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The Bronxville Ties of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

By Marilynn Wood Hill

Mar. 3, 2021: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, political activist, painter – and former Bronxville foster son – died Monday, February 22, in San Francisco. He was 101.

Although he did not consider himself one of the Beat poets of the 1950s-1960s, Ferlinghetti was said to be the “spiritual guardian” of that literary movement -- befriending, nurturing, and publishing numerous writers and artists for nearly seven decades from his famed City Lights bookstore, established in 1953, in San Francisco. He first gained national recognition in 1956 when he published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a counter-culture, epic poem that led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest and trial for distributing indecent literature, a charge for which he was acquitted and a case that was lauded as a precedent-setting defense of the First Amendment.

More than 30 of his collections of poetry were published, including the well-known A Coney Island of the Mind, a 1958 volume that has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into multiple languages. He also wrote in other literary forms, and his works were said to be read by more people in more countries than those of any other living American poet. His last book, Little Boy, was published shortly before his 100th birthday. In 1998 he was made poet laureate of San Francisco, and in 2001, City Lights was designated a landmark building. He also received a number of awards for both his publications and his public impact.

Born March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was the fifth and youngest son of widow Clemence Mendes-Monsanto and Charles Ferling, an Italian immigrant who died five months prior to Lawrence’s birth. Before he was two, Ferlinghetti’s mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and he was put in the care of an aunt, Emily Monsanto, who shortly thereafter separated from her husband and moved with Lawrence to France for several years.

Returning to the U.S., Aunt Emily lacked financial support, so the young boy was placed in a Chappaqua orphanage. A year later, Emily Monsanto was hired as a resident French tutor in the home of a wealthy Bronxville couple, Pressley Bisland and his wife, Anna Lawrence Bisland, the daughter of community leaders William and Sarah Lawrence. Reclaiming her orphaned   nephew, Emily, with Lawrence, moved into the Bisland’s large home, Plashbourne, in Lawrence Park West, thus beginning a decade’s residency in the Bronxville community – ten formative years – for young Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

When Aunt Emily joined the Bisland’s staff, the couple had lost two of their three children, and the youngest, Sally, was a teen.  In their late fifties, both Bislands were busy with careers; he running a company, and she working for the Lawrence family’s real estate business while also leading several community organizations. 

 As a Lawrence daughter, Anna Bisland had experienced educational and social opportunities as well as fulfilled the community service expectations of a privileged young woman. Pressley Bisland was from a cultured Southern family, educated in the classics and the great works of American and English literature. With a sense of humor, wit, and an ability to quote historical facts and lines of verse, he was a great raconteur and writer. Time spent, especially with the cultured and intellectual Pressley Bisland, was later noted by Ferlinghetti as particularly influential both in this period and in his later literary development.

Ferlinghetti’s new, more secure life changed significantly, however, one Sunday when Aunt Emily failed to return from her day off. No one ever explained her disappearance, though many years later Ferlinghetti would learn that she had abandoned him, assuming that the Bislands would care for him. The Bislands readily became foster parents, but their emotional reserve, in contrast to the outward affection given by Aunt Emily, created a childhood loneliness, a theme that was later often mentioned by Ferlinghetti in his writing.  

What the Bislands lacked in demonstrated affection, they provided in educational and intellectual stimulation, with praise and rewards for academic accomplishments. They enrolled Lawrence in the Riverdale Country Day School, where he began to make friends who were absent in his Lawrence Park West neighborhood life.

In October 1929, the Bislands suffered some significant financial reverses. They removed Lawrence from the Riverdale school in order to enroll him in Bronxville’s excellent public system. Because they were not village residents, they boarded him in the Parkway Road home of widow Zilla Larned Wilson, a self-supporting dress shop proprietor with a sixteen-year-old son.   Wilson was a stern woman who viewed her relationship with Lawrence solely as business, not maternal. Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti remembered those years as the happiest of his youth because of his relationship with Wilson’s son Bill, whom he regarded as a big brother. Going by the name of Larry Monsanto, young Ferlinghetti said he felt he was living the life of the “All American Boy,” a phrase he used to describe himself in 22 lines of poetry alluding to experiences from his Bronxville years that are referenced  in “Autobiography,” one of the poems from his most popular work, Coney Island.

The densely populated Parkway Road neighborhood of the 1930s provided a large peer group for Larry Monsanto. A chronicle of experiences recounted later by him and by associates from his youth has articulated commonplace episodes and influences from those Bronxville school years.   

