Mario Lanza's death at 38 gets a fresh look from doctor, biographer
Elsewhere in Tuesday's paper you can find my humble little story about renewed interest in the untimely death at 38 of tenor Mario Lanza, the huge -- no pun intended -- movie star of the 1950s. I didn't have room to include everything I had hoped to squeeze into that story, so I'll just add a few things here.
There were any number of contributing factors to Lanza's demise in 1959: obesity, heavy drinking, liver damage (naturally), enlarged heart, thrombophlebitis, hypertension. Baltimore-based Dr. Philip A. Markowiak took a fresh look at the available evidence (Lanza's extant medical records are not complete) and, with the singer's biographer, Armando Cesari, tried to nail down the culprit.
In the process, the doctor was surprised to discover that Lanza submitted to a weight-loss treatment that involved injections of
a hormone labeled hCG, derived from the urine of pregnant women -- and even more surprised to see that said treatment is newly fashionable, plugged on infomercials. Dr. Markowiak doesn't buy any of the claims for the therapy, and, in a just-published article for a journal called The Pharos, suggests that Lanza was already "at extreme risk of cerebral hemorrhage" from untreated hypertension, and that he may well have suffered a fatal hemorrhage "precipitated by hCG-induced thyrotoxicosis."
The doctor does not blame all the medical professionals who treated Lanza in the '50s; they may have missed some symptoms, but treated others. And he notes that charlatans pushing dangerous fads -- in addition to hCG, the tenor tried "sleep therapy" that involved intravenous feeding -- have hardly disappeared today.
There are many unfortunate things about Lanza's short life. A lot of opera singers go through terrible pressures, of course, and experience assorted health problems. Lanza seems to have hit the fatal jackpot, long before he ever really fulfilled his artistic potential. He only performed in a couple of complete operas ("Merry Wives of Windsor" while a student at Tanglewood, a "Butterfly" in New Orleans) before MGM snapped him up in 1949 and turned him into the first really big cross-over artist. So most of what we know of Lanza's singing today is from a mix of greatest-hit arias, a Neapolitan song or two, and the pop tunes that were part of his movies.
In an e-mail I received from Armando Cesari, who lives in Australia: "Lanza’s biggest dream was that of an operatic career. The thought of singing on the operatic stage and being accepted as a legitimate opera singer was ever present in his mind. At the time of his death he had in fact accepted an offer from Riccardo Vitale, the Artistic Director the Rome Opera, and had told Vitale that after undergoing an operation for the thrombosis early in the New Year he would begin preparing the role of Canio in Pagliacci for the 1960/61 season. In order to achieve his dream Lanza would have had to drastically change his life style. Had he been able to do this I have no doubt that he would have concentrated on performing complete roles in various opera houses while making the occasional film purely for monetary purposes."
Personally, I never got on the Lanza bandwagon, although I can certainly understand and appreciate his appeal. A lot of great singers point to him as an early inspiration, and the public embraced him with a fervor that would probably not be seen again for a tenor until the heyday of Pavarotti. Here's a sampling of what made Mario Lanza a global star half a century ago, and a reminder of how tragic his early death was: