fans saw Roscoe play the match of his life. He battled three time defending champion Bjorn Borg point for point to the very last game of the fifth set when he fought off three match points before Borg finally closed out the match. Borg had his fourth Wimbledon title but it was Roscoe everyone was talking about.

Roscoe’s online fans were puzzled by their hero’s recent behavior. The Roscoe they remember was a polite and respectful young man. Not to worry, said Roscoe’s Christian adviser who assured us that Roscoe had embraced Jesus and was straightening his life out, Roscoe had already gone to court to resolve his child support issues.

Balderdash, said a bounty hunter who logged in as “Tanner Tracker” and was hot on Tanner’s trail, he’d heard “Runnin’ Roscoe’s” lies before. He looked up the court records and Roscoe was still a fugitive. Okay, said Roscoe’s fans, but how can a man pay child support if he’s rotting in prison? They bragged about having flown Roscoe to England to coach tennis and introduce him to tennis clubs so he could find more work.

If Roscoe’s fans really want to help, why don’t they send money to his family instead of paying him cash so he can keep on running, argued a new member of the community who had a deeply personal interest in the matter. Roscoe’s daughter, Anne Monique, had joined us and it had a sobering effect on the discussion. As much as she loved her father, he was a sick man not a changed man, and his fans were preventing him from getting the help he needed.

Roscoe’s daughter longed for the fun-loving responsible father she’d known as a child. She and her sisters had reached out to him but the only time she saw him was in a court of law. And that’s when he bothered to show up — he’d skipped his last court date. The image of Roscoe’s daughter waiting in court for a father who’d never appear was particularly gut-wrenching for me because I’d spent years dealing with my own absentee celebrity father.

*****

In 1967, when I was 18 years old, I took a trip with my mother and father to Rome to visit the composer Nino Rota and his lifelong friend Suso Cecchi D’Amico. After Rome we flew to England where I’d been raised before my family immigrated to the United States.

One late afternoon as a sunny day turned into a cool summer evening, I took a walk in the small village I used to call home with my cousin Diane. As we walked past old homes that had only recently traded their outhouses for indoor bathrooms, I rattled on about our luxurious trip to Rome: “We stayed in this beautiful hotel in the center of old Rome and we had our own driver to take us to the Coliseum and the Vatican and all these other tourist places. Nino, that was the man we visited, he gave me spending money and he gave me this LP of music he’d written for a film. Oh, and his friend Suso, she had an apartment with a terrace that looked out over the whole city…”

It wasn’t long before we reached our destination, The Red Lion Pub. As Diane opened the door to go in, she turned to me and asked, casually, “Did you meet your mother in Rome?”

Did I meet my mother in Rome? What the hell was she talking about? What mother? I’d gone to Rome with my mother hadn’t I? My brain couldn’t keep up with the rush of thoughts. How did Diane know something no one else had told me? She must be wrong. She had to be wrong. It was all too much to think about and just as quickly as those thoughts filled up my head I shut them down. I walked through the door after Diane and dismissed the subject with something that was as much a question as it was a statement: “I already have a mother, don’t I?”

After we returned to the U.S, I asked my mother how she knew Nino and Suso. “They donated money to the education fund at a home for children I used to work with,” she said, “so I asked them if they’d donate money to my own children’s education. And they agreed.” After I thought about it I realized her explanation didn’t make much sense — why would strangers contribute to her children’s education — but it still took me four more years and a lot of prodding from friends who were convinced that Nino was my father before I finally asked my mother if I was adopted.

“Yes, we adopted you,” she said, “but I didn’t tell you because I couldn’t. Your mother allowed me to adopt you when we moved to the United States as long as you never knew about it.” As for my father, she didn’t know who he was. She thought maybe it was Nino’s brother but that was just a guess.

It wasn’t until after Nino died in 1979 that Suso sat me down and told me that Nino was indeed my father. Suso had always been like a sister to my father and when she learned about me she agreed to supervise my foster care. Suso hadn’t told me before because, she said, “I felt it was your father’s job to tell you, not mine.”

I was crushed that my father didn’t think enough of me to tell me himself. But I was also relieved to find someone who was willing to tell me everything she knew. And Suso knew a lot. Suso was the one who’d communicated with my mother when she was pregnant with me, not my father. “Your mother was Italian,” Suso told me, “but six months after you were born she married an Englishman and stayed in England.”