Athletically accomplished brother Bill took Larry to all the sports events and coached him in basketball until he could qualify for the junior team; mentor and basketball coach Meier persuaded him to take his print and publishing class, the only subject in which he excelled, learning skills that served him well in his adult life; he took on a newspaper delivery route to earn extra money and formed an enduring interest in journalistic writing and newspaper layout; he had a summer job working for Pressley Bisland at the Kensington Plaza garages and coincidentally won their contest answering Bisland’s  questions of factual knowledge and creating the best garage motto entry, “Kensington Plaza Garages make car troubles fade like mirages,” with the announcement of the winner and motto  printed  in the newspaper -- probably the first time his name ever appeared in a headline and the first payment he ever received for a line of “poetry”; he joined the Boy Scouts, making new friendships through meetings, projects, jamborees, competitions  (such as Knot Tying, where he was on the winning team), and summer camps (where he taught fellow campers to swim), eventually earning Eagle Scout status;  he played pick-up sports games with neighbors who called their teams “River Rats,” “Rinkydinks,” or perhaps “Parkway Road Pirates”; he joined in playing hooky to pilfer boards from the lumber yard and build a club-hut on the edge of the Bronx River, resulting in a serious reprimand of the boys by Officer O’Connor; and at age 15, in the same month he became an Eagle Scout, he was arrested for shoplifting, but bailed out by his ever-loyal and understanding Scout Master Rollins.

The shoplifting incident, coupled with a growing adolescent restlessness, persuaded Mrs. Wilson that Larry had become more than she could handle. Believing that their foster son was at a crossroads, the Bislands sent him to a more structured school, the Mount Hermon School,in Massachusetts. There he discovered literature and authors whose themes related to his own experiences, especially the works of Thomas Wolfe, whose North Carolina background was a major factor in his decision to attend the University of North Carolina after his 1937 graduation.  Just before entering Chapel Hill, he decided to reclaim his birth name, Ferling, and reversing the middle and last names he had used in Bronxville, he became Larry Monsanto Ferling. 

Following his 1941 college graduation, Lawrence Ferling returned to New York, and failing to find a job in journalism, he joined the Navy, serving in both France and Japan. After the war, he earned a Master’s degree on the GI Bill at Columbia University, and then continued his education at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received his doctorate. Throughout the years following his departure to Mount Hermon and subsequent education, he corresponded with, and when home visited with, “Mother Bisland” and his “emeritus father,” Pressley Bisland, as he by then referred to them.

After his final return to New York in 1950, he moved west to San Francisco, and in 1951 he married an American acquaintance from his Paris days, Selden Kirby-Smith, with whom he had a son and a daughter. The couple later divorced after twenty-five years of marriage.

 In 1955, on the occasion of the publication of his first book of poems, 36-year-old Ferling reclaimed his original family surname, Ferlinghetti, the name that his father had Americanized when he immigrated from Italy. As he approached his 100th birthday, he published his last book, and in choosing a name for that book, he passed over lofty or life-encompassing titles such as his surname “Ferlinghetti” or his life’s work “The Poet.” Instead, he chose a simple, commonplace title, “Little Boy.” What interpretation  that brings to mind for other followers of Ferlinghetti, one can only guess, but for those of us from Bronxville, it surely harkens back to his early years, those formative years, when he was a “little boy,” a foster son, living in our village community.

Photo by Stacy Lewis







Arts Directory

Bronxville Public Library
Bronxville Public Library

The Bronxville Public Library traces its origins back to 1875, when it was a small lending library housed in a room attached to the “Bronxville Model School.” The Library was officially chartered in 1906 and moved into the Village Hall Building. The needs of the library grew with the town and, in 1942, a new standalone building was erected, which is where the Library is today. Over the years, the Library was renovated and expanded to meet the needs of the community.

The Library has wonderful resources for adults and children and offers a comfortable and relaxing environment. The Library also houses a fine art collection, consisting principally of Bronxville painters and sculptors.

The Library offers special events, art exhibitions, and programs for adults, young adults and children. All events are open to the public, unless otherwise indicated.

The Bronxville Public Library
201 Pondfield Road (Midland Avenue & Pondfield Road)

Concordia Conservatory
Concordia Conservatory

Concordia Conservatory, a preeminent center for music education in Westchester County, is a welcoming community where children and adults find lifelong inspiration and joy through learning, performing, listening to, and participating with others in music. Concordia Conservatory, a community outreach division of Concordia College, offers top quality music programs for early childhood, youth, adults and seniors. The Conservatory's vision is to enrich the lives of the people in our community through music.

Executive Director: Kathleen Suss
Concordia Conservatory of Music & Art

171 White Plains Rd
Bronxville, NY

Fine Arts Gallery of Bronxville
Fine Arts Gallery of Bronxville

99B Pondfield Road
Bronxville, New York 10708

Objects and Images Fine Arts
Objects and Images Fine Arts

117 Pondfield Road
Bronxville, New York 10708

The O'Silas Gallery at Concordia College
The O'Silas Gallery at Concordia College
Part of Concordia College New York, the OSilas Gallery integrates the visual arts into the cultural and educational life of our campus and community by providing quality exhibitions and programs that are diverse in style, content, and media. Our programs are memorable, thought-provoking, and spiritually enriching; and of artistic originality, integrity, and excellence.
Womrath Bookstore
Womrath Bookstore
Womrath Bookshop is a located in the heart of Bronxville village. In addition to selling books, the store also sell children's toys and holds readings both at the store and elsewhere in the community, such as at the Library.

76 Pondfield Road
Bronxville, NY
(914) 337-0199

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