Madonna up close, by the brother who knows her better than anyone.
Christopher Ciccone's extraordinary memoir is based on his forty-seven years of growing up with, working with, and understanding the most famous woman of our time, who has intrigued, scandalized, and entertained millions for half a century.
Through most of the iconic star's kaleidoscopic career, Christopher played an important role in her life: as her backup dancer, her personal assistant, her dresser, her decorator, her art director, her tour director.
If you think you know everything there is to know about Madonna, you are wrong. Only Christopher can tell the full scale, riveting untold story behind Madonna's carefully constructed mythology, and the real woman behind the glittering façade.
From their shared Michigan childhood, which Madonna transcended, then whisked Christopher to Manhattan with her in the early eighties, where he slept on her roach-infested floor and danced with her in clubs all over town -- Christopher was with her every step of the way, experiencing her first hand in all her incarnations. The spoiled daddy's girl, the punk drummer, the raunchy Boy Toy, Material Girl, Mrs. Sean Penn, Warren Beatty's glamorous Hollywood paramour, loving mother, Mrs. Guy Ritchie, English grande dame -- Christopher witnessed and understood all of them, as his own life was inexorably entwined with that of his chameleon sister.
He tangled with a cast of characters from artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, to Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss, Demi Moore, and, of course, Guy Ritchie, whose advent in Madonna's life splintered the loving relationship Christopher once had with her.
The mirror image of his legendary sister, with his acid Ciccone tongue, Christopher pulls no punches as he tells his astonishing story.
Life with My Sister Madonna is the juicy, can't-put-it-down story you've always wanted to hear, as told by Madonna's younger brother.
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About the Author
Wendy Leigh is the New York Times bestselling author of sixteen books, including Bowie, Prince Charming: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story, and The Secret Letters of Marilyn Monroe & Jacqueline Kennedy, and the coauthor of Life with My Sister Madonna, Jeannie Out of the Bottle, and Shirley Jones.
Read an Excerpt
The great advantage of living in a large family is that early lesson of life's essential unfairness. - Nancy Mitford
I am eleven years old and just another of the eight Ciccone kids about to have dinner with our father and stepmother, Joan, in the harvest-yellow kitchen of our home on Oklahoma Avenue, Rochester, Michigan. We are squashed around the dark oak table -- just recently stripped and restored by Joan, and still stinking of varnish -- and we are happy because we know we are getting chicken tonight.
My four sisters are all wearing variations of maroon velvet dresses with white lace collars, all made by Joan from the same Butterick pattern. Madonna hates hers, but Joan has told her to "shut up and put it on" and has made her wear it anyway. Another night, Madonna might have run to our dad, and he'd probably have given in and let her wear something else, but tonight he was at a Knights of Columbus meeting and arrived home just in time for dinner.
As always -- not because we are poor, but because Joan is frugal -- she has only made two chickens to divide between the ten of us. I feel as if I've spent half my life fighting to get the breast, which I love, but failing, simply because I'm too slow off the mark and everyone else beats me to it. Tonight, though, I've made up my mind that I'll get the breast at last.
But before I can swing into action, it's my turn to say grace.
We all stand up and hold hands.
I take a deep breath. "Dear Lord, thank you for this beautiful day. Thank you for all my brothers and sisters."
My elder brother Marty, who has just been caught smoking in the basement and has been disciplined by my father, snickers.
My younger sister Melanie -- born with a silver streak on the left side of her hair, across her left eyebrow and left eyelash -- assumes I'm sincere and flashes me a tender, beatific smile.
My elder brother Anthony, who is coming down from a bad peyote trip and is still clutching Carlos Castaneda's Separate Reality, closes his eyes tightly.
My sister Paula, always the underdog, makes a face.
My baby half sister, Jennifer, gurgles.
My baby half brother, Mario, in his high chair, plays with his rattle.
My father and my stepmother exchange a quick approving glance.
My older sister Madonna lets out a loud, prolonged yawn.
I glare at her and go on.
"Thank you for Grandma Elsie and Grandma Michelina. Thank you for our father and for Joan. Thank you, dear Lord, for the food we are about to receive, and could I please have a chicken breast tonight?"
