I became aware of my Italian heritage late in life, about 20 years after my father died. I knew that I had an Italian heritage but I never though of myself as second generation Italian. Suddenly at age 60 it slowly dawned on me that I had a real connection to Italy. I longed to go there and see what it was like. I began studying the language.
Things were different back in the 1930’s.
My grandmother with whom I lived when my parents were divorcing, played concert grand piano and painted. She told me that my mother had rejected an art scholarship to the Art Student’s League in New York City. My grandmother was concerned that my mother was without direction so she arranged for my mother to be married to my father, a handsome Italian waiter, He was ten years her senior. That was in 1936 and I was born in 1938.
My father was from Naples. I wasn’t allowed to be very close to him and consequently I never asked any questions about his past. I knew him slightly as I was growing up,and I felt comfortable in knowing that he was nice, and that he liked me. His name was Leonello, and he painted copies of French Impressionist paintings in his restaurant, also called “Leonello”.
He and his wife created a continental style restaurant, and it was written up in Sunset Magazine.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and later the Cooper Union Institute for fine art and design. One of the things I did in my life was to become a sketch artist in a jazz club. After three years, all of my works including large drawings and pastels of jazz musicians were displayed on all four walls of the club.
I visited my father in Ohio when I was an adult. I stayed with him and his wife for several days. They lived in a big mansion and they each drove a big black Cadillac. This was in the 1960’s.
When they were working one night, I went into my father’s studio and picked up his paints and a canvas, and painted from a photo of his wife and her poodle dogs. Upon seeing my work, they were astounded. His wife told me that he had painted that exact same photo of her. When they brought out his work I saw our styles were similar.
My father’s secret past
After he passed away, I began researching my father’s history. I went to the Municipal Archives in New York City at 31 Chambers Street. >>Click here for directions
A worker there helped me to widen my search. I learned there the true spelling of his name: Lionello Giuriati. What I really found there was an incredible family secret.
Immigration to America
Leonello Giuriati had worked on an estate in Naples with his father Vittorio. In 1925, Lionello and two friends took work on a ship which was bound for New York. When they arrived, in 1925, they jumped ship. They didn’t apply for immigration, they just found work and stayed in New York City.
The microfilm had just enough information, probably from the 1930 census but I needed to know more. I wrote to the Department of Immigration in Washington, D.C. in 2004,
A year later I received a huge envelope with many papers pertaining to his record in America. http://www.archives.gov/
In 1933 they applied and were granted citizenship, Two years later father and his friends were discovered to have lied to the authorities. One of his friends was deported back to Italy. Leonello and his other friend were permitted to stay here. My father’s unusual arrival on American soil was the reason I was kept from knowing him better.
I visited Italy twice and in my next visit, I must go to the Commune di Napoli to seek whether I have any living relatives in Italy.