On the night of September 11th, in Beverly Hills, Mario Lanza's two little girls were put to bed. With laughter, with prayers and the love that is every child's birthright. Their father sang them a lullaby, gentling his big voice to the tiny ears. Their mother brushed the soft cheeks in a final kiss. Arm in arm, Mario and Betty Lanza went down to the lamp-lit living-room at peace in the sense that their children were sheltered and safe.
That same night, three thousand miles away from Hollywood, in Pittsburgh, a figure slipped into an apartment house and left in the vestibule a new-born baby boy. With prayers, perhaps, but certainly not with laughter. With love, perhaps, confused by pain and despair. Lips may have brushed the soft cheek before the figure fled. Or maybe not. For the child was sheltered only in a sheet -- and not very safe.
Several days later, Betty Lanza looked up from a letter she was reading -- her eyes wide with sympathy and concern.
"What's the matter, honey?" asked Mario.
"It's from Aunt May. Listen."
Betty's Aunt May lives in McKeesport, near Pittsburgh. With her letter she'd sent some newspaper clippings, showing an infant cradled in the arms of a nurse. Abandoned babies aren't news as a rule. They crop up too often...
On September 12th, at his usual hour of 6.40 a.m., B.H. Westland had closed the apartment door behind him to go off to work. But the punctual Mr. Westland was late getting there that day, because of something white he saw in the vestibule. Funny, he thought, who'd leave a sheet lying there? Then he stopped dead in his tracks, scalp prickling. Unless he was crazy, that sheet had stirred.
The next moment he was down on his knees, gathering it up, mounting the stairs, calling "Ann, Ann!" with such urgency that his wife flew out of the apartment. "Look!" he gasped. "In the vestibule --"
One glance, and she had the pathetic bundle in her arms.
"He's alive, anyway. Come on, let's take him to Martha."
Martha Cowe, their house guest, happened to be a nurse. With hot water bottles, she applied first aid to the chilled little body. "Can't be more than a day old. Get me a blanket. How he ever survived in this thin sheet!"
Ann raced for a blanket. B.H. called the police. By the time they arrived, young Mr. X lay warm in his borrowed nest. The women kissed his head. B.H., looking sheepish, followed suit and went off to work. The baby was sent to the Pittsburgh Hospital.
Even for one day old he was very small. And at first very quiet. But he must have been working up a good head of steam, because suddenly a bellow broke loose, so lusty, so long-drawn-out and purposeful that it seemed to bear no relation to this human scrap, barely snatched from oblivion. Enchanted, the nurse leaned over his crib. "Only once," she informed him, "have I heard a voice more powerful. Hey, brother, you know what they ought to name you? Mario Lanza --"
So that's what they named him. And that's why his story hit the papers...
* * *
Mario listened until Betty finished Aunt May's letter, then came around to look over her shoulder at the baby's picture in the press clippings. "Quite a guy."
"One day old, and left in a vestibule. Makes you sick to your stomach."
"Eh, little Mario," said big Mario. "Keep the chin up."
Most popular movie stars have namesakes the world over; Lanza's no exception. Parents write to him to say, "We hope you don't mind, but we're naming our baby after you." Far from minding, he's touched by the compliment. This baby, however, touched a deeper chord. Nameless except for Mario's name, rejected, it stirred Mario's protective sense and made the child seem in a special way to belong to him.
All day, he carried the clippings around.
Mom and Pop came over. "Look at the baby named after me."
Mom wept. Pop slapped his thigh in delight. One photographer had caught the infant with his mouth wide open, doubtless in a yawn. "He's singing," roared Pop.
Colleen appeared, fresh from her nap. Betty showed her the picture. "See the baby named after Daddy?"
After a moment's scrutiny, she lifted soft Italian eyes. "That's very lovely." It was said with such earnest approval. "See the baby named after Daddy?" The blonde spaniel took a sniff and licked her hand. "Tenor," she announced, "thinks it's lovely too."
After dinner the Lanzas sat at their TV set, but Mario's mind was elsewhere. "Care if I turn it off, honey? It's that baby. I've been thinking about him all day. There are hundreds of kids in the same spot, and they all need help. Only, not being the Mint, you can't help them all. But I'd like to send five hundred dollars to little Mario. It'll give him something to start with, anyway. And if he's adopted later, fine, they can still put it towards his education. Will that be all right with you?"
"That'll be swell with me," said Betty.
They kept baby Mario at the Pittsburgh Hospital for a few days on the chance that he might be claimed. Nobody claimed him. So the Roselia Foundling Home, staffed by the Mother Seton Sisters of Charity, took him in.
Unlike the original, Mario II is a blue-eyed blond. Since the Lanzas couldn't see him for themselves, Aunt May undertook to act as go-between. Her first glimpse of the baby brought a catch to her throat. He lay there so small and still and uncomplaining, staring out into space, that all you could do was take him and hold him close. Aware of his background, Aunt May of course read into the sober face her own emotions. It was almost as though he knew he'd been belted into a tough world, and might as well learn to take it now as later. "What breaks your heart," she wailed over the phone, "is that he never cries. Oh, Bett, if I were ten years younger, I'd adopt him myself."
* * *
Adoption offers swamped the Roselia Home. Baby-starved people everywhere had read the story, and pleas for little Mario came pouring in. "The only problem," Aunt May wrote, "is to pick the best. Wherever he goes, he'll want for nothing. But oh, my dears, there are so many others. I never wished I had a million dollars until I saw those babies."
There are so many others. It went ringing through Mario's head. Hundreds of kids in the same spot. Only, not being the Mint, you can't help them all.
"Look, Betty, suppose we start a fund at Roselia. Once little Mario's adopted, he won't need us any more. But there'll always be babies left in vestibules."
"More's the pity. Let's do it, Mario. Let's make it a permanent thing, and contribute each year."
The Mario Lanza Fund is now established at Roselia, where baby Mario -- waiting for the good Sisters to pick the best possible home for him -- continues to thrive. Aunt May reports that he's smiling better now and though still small for his age, he's wise beyond it.
His plight brought home to a couple of warmhearted people the needs of others like him, and they did what they could. None of us can do more.