Everyone cracks up, even Madonna.
I strike out. I don't get the chicken breast. Not quick enough off the mark because I am still heartily laughing at my own witticism. Poetic justice, I suppose. But at least I don't go hungry -- because no matter how often my sister Madonna has portrayed herself as the quintessential Cinderella and insinuated that Joan was our wicked stepmother, Joan has never starved or mistreated us.
On the other hand, she doesn't believe in lavishing expensive food on us either. She always reserves any delicacies -- Greek olives, Italian salami, expensive cookies -- for her guests, whereas the kids' biggest treat is granola. Whenever Joan isn't around, no matter how much else we've eaten that day, just for the hell of it we sneak into the kitchen and pilfer a gourmet cookie earmarked for the guests.
One Saturday morning, when I am fifteen, she summons us all to what she terms "the Formal Dining Room." She has spent the last few months redecorating it, during which time we have been banned from going in there. I assume she is about to unveil her latest decorating feat to us. While my siblings aren't exactly clamoring to view the new and upgraded dining room, I, at least, am slightly curious about the results. I just hope that Joan doesn't expect me to applaud her efforts, because insincere applause isn't yet part of my repertoire. That will come later, on the many occasions when I sit through one of my sister's movie performances and don't want to hurt her feelings.
Consequently, I find it difficult to mask my reaction when we file into the Formal Dining Room. Moss-green shag carpet, strips of stained wood on the walls, tiles in between them that Joan describes as "antiqued," one of her favorite words. I know it's the seventies, but nonetheless, my design instincts have already begun to form and I am far from overwhelmed.
But Joan hasn't summoned us to the Formal Dining Room so we can admire her decorating prowess, but because one of us kids is in deep trouble. In Judge Dredd mode, she announces that the angel food cake she's only lately bought for coffee with her friends is missing, and she wants the culprit to come clean.
"You'll sit here all day, until someone confesses," she decrees. None of us says a word. She puts an Andy Williams album on the turntable. I think to myself, Torture by music? I fix my eyes on the Asian landscape -- a fall scene of junks sailing along a river -- that our father has brought back from his recent L.A. trip and mentally repaint it myself.
After an hour, Joan leaves the room. We sit around the table in silence, examining one another's sheepish faces, each of us secretly trying to guess the identity of the culprit. Although I don't openly accuse her, I mentally finger Madonna for the crime, simply because I know that although angel food cake tastes too bland for her, she may like the name. Besides, filching it would be another notch in the gun that -- figuratively speaking -- she has continually pointed in Joan's direction. Half an hour later, Joan returns and announces that a neighbor has come forward and says he witnessed the theft through our kitchen window. Moreover, he has identified the thief: me.
I am innocent, but have no way of proving it. Besides, my friends are waiting for me in our tree house. They've just received the latest Playboy in the mail, and I am dying to get out of the house and sneak a peek at it. So I confess to having stolen the angel food cake. I am duly punished for my transgression: grounded for a week, without any TV. Many years later, the true culprit is unmasked when Paula confesses that she took the angel food cake, but by then it was far too late, as I had long since been punished. My own fault, of course, for having confessed to something that I didn't do. The birth of a behavior pattern, I suppose, and a harbinger of things to come.
Since Joan married our father, one of the pleasanter rituals she's established is that each of us can select our own birthday cake. Madonna always picks strawberry shortcake. My choice is always pink-lemonade ice cream cake.
Soon after the angel food cake debacle, I am on tenterhooks as to whether Joan will still make me my favorite cake. To my relief, now that I have been punished for supposedly stealing and have paid the price for my crime, Joan has forgiven me. And I get my pink-lemonade ice cream birthday cake after all.
Making cakes is Joan's greatest culinary accomplishment. But in general, she was an abysmal cook back then. She makes Spanish rice, but forgets to put in the rice and often serves us a massive bowl of stew from the freezer and, with a self-satisfied smile, says, "I just cooked this fresh."