Nino Rota had supported me financially while Roscoe Tanner was wanted in multiple states for outstanding child support, but the children of both fathers felt abandoned emotionally. The difference is that Roscoe’s celebrity suffered for it while Nino’s did not. It’s much harder to lie and hide in the age of the World Wide Web.

*****

Roscoe skipped from England to Germany before the bounty hunter could catch up with him, but one of his friends left a report on my blog that our fugitive had returned to his home state of Tennessee. The bounty hunter thanked him for the tip, called the authorities, and Roscoe was back in jail in a matter of days.

The Web increases celebrity by the sheer breadth of its coverage and its 24/7 publishing cycle, but it also reduces heroes to humans. Roscoe wasn’t a hero anymore, he was just another deadbeat dad.

*****

Two years before Nino died, he came to New York and I flew down from Boston to spend a few days with him.  At that time I still wasn’t sure what role he played in my life so, at lunch one day, I built up the courage to ask him how he was connected to my family. The question made him extremely uncomfortable. He hemmed and hawed and squirmed in his seat before finally muttering that he was “a friend of the family, just a friend of the family.”

I didn’t challenge his awkward denial because I had no other source of information. Besides, my self-esteem was pretty low at this point. The man who’d financially supported me wasn’t answering my questions and my own family had kept my adoption a secret from me. I felt invisible and powerless, as if I didn’t exist.

Despite the fact that Nino wrote the score for “La Dolce Vita,” the film that introduced the term paparazzi, and he was the Oscar-winning composer of one of the most successful films of all time, “The Godfather,” no one knew he had a daughter, not even some of his closest friends. There was no World Wide Web in the ’70s. His secret wasn’t revealed till he was dead and gone.

That didn’t save me from being embarrassed by the media, however. In February 2009 I received an email from a distant acquaintance who’d read about me in a biography of Federico Fellini. The book describes a scene from Nino’s funeral. Suso tells Fellini about me then asks Fellini to come back to her house to help break the news to Nino’s cousins that they will be sharing his estate with a secret daughter. Fellini complements Suso on her ability to keep a secret for so many years and jokingly considers confiding in her about a few of his own affairs.

The secrets were bad enough in themselves but now the entire world knew that my father never told his family about me. I wasn’t happy about it but my attitude towards my father had changed. If secrets prevented me from having a father-daughter relationship, at least I could help Roscoe’s daughters find their father — my blog gave Roscoe’s bounty hunter the information he needed to put Roscoe back in jail.

*****

And Roscoe’s daughters helped me in return. Roscoe’s oldest daughter, Lauren, also joined our online community. With heartbreaking eloquence she described tearful fights over the lies her father told his family. She expressed great pride that she and her sisters had been able to find their own path to happiness and she hoped other families could learn from their experience.

I’d been able to relive my relationship with my father through Roscoe’s daughters and this time the conversation had been open and ongoing. And if Roscoe’s daughters could handle their anger and frustration in such a mature and graceful way, I had little excuse for holding on to my debilitating anger.

In March of 2009 my cousin Francesco visited me in L.A., where I now live. We went to an Apple store to pick up a computer I’d ordered and while I was settling my bill, Francesco took an iPod Nano off the shelf and walked over to me: “I’m buying this for you and loading it up with all of your father’s music. Let’s call it a RotaPod.”

My stomach lurched. Oh God, I thought to myself, isn’t there some way I can get out of this? I wasn’t sure I was ready to listen to my father’s music. But I couldn’t very well refuse the gift so I picked out a gray cover for the RotaPod and took it home.

Later that month I flew to Virginia for my adoptive mother’s funeral. On the return flight I felt exhausted after a very emotional weekend so I looked in my bag for some relaxing music. The only thing I had was the RotaPod. I couldn’t imagine feeling any worse than I already did so I pushed my earplugs in and decided to give it a try.

I leaned back and listened to a ballad from “The Godfather,” followed by one of my father’s chamber orchestra pieces. Then I listened to a scene from the opera “Napoli Milionaria.” Halfway through the scene I turned the music off. I had lost interest in listening. It didn’t really affect me one way or the other. I slid the RotaPod into my bag and pulled out a book to read.

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