In the 1941 movie Meet John Doe, a shy Gary Cooper tells Spring Byington just how hard he finds it to propose to the woman he loves, played by Barbara Stanwyck. He says, “I get up to it and around it and in back of it, but, but I never get right to it.”
That perfectly describes the book Luciano Pavarotti’s ex-manager/publicist, Herbert Breslin, wrote about him. He never calls Pavarotti a narcissist in-so-many-words. But he “gets up to it and around it and in back of it” a-plenty.
Most biographies do exactly that. You’re lucky if the word “narcissist” actually appears in any biography. But the descriptors are there…and how! This is true in spades of The King and I, the book all about the man who brought us to our feet in ecstasy and to our knees in tears with the power of his beautiful tenor voice, Luciano Pavarotti.
Now, we’ve all heard that narcissists have the emotional maturity of a two-year-old. Well, my first clue that the legendary tenor was and/or became a narcissist was when his much-bamboozled, much-lied-to wife of thirty-nine years, Adua, estimated his emotional maturity as that of a three-year-old. And a much-spoiled three-year-old at that! (No offense to three-year-olds. It’s an adorable age when you are three … not so much when you’re seventy!) But when you’re a multi-millionaire, you can basically pay for the world to be exactly as you want it to be (and other people be damned.)
As I read The King and I, I flagged every quote that spoke directly to narcissism. By the time I finished the book, it was so lousy with blue Post-It flags, the kittens thought it was a toy! So here, in the words of “his manager, friend and sometime adversary,” Herbert Breslin, is the portrait of a narcissist who will forever be remembered as “The King of the High Cs.”
It starts with a bang in the second paragraph of the first page of the Introduction. “Luciano Pavarotti, you see, is one of the world’s leading experts on everything,” Breslin writes. That sounded promising! My narc-dar perked right up. Breslin goes on: “He knows more about music, medicine, dentistry, the prostate, child care, legal matters, and so on and so forth than anyone else alive. The rest of us are mere incompetents. At least, that’s how [Pavarotti] sees it….Got a medical problem? Only Luciano knows what doctor you should go to. But when you do go to the doctor, don’t listen to him. Luciano knows much better than the doctor what medicine you should take.”
Now if that ain’t a clue, I don’t know what is! Oh, it gets better!
On page five, Herbert writes, “After thirty-six years, I probably know Luciano as well as anyone else in the world. And yet sometimes I wonder if I know him at all.” That’s exactly how I feel about my narcissists too. Who were they really? Did they know they were lying, playing a part, being used as the Flying Monkey? Did they recognize their projection? Do they truly know themselves? Did I truly know them? Did they truly know me? I think not.
But what, we ask, made the greatest tenor in the world such a narcissist!?
We need look no further than page 31 where Breslin writes, “The singer in the family was his father, Fernando, who tended to be rather critical of his son’s vocal excursions — even after his son had become one of the most recognizable superstars in the world. Fernando, you see, considered himself to be the great singer of the Pavarottis. It was only his crippling stage fright that kept him from making a big career of his own — or so, at least runs the family legend. Even in old age, Fernando would readily explain to all comers that he himself was the real Pavarotti talent.”
The original wound. A father who would not acknowledge his son’s talent and superstardom and even dared to criticize it. Perhaps the narcissism began with the father and Luciano was merely the second generation.
And what of his mother? Surely she was proud of her son?
“Adele, Luciano’s querulous mother,” Breslin writes, “who went through life complaining about her ailments. Adele’s great claim to fame was that she never once attended a performance by her famous son; the nervousness that seeing him onstage would cause her would be too much, she said, for her weak heart. (That weak heart managed to pump her through eighty-six years in this vale of tears.)”
So there we have it! A critical father and a victim-playing, ignoring mother: the perfect recipe for a narcissistic son who liked to be in control of everything, even if he didn’t know diddly-shit about what he was controlling.
Ironically, one of things Pavarotti wasn’t so good at was the actual notes and actual lyrics of the opera. Even though he couldn’t read music, he had plenty of coaches but, Breslin writes, “How can you help somebody who always knows best about everything?” Nor was Pavarotti above schooling the orchestra on how to play and lecturing the conductor on how to conduct, “beating time with his foot to correct the conductor’s tempo.” One time he smothered his soprano, Joan Sutherland, to silence her singing and another time he bit Beverly Sills’s ear on-stage. After all, in the narcissistic machinations of his mind, the audience flocked to see him, Pavarotti—not the opera, not the other stars, just him. So what did it matter if he knew the role or the dialogue or the lyrics or even the notes perfectly!?!
Well..when you put it like that…
But what about Pavarotti and women? He was, after all, married to Adua for thirty-nine years while the magazines and tabloids reported on how many beautiful, young models and aspiring singers surrounded Pavarotti, some of whom became his “secretary” (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) for years. Like a consummate narcissist, he could look deeply into his wife’s eyes and assure her it was “all lies.” After forty years, she finally figured out that he was a great artist at twisting the facts to suit his preferred version of reality.
Breslin writes, “I wonder if he loved the women who shared his life or simply appreciated their convenience and usefulness and the reflected glow cast on him by their beauty.” After all, how can a middle-aged, married, corpulent man resist a beautiful, young woman willing to handwash his underwear and socks? “Even with the women he was deeply involved with,” writes Breslin, “Luciano didn’t have what you’d call adult relationships. There was imbalance there. He needed them to take care of him, and they did….He attracted needy women, and they became kind of enslaved by him…they were there to service him.” But if they wanted to leave, “Luciano is very good at exerting low-key emotional blackmail.” And if that requires him to chase a girlfriend, I mean “secretary,” down Sixty-Fifth Street in full costume and make-up during a performance of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, then that is exactly what Pavarotti would do! (True story!)
As if we needed any more proof, there’s a very interesting comment on page 121: “Luciano didn’t want to look silly. He wouldn’t do anything that could make people laugh at him. Since he was cast as the lead in a comedy, this became quite a problem….Very few people would think of trying to play a food fight seriously, but Luciano did.” Maybe that’s why his first and last movie, Yes, Giorgia, bombed at the box office.
As the cherry on top of our long-distance, second-hand, armchair diagnosis of Pavarotti as a narcissist was his complete lack of introspection and the ability to see himself clearly and honestly and accept responsibility. On page 132 we learn, “[Luciano] was very sensitive to prima donna behavior—in other singers. For some reason he never seemed to notice that he often behaved the same way.” On page 181, “He could dish [criticism] out, but he couldn’t take it.”
Pavarotti opened the door for millions who wouldn’t otherwise have come anywhere the opera to enjoy what Karen Decrow describes as “the most complete art form.” He’s gave unstintingly of his God-given voice to make millions of people happy. He was a world-class tenor, mistakes and all. In my opinion, he was also a world-class, card-carrying narcissist.