"Freezer fresh!" we all chant under our breaths, careful that our father doesn't hear us because we don't want to make him mad. He demands that we treat Joan with the highest respect and insists we call her Mom. All of us struggle with the respect mandate and, for many years, practically gag when we obey our father and address Joan as Mom.
My natural mother, who was named Madonna, died when I was just three years old. I have only one clear memory of her. I am running around the green-grass backyard of our small, single-level home on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and step on a bee. As I cry my eyes out, my mother gently places me on her knee and soothes the sting with ice. I feel safe, protected, and loved. For the rest of my life, I will yearn to recapture that same feeling, but will always fail.
The sad truth is that I was too young when my mother died to ever really know her. For me as a child, the only way in which she existed was through pictures. One of the many I loved was taken of her sitting astride a buffalo -- she is so vibrant, so charismatic, so alive, such a star. Looking at her then, I couldn't believe she was dead, that I would never see her again. Nor could I reconcile her joie de vivre with her extreme piety.
I only learned about my mother's intense religious devotion twenty years ago, when my father sent all of us a bundle of her love letters to him. She wrote those letters when my father was away in the air force, and he and my mother were courting.
I read just one of these romantic missives written by my mother. After reading it, I couldn't bring myself to read any more as I am not a very religious man, and the extremism of my mother's religious sentiments is difficult for me to grasp. Although her letter is loving and sweet, to me it seems a bit fanatical. All about how God is keeping her love for my father alive, God this and God that. I am unable to read any more because I have quite a different picture of my mother in my head and don't want to distort it.
My father sends Madonna copies of those same letters, and I imagine that she also reads them. Nonetheless, we never talk about the letters, or about our mother. We avoid even mentioning her name.
We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness.
More than two hundred thirty-five years later, my grandmother Elsie Fortin, and my grandfather Willard Fortin, marry and honeymoon in splendor at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. Although Elsie will spend a lifetime denying it, the family tree confirms that she and Willard are, in fact, distant cousins. Maybe that explains why Madonna and I, along with our brothers and sisters, are such intense human beings, our personalities and characteristics, our strengths and weaknesses, so magnified.
Our Ciccone ancestors, too, are unconventional and enterprising. At the end of World War One, my paternal grandfather -- Gaetano Ciccone, then just eighteen -- was forced to dig ditches high up in the Italian Alps and nearly froze to death. Convinced that the Fascists, whom he hated, were about to take power in Italy, he quit the army and returned to his home in Pacentro, a quaint medieval village in Abruzzi about 170 kilometers east of Rome.
There, a match was made between him and one of the village girls, Michelina, whose father paid him a $300 dowry to marry her. With that money, in 1918, he bought a ticket to America, got a job in the steel mills in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, then sent for Michelina. My grandparents had five sons, which is surprising, given that as far back as I can remember, my grandmother and grandfather don't sleep in the same room together. Even in old age, each and every night, my grandmother assiduously bolts all seven locks on her bedroom door.
My grandparents live in an old, two-story yellow-brick house with creaking floorboards, a dank basement, and a dark, gloomy attic where bats sometimes fly around. Grandmother Michelina's taste in furnishings is austere in the extreme. The large, imposing burgundy mohair living room set is uncomfortable, and I don't like sitting on it. All in all, the house is dark and brooding, much like my grandparents.
My grandmother spends most of her time in the kitchen, cooking Italian specialties such as gnocchi. When she isn't cooking, she is constantly in her pale yellow bedroom whose wood floors are all worn away from her continual pacing. Rosaries hang all over the room, faded Palm Sunday fronds are affixed to the wall, candles constantly burn, and pictures of Jesus are on every surface. If ever I go into the room, I find my grandmother on her knees, praying to the Virgin Mary, probably that my grandfather will quickly die and quit bugging her at last.
All I remember of my grandfather is a heavyset, hunched-up old man who drinks too much and only lightens up when he shows us how he can peel an orange in one try. After he dies, my grandmother continually moans that he is haunting her.
Generally, we don't like visiting our father's parents. Luckily for us, we only spend part of the summer with them. We do like our Ciccone uncles, though, in particular Uncle Rocco, after whom Madonna named her son.
