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The Man Who Knew Mozart
Lorenzo Da Ponte, New York bookseller and Pennsylvania grocer, was a charming ne’er-do-well in the eyes of his fellow Americans. He happened, also, to have written the words for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro .
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Like every other commercial enterprise to which Da Ponte ever put his hand, the store was soon saddled with bad debts and legal squabbles. He later wrote this self-serving but basically accurate description of himself as a businessman: “Sometimes deceived by feigned distress, sometimes by false promises, I sold my goods to those who were never prepared when their payments came due. I lent my money, my credit, my effects to persons who studied at night how they might overreach me in the day.”
At the end of his first summer, Da Ponte moved his family and his business across the Hudson to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where, in 1806, his fifth and last child—a son, Charles—was born. The partner he set up with there turned out to be a “licentious wastrel” and soon fled to Jamaica, leaving Da Ponte to settle his debts with what was left of Nancy’s money.
Back in New York in 1807 and looking for work, Da Ponte wandered one day into a bookstore on Broadway and engaged the proprietor in conversation. Despite his absence of teeth (lost, he claimed, when he took the advice of a rival in love and bathed his gums with acid) and his pronounced Venetian lisp, Da Ponte spoke faultless English. Their talk was interrupted by an earnest young man who expressed an interest in Italian literature. Da Ponte asked if the young gentleman would like to read Dante and Tasso in the original Italian, and if there were any other gentlemen of his acquaintance who might require the services of a qualified teacher of that language. The young man, Clement Clarke Moore, answered yes to both questions.
Moore, twenty-eight, was the son of the president of Columbia College. He would later start the General Theological Seminary, become a Columbia trustee, and write the first Hebrew and Greek lexicon published in America. He would also become Da Ponte’s friend and champion for the rest of the older man’s life. But history remembers him for the set of verses that begins ” Twas the night before Christmas. …” He dashed it off in 1822 to amuse his children.
Da Ponte plunged into language teaching with vigor. Notices for his Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen began to appear in newspapers in January 1808: “Mr. Da Ponte informs his friends and the public that he has opened his academy nearly adjoining the Manhattan Bank up Broadway Road where he will instruct young gentlemen in the French, Latin and Italian languages. Every attention will be paid to the morals of those entrusted to his care.” His wife offered lessons to young ladies.
Word of Da Ponte’s talents as a teacher soon attracted the sons and daughters of prominent New York families, who found themselves reading the Italian classics and performing Italian plays in the Da Ponte living room. Da Ponte mingled with his students’ parents, who certainly found the elegant and lively Italian gentleman interesting: he could talk about a meeting with the poet Pietro Metastasio at one moment and invite someone to invest in his new distillery in the next.
In 1811 Da Ponte became an American citizen. The same year, he made a surprising decision: He elected to give up his successful and satisfying life as a teacher and cultural tastemaker in New York and become a grocer once again—this time in the small town of Sunbury, Pennsylvania, about 120 miles from Philadelphia. The reasons he gave in his Memoirs included a decline in pupils, but what probably really drove him to Sunbury was the hope of getting his hands on some of the money belonging to his wife’s family, the Grahls.
Nancy Da Ponte was the daughter of a German businessman named John Grahl. After the Da Pontes moved to London, the Grahls went to America. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally Sunbury, they bought and sold property, dealt in groceries, worked as chemists and distillers, and made money. The family fortune lured Nancy’s older sister to America; it was the reason Nancy and her four children set sail in 1804; and it was very probably the beacon that guided Da Ponte himself first across the Atlantic and now down to the banks of the Susquehanna.
Da Ponte found Sunbury beautiful; in his Memoirs he wrote of streams “clear, cool and sweet,” of “majestic solitude,” of the “amusements of gentle company,” and his descriptions are more detailed and lyrical than those of the Venice of his youth or the Vienna of his middle years. The townspeople in general took to Da Ponte; one of them later described him as a “perfectly honest man, a delightful companion, unsuspicious and often led into trouble by rogues …”
It seemed for a few years as if the Sunbury venture might succeed. Da Ponte worked hard—making and selling brandy; peddling groceries and sundries; teaching Italian to the daughter of a prominent lawyer, Charles Hall; even thinking about setting up a branch of his Manhattan Academy in the wilds. The wagon with which he delivered goods between Philadelphia and the outlying towns became a familiar turnpike sight. In 1814 and 1815, Da Ponte was the town’s second-largest taxpayer, after Hall.
But eventually the old combination of poor judgment and misplaced trust caught up with him again. He was cheated roundly, according to writs and legal claims; no one who owed him could pay, and the people to whom he owed money wanted him in jail. In 1816 he sold off all his business possessions for $1,203.38—not enough by half to settle all his debts.