Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti—born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919—was the youngest of five sons of Charles Ferlinghetti and Clemence Ferlinghetti. Several months before Lawrence’s birth, his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and his mother suffered a breakdown as a result. She was unable to care for her son and was eventually institutionalized at the state hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
After these humble and tragic beginnings, it is ironic that Ferlinghetti was taken and cared for by his mother’s well-to-do uncle, Ludwig Mendes-Monsanto, and his wife, Emily, in their Manhattan home. It is also ironic that American-born Ferlinghetti learned French as his first language. In fact, throughout his childhood, he actually believed himself to be French, having been taken in by his great-aunt Emily, who left her husband and returned to France, her homeland. Ferlinghetti spent the first five years of his life in Strasbourg with Mendes-Monsanto, whom he refers to as his “French mother.” She was eventually persuaded to return to New York to rejoin her husband, but the reunion lasted only for a short time. Ferlinghetti—who knew himself only as Lawrence Ferling Monsanto—was placed in an orphanage for seven months. Eventually, Mendes-Monsanto reclaimed him and took him away, after leaving her husband again. This time they remained in New York.
Mendes-Monsanto took on work as a French tutor for the daughter of the very wealthy Presley Bisland and Anna Lawrence Bisland. She and Ferlinghetti lived in a small room in the third-floor servants’ area until one day she mysteriously disappeared, whereupon Ferlinghetti was adopted by the Bislands.
The Bislands’ son had died in early childhood. His name—and his mother’s maiden name—was Lawrence, her father having founded Sarah Lawrence College near Bronxville. Presley Bisland was also a man of letters, with a profound interest in contemporary literature, although his experiences included being one of the last men to ride the Chisholm Trail on the last of the great cattle drives. The Bislands were aristocratic, adventuresome, and cosmopolitan, but also creative in spirit. In fact, Ferlinghetti maintains that Presley Bisland’s writings gave him the idea that being an author was a dignified calling.
At the age of ten, Ferlinghetti was told about his natural mother, Clemence Ferlinghetti, whom he met one traumatic Sunday afternoon. He was given the choice to go with her, although he considered her a stranger, or to stay with the Bislands. He chose to stay. Unknown to Ferlinghetti, the Bislands had arranged to send him away to school. A few weeks later, he found himself boarding with a family named Wilson in one of New York City’s rougher neighborhoods. Their son Bill, being older, became a hero to the young Ferlinghetti. Lawrence joined the Boy Scouts, went to baseball and football games, and was far less lonely than he had been at the Bisland mansion.
At the age of sixteen, Lawrence began to write poetry. His stepsister, Sally Bisland, gave him a book of Charles Baudelaire in translation. Ferlinghetti remembers it as the first collection of poems he read from cover to cover. He was then sent to a private high school, Mount Hernon, near Greenfield, Massachusetts. In his senior year, Anna Bisland took him for...