Traveling with Twain

In Search of America's Identity

The St. Louis Ghigliones: Secular Saints vs. Saloonkeepers

The search for the Ghiglione family's story begins in Audrey Ghiglione Bender's living room

The search for the Ghigliones, what I like to think of as a representative immigrant family from Mark Twain’s era, began for me in St. Louis. There I discovered two branches of the local Ghigliones, the secular saints and the saloonkeeper sinners.

The saloonkeepers were represented in the 1880s and 1890s by G. B. Ghiglione, 700 S. Main St., and Joseph Ghiglione, 5201 Shaw Ave., labeled “the King of Dago Hill” by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (today, in a more politically correct era, the media have removed “Dago” from the name of the Italian-American neighborhood).

Dance halls adjoined the saloons. Joe DeGregorio, Hill historian and tour guide, said the dance hall women—“prostitutes or women looking for husbands or both”—served the predominantly male Italian community. The 1900 census, he recalled, listed 300 Italian men and only three Italian women.

Joseph Ghiglione’s was the first of the Dago Hill saloon-dance halls raided by the police on Sunday, Aug. 22, 1897. Ghiglione and six of his drink-and-dance girls, who were “imported from the city” and paid $1 a night, were arrested and taken to a police station.

But Ghiglione had connections. The Post-Dispatch ended its account of the Dago Hill raid by reporting that the police released Ghiglione. Of the raided saloon-dance halls, only his remained open: “There dancing went on as if nothing had happened. A dozen girls had escaped the clutches of the police.”

The Post-Dispatch reporter concluded his article by describing the “giddy” Italian stag dancers the way later generations of white reporters wrote stereotypically about black dancers: “One of the men stands on his hands. Another grasps his legs and lifts him from the floor. The man who is on his feet waltzes while his partner hangs suspended head down from his shoulders.”

The secular-saint St. Louis Ghigliones were represented by Antonio F. Ghiglione, one half of Ghiglione & Rossi, a manufacturer in 1880 of macaroni and vermicelli—the first pasta manufacturer west of the Mississippi, says family historian Deacon Jim Ghiglione. By 1882, Antonio Ghiglione had moved west to Colorado and had declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen, renouncing “all allegiance and fidelity” to his homeland, the Republic of Switzerland. But Ghiglione & Rossi continued, with another generation of Ghigliones helping run the company.

John C., in that next generation of Ghigliones, had two sons, John L. and Lawrence P. Lawrence made the Post-Dispatch in 1903 when, as a 12-year-old, he saved his suicidal mother’s life. Separated from John C. Ghiglione, Mary had tried to kill herself twice before. This time she wrapped her head in a towel saturated with chloroform. Lawrence discovered her upon returning from school and called a doctor who revived her after an hour.

But Lawrence and his wife are remembered by Audrey Ghiglione Bender, their 79-year-old daughter-in-law, for a set of values similar to the values of my Ghiglione family, which moved from the Genoa area in northern Italy to New York in the 1870s and to Seattle in the 1900s.

Audrey Ghiglione Bender

Seated in the living room of her South St. Louis home, a brick bungalow on a predominately black block of Alaska Avenue, Audrey begins talking about her life after the death of her husbands. Her first husband, Kenneth J. Ghiglione, died on Aug. 24, 1981. Her second husband, Robert S. Bender, died on January 18, 2011.

Audrey calls me “sweetie” and directs me to sit on the living room couch, with its two Budweiser beer pillows, 17 stuffed animals and St. Louis Cardinals’ banner for the 2009 Gold Glove Award Winners. That weekend she had celebrated her 80th birthday bash, four months ahead of schedule, by inviting 40 family members to join her at a Cardinals-Cubs game. The Cardinals won on their way to a wild-card spot in the National League playoffs, and Audrey downed three beers.

Seated in front of a sign that reads “Don’t Mistake Me For That Nice Little Old Lady,” Audrey talks candidly (“Holy crap, uh, crumb”) about life with her Ghiglione parents-in-law. They stressed cleanliness. The entire house—interior walls, doors and windows—had to be kept spotless. “You had to clean from the top to the bottom,” she said, demonstrating the technique. The exterior concrete steps and base of house’s façade also had to be scrubbed every Saturday.

