My father is Italian, and from time to time, I read papers from Italy. In July, one of the main dailies featured a picture of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio with his wife and two children Chiara and Dante on a visit to his ancestral home in Southern Italy, the town of Grassano a few hours from Naples.
Seeing him looking so at home in his surroundings, it was hard to believe that Bill de Blasio once bore the name of Warren Wilhelm. Born to a German-American father and mother of Italian descent, in 1983 he had his named changed to Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm. He eventually dropped both the ‘Warren’ and the ‘Wilhelm’ in 2002 and just became known as Bill de Blasio.
Personally, I find the metamorphosis of Bill de Blasio from Warren Wilhelm to a man who names his son Dante far more fascinating than his wife Chirlane McCray’s transformation from an ‘out’ lesbian to a heterosexually married woman (I’d be much more intrigued by a gay man who ‘straightened up’ and wed a member of the opposite sex). One reason for Bill de Blasio’s rejection of the Wilhelm surname may lie in his uneasy relationship with his father. Warren Wilhelm Sr., a World War II veteran, was apparently traumatized by his experiences on the battlefield and became an alcoholic (later committing suicide). His heavy drinking led to the break-up of his marriage when young Warren was only seven. After his parents’ divorce, Warren Junior lived with his mother and spent much more time with her side of the family than with his father’s.
Given the devastation that alcoholism can wreak on a family, Warren/Bill’s desire to distance himself from his father is not difficult to understand. The fact that he had more to do with his Italian than German relatives might also have led him to identify with his mother’s rather than father’s ethnicity. Political expediency can’t be ruled out either as an explanation for choosing the name de Blasio over Wilhelm. Although there are many people of German origin in the United States, Italian Americans are a far greater political force than German Americans are, especially in New York City. For example, on winning the elections, he tweeted ‘Grazie ["thank you" in Italian] New York,’ not ‘Danke New York.’
A third possible reason for the New York City Mayor’s name change may be the reality that in the Anglo-Saxon world, Italian names have always had a more glamorous aura than other ‘ethnic’ appellations. A look at Hollywood confirms this. For example, legendary Latin lover Rudolph Valentino was ‘allowed’ to keep his last name (with a minor change in the final syllable: his original surname was ‘Valentina’). On the other hand, the Jewish Bernard Schwartz – whose last name derived from a German word meaning ‘black’ – became Tony Curtis. While the New York City political landscape may be a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood, a touch of glamour would probably not have hurt Bill de Blasio’s career either.
A final word on de Blasio’s ‘other’ transformation: from Warren to Bill. In the end, he may not have completely disavowed his Teutonic heritage. Bill, or William, his childhood nickname, is of course the English equivalent of the German ‘Wilhelm,’ which may be either a first or a last name in Germany. But I think Bill de Blasio would prefer to be remembered as the fourth mayor of Italian descent in New York City.