(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When I read that Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of the HBO drama “The Sopranos,” I immediately thought back to the time in 2007 when I interviewed Len Riggio, the executive chairman of Barnes & Noble Inc.
Riggio is a prickly man, quick to find offense, and surprisingly defensive about his lower-middle-class Brooklyn upbringing. He believes powerfully that his Italian-American roots have caused people to stereotype him as a hothead when in fact he’s a cultured, sensitive man. I was working on an article about Riggio’s relationship to the art world — he has one of America’s great contemporary art collections — but before we got started he remarked on my last name, and asked me if I was an Italian-American too.
After I told him I was, he launched into a rather, well, hotheaded rant about how even in 2007 — even after being in the U.S. for 100 years or more — Italian-Americans were still being stereotyped. “I’ve never watched ‘The Godfather,’” he said. “Or ‘The Sopranos.’ They are very harmful to Italians. They make us all seem like gangsters.”
Riggio is only 11 years older than me but at that moment, it felt like we were generations apart. I could well imagine my father and my uncles taking offense. (My father died long before “The Sopranos” aired, and the subject never came up with my uncles.) But Italian-Americans of my generation saw “The Sopranos” the same way the rest of America did: as a gloriously entertaining show, maybe the best TV series ever created.
It’s not that we didn’t have gangsters when I was growing up in Providence, Rhode Island — we had plenty of them. The New England mob boss, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, operated out of the back room of a storefront on Atwells Avenue in the heavily Italian Federal Hill neighborhood.(2) (If I remember correctly, the storefront supposedly sold pinball machines.) Lots of stores in the area had to pay protection money. The mob ran various rackets, the most benign of which was the “numbers” racket. Several Federal Hill bookies bought liquor for their establishments from my family’s liquor store.
Every once in a while, the Providence Journal would run a photograph of some guy who had just been gunned down in an Atwells Avenue phone booth, or whose body was discovered in the trunk of a car. My friends and I didn’t mythologize the mobsters in our town, but we didn’t live in fear of them either. We read about them in the paper, but they weren’t part of our world.
My grandfather had been a small entrepreneur. After immigrating from Italy, he started a small grocery store and a liquor store in a slightly more upscale neighborhood than Federal Hill. With the exception of my schoolteacher father, all of my aunts and uncles on that side of the family worked in the two stores. Their customers were almost all Italian-Americans. These were the Italian-Americans I grew up with: hard-working, striving toward the middle class, and emphasizing to their children the importance of a good education.
And one other thing: They wanted to be viewed not as Italian-Americans but simply as Americans. That was incredibly important to them. My father’s name was Amato; he never liked it because it gave away the game. One of my uncles actually changed his first name — from Dante to Dan — to get rid of its Italian overtones. They proudly volunteered as soon as the U.S. entered World War II. That most mobsters were Italian-American was an ugly fact of life; they preferred to dwell on the handful of Italian-Americans celebrities of their era, two in particular: Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. (My uncles were passionate Yankee fans.)
Is it any wonder that Italian-Americans like Len Riggio couldn’t bear to watch “The Sopranos?” It was just too close to the bone. Nick Pileggi, who covered the New York mob as a journalist early in his career — he later co-wrote the script for “Goodfellas” — told me that in the 1960s, Italian-Americans would sometimes ask him “why I wrote about Italian gangsters instead of Michelangelo or Da Vinci. They wanted so much to be American and were ashamed of stories they felt denigrated Italian-Americans.”
I, on the other hand, grew up feeling thoroughly American and, if anything, embraced my Italian-American heritage more than was warranted. (My mother was Boston Irish.) Once I became an adult, and moved away from Providence, I could look back on the heyday of the mob more as history than as a lived reality. What most resonated in “The Sopranos” for Italian-Americans of my generation were the aspects that didn’t have to do with them being gangsters: going to therapy, for instance, or getting your daughter into an Ivy League school, or playing video games with your troubled son. Our lives were about being raised to be less ethnic than our parents. That was true of “The Sopranos” as well.
It would be hard to conjure up a more all-American story than Riggio’s. The son of a Brooklyn taxicab driver, he attended evening classes at New York University and then took over a small bookstore. He grew it into the dominant bookstore chain in the country. An entirely self-made man, he got rich enough to become an important philanthropist and major art collector. It’s a shame, really, that he couldn’t see “The Sopranos” for what it is: an important, and entertaining, piece of modern American culture. I’ll bet his children have seen it, though.
(1) The first season of the podcast “Crimetown” does a nice job of re-creating the Providence of that era.
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Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”
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