Guest Diary

LIZ SMITH: A.J. Benza's charming memoir

A.J. Benza (center) with his father and cousin Ciro, who came to live with the family.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
by Liz Smith

A.J. Benza's charming memoir "'74 and Sunny" ... Has Christopher Meloni become "SVU's" latest, very special "victim?"

A.J. Benza was New York City’s most celebrated gossip columnist in the 1990’s, writing and editing both ‘Hot Copy’ and ‘Downtown’ columns for the New York Daily News. He was a regular on the Howard Stern Sirius radio Show.”

This blurb is on the back of a Gallery Books memoir, coming out July 21st.

Well you will be the judge of who was the “hottest” of the '90s and there is plenty of competition for this title. Because both the moneyed '80s and '90s saw the rise of the 1% rich all over the Eastern seaboard (and the era of the Trumps.)
Click to order '74 and Sunny.
A.J. Benza now lives in L.A. where he writes for just about everything that’s left in print. He thanks his entire Sicilian family in his new book’s dedication and that alone takes up two pages. The Benzas were evidently everywhere and were the law-abiding “Sopranos” of their times.

In this memoir, Benza deals thoroughly with his immigrant roots. The title is “’74 and Sunny.” And Benza has selectively dealt with his family to give us a perfect glimpse of how life really was in the '70s in a sprawling Italian family. The Benzas were scattered from Wharton, New Jersey to West Islip, Long Island.

A.J. remembers a growing up where “the family” was all! And includes memories of his forgiving, tolerant and profane mother — forever cooking Italian. Then there is, more importantly, A.J.’s patriotic, violent, affectionate, law-unto-himself father, the hero of the story. He worked as a carpet salesman during the day. But in off hours, he insisted on being a benevolent dictator proving that in America, one could live off the land and seashore. (There is much natural clamming, oystering, and crabbing to prove that nature’s bounty was plenty in those days.)
BENZA chooses a moment under the thumb of his demanding, loving father when he and his brothers and sisters took in a wealthier cousin from Jersey for the summer. The Benzas (mainly A.J.) took this sensitive unusual cousin in and tried to teach him what it was to be “a tough guy” in a family that didn’t tolerate sissies, crybabies or “homos.” They thought insipient gays were “brain damaged.” And they demanded ardent sports participation.

The Benzas lived and learned and their eventual acceptance, tenderness and humanity give us a frank learning process that is great to read about. Historically, this is a look at assimilation and all the processes that being born “foreign” inflict on and improve on progress. The year 1974 is very, very different from the year 2015, but some of the ways in which they are the same are staggering.
A.J. with his children Roxy and Rocco.
I ESPECIALLY loved the part of the book where the men of the Benza clan quiz the kids for their knowledge of “good music from real musicians!” The adults refused to acknowledge or allow the children’s love of the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, quizzing them on the identity of every drummer, sax player, trumpeter from the Benny Goodman years and it was fun and recognizable to me to again hear Harry James called “The Hawk,” or to recall my own idol Gene Krupa on drums ... Teddy Wilson on piano ... Sam Butera on sax ... or, Artie Shaw on the clarinet. Ah, the good old days.

A.J. Benza knows how to be true and really recall his prejudiced, loving, forgiving and politically incorrect past. And his fabulous Americanized Sicilian family.

I admire his work just as I admired him when he was “the most celebrated gossip columnist in the 1990’s.”
A.J. and Rocco.
OUR adorable friend Mariska Hargitay has found herself on the receiving end of a barrage of hateful social media outpourings. The season 16 finale of “Law & Order: SVU” ended with the departure of actor Danny Pino, who played the hot mess Detective Amaro — an even more extreme version of anger-challenged Elliot Stabler, aka Chris Meloni was, for 12 seasons.

Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino in between scenes from the season 16 finale of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC
Meloni and Mariska.
But in Mariska’s goodbye to Pino, her character Olivia Benson delivered an odd speech about how Pino had been “more of a partner” to her (Benson) than Stabler had ever been. Fans are reeling in shock.

Meloni left the show after contract negotiations broke down. Or something. He was only once nominated for an Emmy, and I often wondered who he had to sleep with to get some respect for his intense work all those years? (Mariska has won an Emmy.)

Several times back in the day, I ran into Meloni and Hargitay at events. They were obviously good pals and extremely funny together. Madcap, even. I suggested they lighten up their sex-crime duties and make a comedy. They seemed open to that possibility.

But did Meloni’s departure affect their friendship? Hargitay did not write the script but she is an exec producer of the show and could have declined to utter the words that everybody must have known would create a firestorm within Meloni’s fan-base. So, maybe there is bad blood now.

Since Meloni left the show, it has become increasingly focused on Hargitay’s Benson and her various personal issues. New additions to the cast are incredibly neurotic, as characters. The crime-solving seems to take second place to the roiling issues of the detectives. Dann Florek (Captain Cragen) and Richard Belzer (John Munch) have also left. Maybe the producers ought to take a look at the first four seasons of the series, which were fascinatingly diverse and stuck closely to the matter of fighting crime.

Nothing stays the same, and after 16 years who can expect the same level of quality? But “SVU” put their foot in it by dissing a beloved character who will be associated with the series far beyond the contributions of Danny Pino’s whiny, irrational Detective Amaro.

Or maybe it was simply cynical publicity? After all, we’re talking about it!

Contact Liz Smith here.