Most people have heard of the musical Mangione brothers – Jazz artists Chuck and Gap of Rochester, New York. But there was also an interesting uncle – a writer, who was quite famous in his day. I first encountered Jerre Mangione while transcribing his handwritten letters to Jack Conroy, author of The Disinherited.
Jerre (Gerlando) Mangione was born in Rochester in 1909 to Gaspare Mangione and Josephine Polizzi, who had immigrated from Sicily in 1906. His brother Frank, born in 1910, later became the father of the jazz musicians Chuck and Gap.
Known as “Papa Mangione,” Frank’s World War Two draft card stated he worked for Samson United Corporation, which manufactured heaters, toasters and other products with heating elements before the war. During the war the company switched to gun and airplane parts.
Later, Frank operated a grocery store for many years, and then worked for Kodak until he retired in 1975. But he didn’t really retire, as he spent his time traveling with Chuck on his world-wide tours, selling T-shirts and music. Although Frank was not a musician, he loved music.
According to an interview in New York’s Daily News in February 1979, there was always opera playing on the radio, and the family listened to the Italian Hour on Sunday mornings.
Frank died in 2001. His obituary and photo appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle on August 22, where it said he was a people person and family man, with a gift of talking to people. Three of Chuck’s songs were dedicated to his papa Frank – “60 Miles Young,” “70 Miles Young,” and “Papa Mangione.”
Jerre and Frank’s father Gaspare Mangione was born in 1883 and had been a master baker in Sicily, but after he immigrating to Rochester, worked for a shoe company for 43 years. In a September 1963 Democrat & Chronicle article he was described as a “gusty and gregarious little man who worked in a shoe factory and loved to give banquets for his friends and relatives.”
These parties often lasted late into the night, with much homemade wine and singing. He and his wife Josephine celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at Rochester’s St. Bridget’s Church in April 1958, with a reception in the evening, which most likely contained much revelry and toasting. (Gaspare died in 1962.)
They all lived in a tight-knit Italian neighborhood, where only Italian was spoken in the home, and all the old-world traditions were observed. But the area was also a melting pot, with immigrants from Poland, Austria, and Russia.
According to the Canandaigua Daily Messenger in May 1973, as a boy Jerre was often envious of the liberties of the non-Italian children. He felt Italian at home, yet American on the street, and later described the neighborhood Italian children as “half and half.” He often didn’t feel at home in either world.
His early interest in writing however, helped this shy boy to assert his true personality as an Italian American. Much of his later writing was about Italy and the Italian immigrant experience. In high school he was a member of the Conceit Club, a precocious and intellectual group who wrote and edited the school newspaper. As quoted in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in March 1973 – “through the school publications, we knew the satisfaction of expressing ideas in print.”
Jerre attended Syracuse University, graduating in 1931. As a student he was feature editor of the school paper – The Daily Orange. After graduation, he worked for Time Magazine and the Federal Writers Project. In 1936 he made a trip to Sicily to visit relatives, and while there he had commissions to write articles about Italy for Harper’s Bazaar and New Republic.
His first book, Mount Allegro (1943), was an autobiographical account (published as a novel) of his life growing up Italian in Rochester. It is full of stories of his extended family – their old world values, their unfailing belief in destiny, the numerous social occasions, and even eccentricities, such as an uncle who became a Baptist and reveled in attending many different churches, including a synagogue.
Jerre went on to write many other books, including A Passion for Sicilians (1968) – about Danillo Dolci, a Sicilian social activist; America is Also Italian (1969); The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers Project (1972); An Ethnic at Large: A Memoir of America in the Thirties and Forties (1978); and La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (1992). After this last publication, Jerre was honored by the Library of Congress with an exhibition of his work.
While he was a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, he wrote a long article for the Philadelphia Inquirer in April 1973, entitled “Sicilian Pride and American Dreams” where he discussed his family. He wrote at the end, “As I grew older, the memory of my Sicilian life in Rochester gave me a root feeling, a sense of the past that I needed in order to cope with the present. I could never go home again (except for visits), but I could be happy about being a full- blooded Sicilian. Even proud.”
Jerre Mangione visited Rochester in 1992 to attend a new play based on Mount Allegro. At 83 he had just published La Storia, a history of Italian Americans. At that time the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle ran this headline – “Time & Jerre: A half-century after he immortalized his Rochester neighborhood, Jerre Mangione is back for a new play based on his classic memoir.”
An earlier article about his book An Ethnic at Large ended with “The story of Jerre Mangione, writer, teacher and social commentator, is one without end. His history, and that of all Americans whose lives are enriched by a dual heritage, enhances the continuing story that is America.” Jerre died in Rochester in August 1998 at the age of 89.
Today, we can be grateful for Jerre’s writings and his coming to terms with his dual heritage, as we continue to learn more about the Italian immigrant experience, and through this to be cognizant of what all immigrants experience in coming to America.
Photos, from above: Gap and Chuck Mangione from the cover of Riverside album Hey Baby! The Jazz Brothers (1961); Frank Mangione article about the closing of his grocery store in Rochester; Gaspar Mangione; the Magione family; and Jerre (left), with his nephews Gap (center) and Chuck Mangione.