As children, we favor our Fortin family, in particular our mother's mother, Grandma Elsie Mae, whom we call Nanoo. She always tells me that I was my mother's favorite and that she used to call me the "Show Me!" kid, because I always used to point at things and demand, "Show me!"
In many ways, Nanoo is a second mother to all of us. She was widowed a year before my birth, has soft, curled brown hair, arranged in the style of the fifties, kind brown eyes, generally wears pastel-colored dresses, very classic, never flashy, and always smells of L'Air du Temps, her favorite perfume. She is a lady in every sense of the word.
Nanoo's husband, our late grandfather Willard, a timber merchant, was relatively wealthy. Pink is Nanoo's favorite color, so one birthday he gave her an all-pink kitchen: a pink stove, pink refrigerator, pink dishwasher.
Nanoo's home is elegant, just like Nanoo herself, and is furnished with all things comfortable -- such as the burnished yellow leather davenport on which I always love playing. In her basement, there is a wood-paneled barroom, shuffleboard, and an incinerator -- which fascinates me.
Nanoo is quite liberal. Her sons smoke pot in the basement. She calls me Little Chris. I love going to her home because she loves us unconditionally and gives us all equal amounts of attention. When she finds out that my favorite candies are Circus Peanuts, orange marshmallows in the shape of peanuts, she starts keeping them for me in a chicken-shaped ceramic dish on her kitchen counter.
She lets us eat as many desserts as we want and cooks us our favorite foods: savory meat pie and chicken soup with thick noodles, a special recipe from northern France. To this day, I still make both recipes and always think of her. In fact, two months ago I spent a few days with her in Bay City.
Nanoo is ninety-eight in 2008, and the second part of her life has been sad: Her husband died before his time, and she lost four of her eight children when they were young adults. She also had to stand by and watch as many of her remaining children struggled with alcoholism -- an ongoing problem with many of my aunts and uncles, one that continues to haunt our family -- but she has always been incredibly stoic. A few years ago, she was hit by a car and needed two knee replacements. Now she is almost blind and living in reduced circumstances, and fifteen years ago she was forced to move into a smaller house.
Nanoo's home was a haven for us Ciccone children, a place
where we were all equal and Madonna wasn't the star, the way she was at home. Nanoo's refusal to deify Madonna may, in part, be an explanation for the following scenario: When Madonna first became wealthy, I suggested she pay off Nanoo's house, buy her a car, and engage a full-time driver and cook for her, anything to make her life easier. After all, aren't rock stars who hit it big supposed to take care of their families? But my sister -- who in 2008 is worth in excess of $600 million and who has reportedly donated an estimated $18 million to Kabbalah -- opted at the time to send our grandmother just $500 a month and to pay her monthly household bills, for Madonna, a drop in the ocean. When I think of Madonna's wealth, I can't help but think she's being stingy with the grandmother who helped raise us.
Nanoo, however, doesn't think that way and is grateful to Madonna for helping her and would never for a moment expect or ask for anything more.
During the Korean War, my father, Silvio -- "Tony" -- is stationed in Alaska. There, he serves with my mother's brother Dale, and they become fast friends. Soon after, my father is best man at Dale's wedding, where he meets my mother. They fall in love and on July 1, 1955, are married in Bay City, Michigan.
My parents move to Thors Street in Pontiac, a satellite city to Detroit. The neighborhood is opposite a large, empty field that will later become the site of the Pontiac Silverdome. Subsequently, Tony, Marty, Madonna, Paula, me, and Melanie are born in that order. Our parents have chosen to live on Thors Street because it is in a planned community that is one-third Mexican, one-third black, one-third Caucasian, and they hope that living in such a multi-racial community will foster racial tolerance in all of us children. Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video, featuring her kissing a black saint -- which she conceived to highlight her belief in racial equality -- is one of the many proofs that they succeeded.
Our backyard is right next to the train tracks, beside a big chain-link fence. Right near our house is also a massive electrical tower, which continually emits a buzzing noise that drives us crazy. Behind the tracks, a slope drops fifteen feet down into the sewers. When we are old enough, we climb down the manhole next to the tracks and follow the sewers wherever they go. This is our version of playtime.
