7.10.1917 - 8.21.1968
My beautiful father, an Italian painter and sculptor. My Mother a stunning beauty, a debutant from Milwaukee traveling abroad from Smith College her Junior year to Paris. She would work as an editor at the Herald Tribune. After two years she left the Harold to work for Clipper an airline magazine, which took her to Rome. There she would meet Alberto at a party, a handsome Italian. He romanced her, by showing her how to speak Italian, sometimes drawing pictures on the inside of a foggy windshield. I know my father loved her from the moment he laid eyes on her. This was the effect she had on men. At first they lived with my grandmother Gina. The story was that she had a hen that laid one egg a day. At the end of the day she would give them a cigarette to smoke together. It was humble beginnings. Because my father had little work in Rome, and also my mother had become homesick. It was decided that they would go to the United States. I'm sure it wasn't easy for my father to leave the only family he knew. What happened was that my Uncle Bob had made a gentleman's bet with a friend, each had purchased tickets for the Irish sweepstake. His friend was the winner, so they split the winnings. In 1958 tickets were bought, and we traveled from Venice by cargo ship to our new life. Our first apartment was in an apartment building, a walkup on Grand St in Little Italy, New York City. My father spoke very little English, so he could better adjust to a new life. He found work with Remco and Ideal toy companies, where he made new born baby dolls. He also worked for Madame Alexander a doll manufacturer. I remember going with my Dad one day to meet with her. He had a doll to show her. Her private office was on the street level door of the beautiful old building on the North side of 23rd Street between Sixth and Fifth Aves (now in 2021 the Italian market Eataly). He would make the prototypes of new born baby doll heads, the hands and feet (I've included photos of some wax heads, melted from heat over the years) It was a fascinating process to watch, first making the head from clay. Some of the real store bought dolls had actual plastic bodies, others had cloth, with only hands and feet. Next he would make the exterior mold out of plaster of paris. When that dried, he would heat a special type of beeswax, which he pour it into this mold. When the wax was completely cooled, he would use special sculpting tools and a fine sandpaper to smooth out the surfaces. Finally he would blend water base red and white paints to achieve a flesh tone color. One day when I was six, he and I went to look in the window of FAO Schwarz the toy store where the Thumbelina Doll was on display in the window (there's a photo here of the one I had) He had made the prototype. Of course I could see that he was very proud. I like to say that there is nothing like a father-daughter relationship. He was a beautiful man, with a three dimensional mind, always creating something out of nothing not only Art. He worked with bronze, wood, he painted with espresso and ink. He was the best story teller. Captivating us with his many stories at bedtime of his childhood memories with his three brothers and father. They lived above the train station. They had a little sister Ada, but we didn't hear much about her. One time his father shaved an X on his head as a punishment. I can't remember exactly why, but it had something to do with his brothers. And of his times in India, a British Colony where he was taken prisoner when The Second World War ended, with no money to bring the soldiers back he stayed another three years. There were two lines, one to Benghazie, the other to Bombay. He would tell stories about this period of his life as a prisoner, of course it was fascinating. But in reality I later found out from my cousin that the heat was so terrible that an inspector from Italy was sent to check on the conditions, while speaking to the soldiers he dropped dead at the podium. Salt was withheld as a punishment which is necessary for perspiration to cool down the body. These were some of the horrors he experienced. There is a sense of sadness and pain in some of my father's works. He saw a lot of death. Also a sense of fun and delight. He had a pet monkey which got him into trouble. He was caught with a coconut, a string attached, nuts inside. The monkey stuck its hand in a hole that my father had made, when it wouldn't let go of the nuts. They had theater to pass the time, some would dress up as woman which seem funny. Also there were tales of times after the war. There was a leper colony he spoke of where he took food and water when others wouldn't.. I've included letters that he wrote to his mother, father and Ada. I had heard from family that he was commissioned by the Indian government to make Art. By the time I began to work on this website too many years had passed. I would not know where to start looking? He had been captured by the British. And sent to India which was a British colony at the time. At the end of the war, the Italian government didn't have funds to bring their soldiers home. I've included here, some of the letters he wrote to his family. A very special man, who I knew for only a short time. He had met Sergio Leone an illustrator who he made friends with. Later Sergio would die in the passenger seat of my father's car on the East Side Highway, known now as the FDR Drive in NYC. A few months before his own death by heart attack. A brother, son, husband, father, teacher of so many things. I remember watching him take a wire hanger, untwisting it for many purposes. I recently dropped a set of keys between the outside steps of my beach house. I thought, get a hanger. I was able to fish them out with a long hook that I had created with a hanger. The keys would otherwise still be there, gone forever! He would take us, my brother and me hunting, fishing, clamming and crabbing. An appreciator of the land and sea. Also a great swimmer. There were stories about him saving people from drowning. We watched while he skin deer and rabbit, pluck feathers from duck, pheasant, quail - remove the guts from fish, then scale them. AND then there were all the ways he would prepare incredibly delicious meals, some with a Roman twist - cucina rustica. Which always began with olive oil, garlic and tomato. What wonderful childhood memories in the brief time he was with us. After he and my mother had separated, of course I was devastated. He would have returned to Rome and leave us. He was alone, separated from his family. And so was I, it would be decades before it would rejoined my Italian family.
