PART V – MARIO’S WOMEN
Dear Blog Readers, some of you have been asking about the women in Mario’s life. Indeed, if you have read the past five posts the only woman to make a cameo in that macho world of Network TV News is Jackie Kennedy. Today I will tell you about the two behind-the-scene heroines who made Mario’s career possible, his Mamma and his wife, and about two right-in-the-thick-of-it women leaders he interviewed.
Mario’s Mamma, Rosa Barcella, was born in the Abruzzo region of Italy in 1891. She lived with her husband and three children in the town of Cocullo. Her husband emigrated to the US, followed by their first son. Eventually, beating a deadline on a fascist law that prevented males over 12 years of age from leaving the country, Rosa and Mario took a ship to the US landing in New York on Christmas Eve, 1939.
The arrival to the New World was an extraordinary event for Rosa. The hustle and bustle in New York, the traffic, the skyscrapers, the window displays, the noise. Mario saiys it was so different from anything she had ever seen in Cocullo that it was an inebriating experience for his Mamma.
It didn’t take long for Rosa to adopt to the American way of life. Her new home was in the North Quincy area of Boston, one block away from the beach. Rosa was an excellent cook and Mario says his friends would beg to be invited to eat fabulous meat balls and the spaghetti she made. “Eat” was Rosa favorite refrain, with Mario… “mangi, mangi”, eat, eat. Always “mangi”.
Mario’s tales of his Mamma in Boston remind me of one of my favorite TV commercials growing up — Anthony and Prince Spaghetti Day. See LINK I can just see little Mario Biasetti running through the streets of Boston to get home for his mother’s Spaghetti with Meatballs.
Mario told me that during World War II it was unusual to see 17-18 year-old boys in the streets. They had either volunteered for the navy or were drafted in the army. So Mario decided he would go too as soon as he was old enough. He says he steered away from the navy because he was afraid of the water, but the moment he turned 18 he joined the army.
He said, “I called home and my mother answered, “Where are you, we’re waiting for dinner.” “Ma, I’m in the army… I’m in Fort Devens.”… My mother didn’t believe me and said, “Your father is furious. Now hurry home. The dinner is getting cold.” And that was the last thing she said to me until four years later.
Rosa got used to not hearing regularly from her globe-trotting son. As Mario explained, “I was almost always on the road, but when I had the chance I’d call home. My mother’s worry was always the same: “Are you eating well… stai attento, ti voglio bene, be careful, I love you.” During foreign assignments it was impossible to call as there were either no phones or there was a war or a revolution going on. During his six months in the Belgian Congo in 1961 he did not even have access to a phone.
Mario says despite her concerns about the danger or what he might be eating, Rosa Barcella never questioned her son’s work.
Mario’s wife, Joan Utman – professionally known as Joan Brooks – was working in Washington as a model doing photo-spreads and television appearances around the time she met Mario. In an interesting turn of events, Joan Utman was interviewed for a personality column written by an unknown photo-journalist named Jaqueline Bouvier.
Joan and Mario met when Joan was visiting her best friend in Cuba.
One day Mario failed to show at an appointment in Cuba and it wasn’t until several days later that the news came out that he’d been thrown out of Cuba by Fidel Castro.
Two years after they met, Mario went to El Salvador to cover an uprising with the expectation of being back in 10 days, but was detoured to Rome and then on to the Belgian Congo to cover a full blown war. He came out six months later and quickly married Joan before he could be sent off again.
Joan accompanied Mario when he was sent with Charles Kuralt to set up a bureau in Rio De Janiero. She moved again with him was he assigned to the Rome bureau. Over the years as he traveled around the world, and as Mario says she was both mother and father to their two children. When both children went to college in Boston, Joan resumed her career. She had small roles, in French, Italian and American films. She still does many TV advertisements and continues to act-out photo stories for the magazine GRAND HOTEL.
What’s it like to be married to somebody like Mario? “Well” Joan says, “It’s never a good feeling knowing the risks he takes. Several times watching the news on TV I saw him roughed up, beaten by thugs, even thrown into a car in Cairo during the Six-Day War. Joan took it all in stride making sure everything was covered on the home front.
SOME WOMEN MARIO HAS COVERED:
Mario Biasetti described to me in great detail filming, interviewing and covering men all over the globe. I had to cut out his tales about Sadat, Gadhafi, Ceausescu, Yasser Arafat, and Ben Gurion, but I did ask him if he could tell me about some of the women he interviewed. He sent me the below notes.
