Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
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Jeanette Striano: Her Way

The life Jeanette Striano led was one that was always interesting, never boring, and more often than not crazy. Her days of rebellion occurred during the 1940’s. My mother Arlene Iezzi is Jeanette’s daughter and she is the keeper of the legends about my grandmother’s colorful past. To hear my mother tell the stories is to actually be there. The world that my grandmother lived in during her youth was one that was in a constant state of flux. There was a real disparity between the traditions of the old and the styles of the new. My grandmother, while proud of her heritage, openly embraced the chaos that was 1940’s Brooklyn. Her mother Angelina, however, had other ideas about what constituted a young lady and that led to some of the most infamous stories regarding my grandmother.

Jeanette Striano was born the third of six children. One thing that was hardly a secret was the fact that she was not the favorite child. In everything from boys to schoolwork, Jeanette was judged very harshly. Angelina rarely, if ever, gave her the benefit of the doubt. She could never be her younger sister Adeline or her younger brother Al who were the true favorites of the family. She never tried to be either but she realized from an early age that Angelina demanded perfection of her. Jeanette’s willful nature did not mesh well with her mother’s expectations. There were certain ways that a young all-Italian girl was expected to behave. These guidelines were non-negotiable as far as Angelina was concerned. From an early age, Jeanette knew that there would be only one way that she would live her life: her way.

When Jeanette was in her late teens, 5th Avenue in Brooklyn was known as a very eclectic environment. It was here that she chose to work in a classy dress shop selling dresses. She was quite good at it, too.  Legend has it that she was so charismatic that after 10 minutes of shooting the breeze with her, she would convince you to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. When Angelina Striano found out, however, she ordered her to stop immediately. Back then, a nice Italian girl was not permitted to work in a non-Italian neighborhood. She would work for an Italian employer or she would not work at all. Despite her mother’s objections, Jeanette continued to work in this store. She did not care that the employer was not of her heritage. She enjoyed what she did but she was really happy about the fact that she was well paid. She was proud to be Italian but to her it did not matter where she sold her dresses, as long as she got paid and enjoyed going to work.  She told her mother this and, in spite of the numerous arguments,  she eventually won the battle. The war, however, was in its infancy, as this was one of the first exhibitions of Jeanette’s willful nature but hardly the last.

The club was dark and smoky. Standing on the stage in front was a young twenty-something named Jeanette. She was crooning torch songs for the patrons to hear. Her voice was like that of an angel; she was the Italian version of Ella Fitzgerald and proud of it. She was at this club on a regular basis earning a little extra money and enjoying every moment that she was in the public eye. She loved to sing songs about love and destiny and used her voice to pour emotion into it. As she sang Wheel of Fortune by Kay Starr the crowd looked on in appreciation of her considerable talent. Jeanette did not realize, however, that her mother had discovered what she did for fun. Angelina marched down to the club that Jeanette was performing in and ordered her to leave. She told Jeanette that the only people who sing in clubs are sluts and wild women and as far as she was concerned this was not to be her daughter’s role in life. Jeanette enjoyed what she did and did not want to stop but she had to obey her mother’s wishes. She did leave, albeit reluctantly, but this was only round two. The much more explosive round three was just around the corner.

The height of the conflict between my grandmother and her mother came when there was a dispute over whom she would marry. Her mother set her up with a nice young businessman named Jimmy Russo. It was not really optional for my grandmother to say no, at the risk of forever disappointing her mother. She chose to marry Mr. Russo but she had a genuine problem. She did not want to upset her mother but at the same time she realized that she did not love Jimmy. She acknowledged that he was a very kind man but she would be doing him a disservice by staying married to him because she did not love him. She proceeded to receive an annulment and instead married a hard working roofer who was born in Prague. His name was Dominic Marvo and he eventually became my grandfather. To Angelina, this was a sin of the highest order. There was a virtual apocalypse in the Striano household and all kinds of arguments ensued. In Angelina’s legendary words, which have been passed down since they were uttered, “You are leaving gold to marry brass.” From this moment forward, Jeanette had lost all favor with her mother. This same displeasure carried over to my mother who was viewed as being the product of a marriage that Angelina did not approve of.

Jeanette’s relationship with her mother was one that would dictate much of her life. Jeanette always felt slighted by the fact that her mother made no secret of which children were her favorites. She made a decision, however, not to let this keep her down. She knew that she was going to do things her way and that was that. She was not going to allow anyone to tell her what would make her happy. Her happiness was her business and it would remain that way until she died in 2004. Jeanette may not have always been right when she pushed her own agenda but, at least, she was unafraid to back it up. She had the courage and spirit with which to combat her mother’s own forceful nature. She was always respectful of her mother but she also realized that she could not allow her to jeopardize her future.

1 comment

1 Keyana { 12.29.08 at 3:42 am }


Perhaps my favorite line in your presentation was “you are leaving gold to marry brass.” The relationship between your grandmother and great-grandmother is very interesting, their disagreements would make a great TV show! It’s clear through your piece that your grandmother was a strong and independent woman.