Although our father isn't really allowed to tell us because his job is so top secret, he works in the defense industry, designing firing systems and laser optics, first at Chrysler Defense and then at General Dynamics. One day, when I am in high school, he comes home with a revolutionary night-vision telescope, plus a photograph of a tank. After he shows them to us, he warns us never to talk about it. We all promise not to. But now I know what my father does for a living, and I think his profession is cool.
He feels he can trust us to keep our word because, from the time that we were small, he has drilled us in the importance of honesty and ethics. The early loss of our mother may have put a combination of sorrow and iron into Madonna's soul -- as it did in mine -- and may well have contributed to her insatiable craving to be loved and admired by the entire world. That craving helped catapult her to stardom. But if the untimely loss of our mother indirectly drove Madonna to become a star, it is our father who instilled in her the tools that maintained her stardom: self-discipline, reliability, honor, and a certain stoicism.
Our father's stoicism comes to the fore when, on December 1, 1963, our mother dies at the age of only thirty. Madonna is old enough to remember our mother's death and has spoken to the media many times about the days before she died, her death, and the aftermath. "I knew she was sick for a long time with breast cancer, so she was very weak, but she would continue to go on and do the things she had to do. I knew she was very fragile and kept getting more fragile. I knew that, because she would stop during the day and just sit down on the couch. I wanted her to get up and play with me and do the things she did before," Madonna remembered.
"I know she tried to keep her feelings inside, her fear inside, and not let us know. She never complained. I remember she was really sick and was sitting on the couch. I went up to her and I remember climbing on her back and saying, 'Play with me, play with me,' and she wouldn't. She couldn't and she started crying."
Our mother spent a year in the hospital, but, according to Madonna, strove to put a brave face on her suffering and never betrayed it to her children.
"I remember my mother was always cracking up and making jokes. She was really funny so it wasn't so awful to go and visit her there. I remember that right before she died she asked for a hamburger. She wanted to eat a hamburger because she couldn't eat anything for so long, and I thought that was very funny. I didn't actually watch her die. I left and then she died."
Although I was only three when my mother was on her deathbed, I remember nestling in her warm and comforting arms. We are in a strange white room with hardly any furniture. My mother is lying in an iron bed, and my father and all my brothers and sisters are standing around the bed in front of us. They start to leave the room. I snuggle closer to my mother. My father lifts me gently out of her arms. I struggle against his strong grip. I don't want to leave my mother. I start wailing pitifully. The next thing I remember, we are in the car and I cry all the way home. I never see my mother again. Nor am I taken to her funeral.
I have few memories of my life in the first few years after my mother's death. All I remember is that afterward, a series of women look after us, and that Joan is one of our nannies.
Joan, our "wicked" stepmother -- is the woman whom I now, of my own volition, call Mom. She's certainly earned the title. With the passing of time, I've grown to love her and, in retrospect, believe that only a slightly crazy woman, or an extremely romantic and brave one, would marry a man with six children.
But when she first comes into our lives, we all simply despise her. The seeds are sown by the Fortin side of our family, who -- after our mother's untimely death -- dream of our father marrying one of her close friends. He dates her for a while and then decides not to.
When our father marries our nanny Joan instead, the Fortins are incensed and forever after refer to her as the Maid. I prefer to think of Joan as the Sergeant Major, because as soon as she marries our father, she sets about organizing his unruly children according to a timetable, rules, and regulations. Rather like a five-star general. Ironically, although Madonna won't like the comparison, as she has grown older, the one person in our family whom she most resembles is Joan. Much as hearing this will drive her crazy, in recent years she has become more and more like Joan, insisting that everything has to be done her way, according to her timetable, and that life must be lived by her rules.
Whenever Madonna and I live together for any period of time, I am automatically subject to her stringent set of rules, which include banning me from smoking in the house, and her insistence on maintaining perfect tidiness. Sometimes, her decree that I stick to her rules leads to a battle of wills between us. The truth is that I sometimes feel the need to assert myself and rebel against the hold she has over me. Moreover, I am not fond of rules, and often tire of obeying the ones Madonna sets so stringently. I know that I'm being the little brother, kicking against my big sister's rules and regulations, but I cant't help it.