So here, I present to you some of his works which I have been able to find from various places in the world. Some from family here in the US, and some from family in Italy. My email is here, I would love your comments.
With compassion and love for my father,
A special thanks to
Carlo & Laura Ungaro
Rita De Duro
Sue Graham Mingus
Not everything is necessarily decodable. The plots of chance, for example. I sit quietly reading a book on Charles Mingus written by his wife Sue Graham. Mingus is in my very personal pantheon of jazz musicians at the same level as Miles and I only regret never having seen him live. I don't know how many times I've listened to Changes One and Changes Two and in any case enough to wear out vinyl - a privilege, this, that in jazz music I used to bestow only to Davis and occasionally to Coltrane, McLaughlin and Jarrett.
Anyway, I'm standing there reading this beautiful book, when this name comes out, Alberto Ungaro, which unlike most of the others, is completely unknown to me. There are others unknown, of course, but this one stands out, not just because he's Sue Graham's first husband, but mostly because he's specified as an artist. There is enough to arouse my interest.
On the net I immediately find the webpages that his daughter Susanna has lovingly dedicated to him, with many reproductions of works and family photographs. But more than those images, what really strikes me is - even in this case - the way, tender and melancholy, in which the daughter recalls the figure of her father, who died when she was just a teenager.
Sue Graham says that Albert Ungaro, during the Second World War, was captured by the British in North Africa and then sent to a prison camp in India, where he remained long after the end of the conflict and where - it seems - the artistic vocation of Alberto was born.
The meeting between the two was love at first sight. Sue left her job at the Paris office of the New York Herald Tribune and moved to Italy. She was twenty-three, he thirty-six. They got married.
I found only a couple of finds of the artistic activity of those years: a ceramic lunette evoking the birth of St. Francis in Assisi and a depliant of an exhibition at the Galleria L'Obelisco in Rome, in January 1958.
The latter find deserves some attention. The Obelisco was the first gallery opened in the aftermath of the war. Tireless animators were Irene Brin and her husband Gaspero Del Corso, both driven by the intention of "discovering talents at their birth." Some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century passed through the Obelisco, located in Via Sistina, during the ‘50s. and among the Italians such as Morandi, Sironi, De Chirico, Balla, Campigli, Afro, Capogrossi, Fontana, Burri, Pomodoro, Cagli.
Faithful to its programmatic intentions, the Obelisco also gave space to younger or lesser-known artists, such as Alberto Ungaro, whose exhibition was presented by the great Italian writer Carlo Levi. On the occasion Ungaro presented twelve wooden sculptures (mahogany, alder, cherry). The exhibition was reviewed by art critics Marcello Venturoli on Paese Sera and by Lorenza Trucchi on La Fiera Letteraria.
In that same year, Ungaro moved with his wife and two children to the United States. It must not have been easy for a man who spoke only a few words of English to adapt to a new life in the "land of opportunities". But, as his daughter Susanna recalls on the web pages dedicated to him, Alberto effectively directed his creative skills first in the toy industry (Remco, Ideal) and then in that of collectible dolls (Madam Alexander) for which in 1967 he also succeeded to patent a model.
Thirty-one years after his sudden death, on February 1999, in New York, one Alberto Ungaro’s drawing on paper was auctioned at Christie’s.