It was here that Di Vito came into his own, working his way up in the food services to the rank of director with a staff of 900 employees under his supervision.
The Bellevue Stratford became Di Vito's institution of higher learning, teaching him the social graces that he was to display and refine for the rest of his life.
But Di Vito's professional achievement owed as much to his inner resources and to his background culture as to the lessons he learned from his adoptive milieu. Without his industriousness, his motivation, and his innate ability to connect with others, Di Vito would never have won the admiration and loyalty of his co-workers at the hotel nor of his guests among the Philadelphia social elite.
In addition to his own temperamental strengths, Di Vito's familial and cultural heritage were important factors in this success story.
The Fallo area is known for producing world-renowned restauranteurs and inn-keepers-one of the best cooking schools in Italy, La Scuola Alberghiera-Maestri di Ristoro, is located in Villa Santa Maria, the closest large town to Fallo. In the Chietino area, hospitality has developed into a fine art, and Di Vito's intense pride and skill as maitre d' may be attributed, in no small part, to this regional inheritance.
Crucial to Di Vito's success was the cultivation of an impeccable public image: a demeanor described as nothing less than courtly, a dress code of dapper suits and perpetual bow-ties, and a dignified bearing which had the effect of overriding his diminutive stature. This public persona is perhaps best summed up in the term that became the leitmotif of all the interviews I held with Di Vito's acquaintances and kin: gentiluomo.
His English was flawless and patrician in register, and his engaging manner won him the affection and trust of all his clients. As a result, Di Vito became the recipient of valuable investment tips from the stock-brokers and financiers who frequented the Bellevue Stratford, and with this knowledge he was able to compile a portfolio that eventually made him a millionaire.
As the center of Philadelphia social life in the l930's, the Bellevue Stratford hosted not only all the local celebrities, but also anyone of national or international prominence who happened to pass through the city. Di Vito was thus able to add to his list of acquaintances, which already included Walter Annenberg, such names as Pennsylvania Governor James Duff, Senator Hugh Scott, Bishop J. Fulton Sheen, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Though Di Vito retired from the Bellevue Stratford in the l950's, he still continued to identify with its reputation for elegance and service, so that when Legionnaire's disease broke out in 1976, he grieved for the hotel's stricken image.
Described as a workaholic, Di Vito was known to remain on the job for weeks at a time, hardly emerging from the hotel during the period surrounding Christmas until the social schedule would finally relent. For this reason, family and friends worried about how Di Vito would adjust to retirement-fears that proved to be unfounded when the elderly gentleman plunged himself into an enthusiastic round of hobbies, including golf, photography, and travelling.
An insatiable world tourist, Di Vito journeyed to every continent except Antarctica (for obvious reasons), and Australia (due to its unfavorable immigration policies toward Italians). He travelled alone, on luxury liners, but immediately befriended fellow passengers and was a special favourite with the ladies. These travels both reflected and enriched his self-acquired cultural expertise, which included history, art history, and architecture, as well as an impressive mastery of French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Di Vito's family life was not so fortunate. He wed Marian - a woman of Scots-Irish descent -, and they had two sons, John, in 1924, and Robert, ten years later. With the arrival of his first born, Di Vito entertained grandiose plans for an Ivy League education and career stardom, but John was plagued with a neurological disorder which stunted his intellect and presaged a series of other maladies that would lead to his death at age 50.
Though John did marry, the union produced no children. It was his second son, Robert, therefore, who bore the full weight of Di Vito's hopes for family succession. But as if under a curse, Di Vito suffered the loss of Robert, as a mere toddler, to the ravages of a lightning-fast illness. For this tragedy, the inconsolable father unfairly blamed his wife, whom he divorced and despised for the rest of his days. He remained devoted to his own mother, who lived with him in his modest West Philadelphia home until her death at nearly 100 years of age.
Bereft of immediate family, Di Vito enthusiastically embraced his extensive network of relatives and was often included in the holiday festivities of friends.
One such gathering produced an anecdote rich with significance for Di Vito's cult of hospitality.
Mary Di Nubile tells of asking the nonagenarian Di Vito to join her family for Thanksgiving dinner. Though invited as a guest, Di Vito could not resist assuming the role of maitre d', and busily began to serve the platters, carve the meat, and pour the wine as he had for so many years as banquet master of the Bellevue-Stratford.
It would be no exaggeration to see in this impulse to feed, entertain, and cater to the social needs of his guests - this impulse to ospitare - the very key to Di Vito's life story. It is what links him to his culture of origin, with its deeply entrenched code of hospitality, and it is a metaphor for the more generalized philanthropy that would typify his later years.
Di Vito's legendary generosity, his truly compulsive need to give, to share his wealth, to lavish his bounty on others, is the banquet master's vocation writ large. Di Vito's drive was to make others the "dinner guests" at his banquet of life, to make them his commensali - partakers of the wealth that he was able to amass through dint of hard work, extraordinary skill, and charm.
Pat Maiocco, splendid racconteur, and cornucopia of stories attesting to the largesse of his kinsman, tells innumerable anecdotes of an elderly Di Vito, eager to lavish his gifts on whomever appeared to be in need, including an undercover policeman posing as a vagrant, a wealthy Rittenhouse Square resident looking bedraggled in the midst of remodeling, a young woman without money for bus fare who suspected his motives for paying her way.
Instead, a donation that found immediate favour was the one for replacing the roof of the dilapidated church of Fallo. When approached by Fallesi fundraisers who had been soliciting gifts of $5, $10, and $15 dollars toward the repairs Di Vito said "no - I'll wait to see how much you collect. Then I'll make up the shortfall." The check he finally wrote out was for the not insignificant sum (especially when inflation is factored in) of $1500.
If the image of banquet master can be extended from provider of food and drink, to provider of financial support, perhaps its broadest application can be found in the realm of culture.
In the classical and medieval tradition, the shared meal signified the communal partaking of intellectual and artistic abundance. The title of Plato's Symposium means banquet, and the text provides the richest of intellectual repasts in the sharing of philosophical approaches to the all-consuming theme of love. Dante's ambitious display of Scholastic erudition was entitled Convivio - again, a banquet - in its attempt to lay out the intellectual resources of a brilliant, encyclopedic mind.
Di Vito's final bequest to the University of Pennsylvania be longs to this tradition.His wish to establish a chair in Italian Studies for the spread of the culture that he so deeply cherished made him the banquet master in this broad, intellectual and philosophical sense.
Though himself minimally schooled, but richly self-taught, he understood the value of culture and, in his usual way, wanted to lavish that wealth on others.
It is in this spirit, therefore, that I invite everyone to accept Mariano Di Vito's invitation to partake of the richness and bounty of the Italian cultural feast.
Millicent Marcus
University of Pennsylvania