An example; I get up early for breakfast, make myself some sourdough toast, and leave the dishes in the sink because I intend to do them when I get home later in the day. I go upstairs, only to hear Madonna screeching, "Christopher, you didn't put the damn dishes in the dishwasher again."
I am suddenly overcome with the sense that I am back home again and that Joan will rush out at any moment and chastise me.
"I'll do it when I get home," I yell back.
"Do it now!" she screams.
I don't. She does, with a great deal of clattering and complaining. She's irritated and I guess I don't blame her. I also understand why her behavior is sometimes a carbon copy of Joan's. For just as Dietrich was one of the major cinematic influences on Madonna, her family -- Joan and my father -- also played a big part in making my sister the legend she has become, as I, too, would down the line.
Thinking back to my childhood, I suppose Joan had little alternative than to rule us with a rod of iron. We were so wild, so willful, so set on undermining her at every turn. And I am sure that when she first married my father, she wasn't fully prepared for us pint-size saboteurs determined to make her life miserable.
Small, blond, Nordic, born in Taylor, Michigan, Joan, always in her green capri pants, with her love of antiques, "antiquing," and freezer food, may well have started out in life as an archromantic. After all, she married our father the same year The Sound of Music -- the tale of Maria, a governess to Captain Von Trapp's seven children, who ultimately married him, whereupon the whole family all lived blissfully ever after -- was first released and probably thought we'd become a Midwestern version of the Von Trapps and she'd be Maria, warbling "Climb Every Mountain" while we all clung to her adoringly.
Instead, Marty and Anthony -- probably deeply disturbed by the death of our mother -- turn out to be the wildest kids in the neighborhood and sometimes make her life hell. Mostly, though, they take out their ire on us, their siblings. One time when Madonna isn't looking, they pour pine sap into her hair, and she can't remove it, so great chunks of her hair have to be chopped off, while she screams "My hair! My hair!" Then -- when she sees her shorn image in the mirror -- she bursts into tears. My brothers, however, remain unrepentant and continue to vent most of their aggression on her, and not on the rest of us, perhaps because she has always hogged our father's attention and they sense that he may love her best.
By now, the Ciccone family has moved away from Pontiac and settled down on Oklahoma Avenue in Rochester instead. Our new home is a two-story, redbrick colonial, with green aluminum siding and a wagon wheel embedded on the front lawn.
The move to Oklahoma Avenue is exciting. There is a little creek at the back of our house, and a massive old oak tree in the backyard that I love to climb, until I fall out of it and almost break my back.
The most glaring difference between Pontiac and Rochester is the alarming lack of people of color living in the neighborhood. Everyone is white, and I often wonder what happened to our multiracial little world.
On the other hand, life chez Ciccone is never dull or uneventful. One morning during the summer, Madonna and I are in the kitchen having breakfast when we hear Anthony and Marty yelling our names.
"Get out here, Madonna and Chris, we wanna see you right now!"
Just yesterday, our father -- much against his better judgment, and only because they have promised him they will rid the yard of the scourge of squirrels currently swarming everywhere -- bought Anthony and Marty BB guns.
Madonna and I exchange glances, then sneak out the side door and into the garden. Petrified that Marty, stocky and terrifying even without the BB gun, and Anthony, tall and intimidating, will start firing at us, we run as fast as we can.
We get to the slimy green swamp behind our house and start wading, not caring that we both end up looking like understudies for Elphaba in Wicked. Fortunately for us, Anthony and Martin turn out not to be so intrepid. They prowl the edge of the swamp, fire the guns at us, and cast around for a way of catching us without getting all slimed up as well. Meanwhile, Madonna and I are halfway to Hitchman's Haven -- an old, boarded-up Victorian mansion, set on sixty acres with a large pond, surrounded by massive weeping willows and ancient oak trees -- where we hide out for the rest of the morning until we know Marty and Anthony are safely inside the house scoffing their lunch.