The family dinners—every Sunday at 4:30 p.m.—were treated like weddings and funerals, sacred family events. Lawrence Ghiglione served ravioli and other family favorites beginning exactly at 4:30. “If you weren’t there by 4:30 to eat there was war in the camp,” Audrey recalls, “We had to be there.”

Maria Strada Ghiglione

Audrey’s description of Lawrence’s rule reminded me of stories about my great-grandmother, Maria Strada Ghiglione, a 4’10,” 95-pound tyrant. She hung on to the Old World, in her Ligurian dialect (incomprehensible to a granddaughter who had been taught classical Italian) and in her superstitions. “We couldn’t have thirteen at the dinner table,” granddaughter Maybelle Lucas recalled, “and we always had thirteen in the family. She didn’t want a handkerchief as a gift—a handkerchief meant crying—or sharp things because they would cut a friendship.”

Cleanliness came before godliness. To avoid fingerprints, the children were not permitted to touch the dining room table, and oil clothes were placed under their chairs. Each day, one room was cleaned top-to-bottom: The furniture hauled outside, the paintings and mirrors taken off the walls, the curtains removed and washed.

“Trifles make perfection,” says an Italian proverb, “but perfection is no trifle.” Maria concerned herself with each trifle. Later in life “she rinsed her hair in kerosene, which whitened it,” granddaughter Hazel Rispoli recalled. “Even her hair had to be pure, perfect.” Marie Wilham, another granddaughter, said, “A dime would bounce on her sheets when she made a bed, and heaven help the person who did not do it correctly. She would see to it that it was remade over and over to her standards.”

Sometimes perfection became rudeness. When she visited her children’s families, “upon sitting down to eat, she would pick up the plate and rub her finger across it to make sure there was no grease on it,” Wilham said. “Everything had to be sparkly clean.”

When cooking dinner at home, Maria began at 3 p.m. She insisted on the freshest of vegetables and fruits from her garden (everything planted by the moon) or from Seattle’s Pike Street Market where she ordered the intimidated vendors to give her their best or else. She required each ravioli—of finely chopped brains (for moisture), veal, pork, chicken, eggs, parmesan cheese, and spinach—to be made thin and tiny, no larger than a postage stamp.

The buffet, the tureen, the table, the entire dining room groaned with food: antipasto, minestrone, ravioli, risotto, stuffed cabbage, artichokes, roast chicken, cheeses, nuts, and fruits.

Dinner ended with a theatrical flourish from Maria. She placed two sugar cubes in a teaspoon, poured Five Star Hennessey over the cubes, lit the brandy, allowed it to burn until the sugar melted and the flame died, and then poured the remainder of the teaspoon’s contents into her demitasse.

Sunday dinner, which began at 2 p.m., meant not only fine food but family rite. Everyone had to attend. Even when dinners were served at her sons’ homes, she dictated what was to be served and who was to host. Of the holidays, she chose Easter. Frank, my grandfather, was assigned Thanksgiving, his brother Charles, New Year’s Day, and the third brother August, Christmas.

Traditional values—honor, thrift, cleanliness—comprised a Holy Trinity of the home. “You were never supposed to do anything that disgraced the name, the family,” said Rispoli, recalling her grandmother’s pride. “You were supposed to behave so that people looked up to you.” For the child in the family who did not behave, there was a cuff and a shout, “Porco dio, bastardo!”

Maria Ghiglione’s thrift bordered on miserliness. Her husband, who was expected to bring her every cent of his pay each week, once returned home with only $5. “I bought a few rounds for the boys at work,” he said. Maria exploded. “Okay, you can burn up the money, so can I,” she screamed, lighting a match to the $5 bill.

Grandchildren were never to be given more than twenty-five cents. “Grandpa would shush us and say, ‘Don’t tell Grandma,’ and he’d pull from his pocket a bill,” Lucas recalled. And in New York, when the family decided to move to Seattle, Maria insisted on serving all one hundred of the family’s chickens, dinner after dinner, until none was left. One son, Charles, vowed never to eat chicken again.

Loren Ghiglione

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