“The first time I went to India was in 1966 to cover the funeral of India’s great Prime Ministrer, Lal Bahadur Shastri… Along the banks of the Ganges river a huge funeral pyre had been erected and thousands of people waited silently for the body of the Prime Minister to be placed on top of the wooden logs and set on fire. It was the biggest bonfire I’d ever seen. But what followed was the dawn of the first woman ever elected to lead a democracy.”
“Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, known as the iron lady of India, ruled from 1966-77, and it was during this period that I got the assignment to do a special piece on her, a sort of “A Day in the Life of…”
“The day would start in the morning, in her office, but before I had the chance to announce myself to the staff I had to cope with four fierce dogs (mad dogs I called them) that always came at me. Mrs. Gandhi seemed to pay no attention, and when I’d beg her to call them off, “Please, Mrs. Gandhi…” “Pay no attention” she’d say. Easier said than done.
I was not allowed to start filming until she had given the ok. She didn’t hide the fact that, she wanted to appear in perfect order on camera. ”
“Once when I was setting up for an interview with Prime Minister Gandhi seated on a couch, I went through my usual routine, check lights, sound mixer OK, cables out of the way, everything all set. “Luigi, microphone the Prime Minister” I said. Luigi, a sound man from the Rome bureau, approached Mrs. Gandhi and leaned over to pin the microphone on Mrs. Gandi’s blouse. Mrs. Gandhi put both her arms forward and softly said, “I’ll do it.” Luigi didn’t understand English and didn’t know what she’d meant, so he again leaned over to pin the mirophone on her. “I said I’ll do it!!!” she yelled.”
“Mrs. Prime Minister, Luigi doesn’t understand English.” I blurted out. “Then you tell him, damn it,” she snapped.
“Just about every day the Prime Minister held court in the garden with scores of people that came to her asking favors and advice to solve their personal problems. She’d talk to them, give them assurances that things would be all right, and they’d leave with a “namaste” greeting.”
I was not able to find the CBS interview with Indira Gandhi, so I have pulled out a quote that I found to give an idea of the kind of woman Mario was dealing with.
Indira Gandhi: “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.”
From India to Israel, Mario covered the most powerful women of his time.
Mario and his soundman also had some technical problems when they were setting up for an interview with Golda Meir.
Here is what he told me:
“Golda Meir became the first woman Prime Minister of Israel in 1969. She had been a schoolteacher in a kibbutz but she was destined for important affairs of state. Ben Gurion, Israel’s 1st Prime Minister referred to her as “the best man in the government.”
A little note here. One of the best Italian journalist of all time, Oriana Fallaci, did a long interview with Golda Meir in 1972 for Ms. Magazine and here is what Golda Meir had to say about that Ben Gurion quote:
Golda Meir: That’s one of the legends that have grown up around me. It’s also a legend I’ve always found irritating, though men use it as a great compliment. Is it? I wouldn’t say so. Because what does it really mean? That it’s better to be a man than a woman, a principle on which I don’t agree at all.
Here is another quote from that Fallaci interview that gives a good idea of Golda Meir’s character:
Golda Meir: It’s no accident many accuse me of conducting public affairs with my heart instead of my head. Well, what if I do? . . . Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.
An extraordinary lady indeed.
“She was Prime Minister when the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war broke out in 1973, a war Israel nearly lost. I remember setting up a 4-camera CBS interview in her office, a very small room with little space in which to work. The walls were of wood paneling and her desk was huge and very close to the wall. Outside the door were two security men, keeping tabs on the half dozen CBS photographers and technicians. There wasn’t enough space to put the back light behind the desk, so I asked my colleagues to move the desk forward. As they started to lift it, the security men screamed NOOOO! and two of them who looked like football tacklers landed on the desk. “Don’t touch anything here, understand,” they yelled. When their fury passed they explained that the desk was electronically wired and the slightest movement would have set off alarm bells all over the place.
Golda Meir walked in, said “good morning” and sat behind her desk. She was a no-nonsense type, and for the next hour she made it clear. However, the failure of her government to anticipate an Arab attack during the Yom Kippur war led her to resign six months later.”
POST-SCRIPT ON MARIO
In 1998, Mario changed his modus operandi from the thrills, the grime and the grit of the road, and the adrenaline high from the danger in war zones. He began to dedicate his time to stories in the eternal city of la dolce vita, Roma, Italia. Fox News made him their producer to cover any and all news events from the election of Pope Benedict XVI to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties, and more recently Captain Schettino and the sinking Costa Concordia Cruise Liner. Whatever story he is on, one can find Mario usually surrounded by journalist fans like me eager to hear one more of his tales of derring-do in the good ol’ days of TV News.