According to local lore, Hitchman's is a former asylum where Judy Garland was once an inmate. Unlike ex-child-star Judy, Madonna neither sings nor dances as a child. But when it comes to cozying up to our father and grabbing all his attention, she definitely upstages the rest of us -- not because she is in training for a future career as an actress, but because she is clearly suffering from some type of Electra complex -- the female version of the Oedipus complex.
All of us kids are competing for our father's love and attention, but ever the competitor, Madonna usually wins and gets it. No matter that she is too old to sit on our father's knee, she clambers up and stays there. At Easter, she demands that out of all the dyes we use for coloring Easter eggs the blue dye be reserved just for her, and he makes sure it is. At her confirmation, she demands a special dress and gets it from him. And whenever possible, she snuggles close to our father and pushes the rest of us away.
None of us can quite work out why our father is so in Madonna's thrall. In retrospect, after looking at a picture of her without makeup, the reason becomes dramatically clear: she is the mirror image of our mother. The uncanny resemblance must simultaneously have broken our father's heart and exercised a haunting power over him. Moreover, my sister's very name, Madonna, must vastly have strengthened her emotional hold over him.
I think of my mother with a mixture of love, loss, and longing, and irrational as it may have been, for as far back as I can remember, I believe I unconsciously transferred a degree of those tremulous emotions onto my sister Madonna. And I'm sure my father did as well, which afforded her a certain power over all of us and instilled in her the confidence that she could be and do pretty much what she wanted. A partial explanation, I think, of how our adult relationship would subsequently unfold.
No matter that Madonna generally wins the battle for our father's love and attention, the rest of us keep trying for the leftovers. Consequently, there's always an undertone of animosity among us all, which makes it impossible for us to get to know one another, or to genuinely care about one another. As we grow older, we each sort of break off from the family and do our own things.
Madonna divides her time between studying, cheerleading, and luxuriating in her unchallenged role of daddy's girl; Anthony and Marty are the "bad boys" who become authentic macho men, the kind both Madonna's husbands aspired to be; Paula is always left out; and I am generally lumped together with Melanie and our half-siblings, Mario and Jennifer, and deeply resent it.
Usually, Melanie and I are forced to babysit for Mario and Jennifer, and -- to our shame -- vent our dislike of Joan upon them, while simultaneously reenacting our older brothers' bullying behavior without realizing that we are robotically repeating their pattern. One time, Melanie and I are alone in the house babysitting Mario and Jennifer. We gravely explain that something terrifying has just happened. There's been a news flash on the TV: a serial killer has escaped and just been spotted prowling around our neighborhood. We whisper that we have to turn off the lights so he won't know we are home, otherwise he might break in and slaughter us all.
Mario and Jennifer huddle together behind the couch, petrified. Meanwhile, Melanie and I sneak into the kitchen, grab butcher knives out of the kitchen drawer, and creep out of the house and into the street. About five minutes later, we burst through the front door, brandishing the knives, and chase Mario and Jennifer around the house in the dark. They scream and cry so much that, in the end, we get them a cup of granola and say we are sorry. When Joan discovers what we have done, Melanie and I are grounded for a week and forced to do double chores.
In the best of times, even if we are all being close to angelic, chores remain a fact of life for us. First thing every morning, we all check the chore list Joan has posted on the refrigerator. An example from my late teens: "Christopher to do the dishes and clean the yard. Paula to do the laundry. Marty to take out the garbage. Melanie to polish the cutlery. Mario to match the socks. Anthony to cut the grass. Jennifer to mend the clothes."
Generally, my older brothers never have to do dishes or the laundry. And my sisters are never enlisted to cut the grass or take out the garbage, but I always have to do both the girls' chores and the boys'. I never understand why. I don't mind doing the laundry, though, because that way I can get a march on my brothers and sisters by grabbing the only 100 percent cotton sheets we possess, a floral print. When I do, I feel as if I am sleeping on silk. To this day, I retain an addiction to 100 percent cotton sheets.
Joan rarely allocates any tasks to Madonna, in tacit recognition, I think, of her special place in our father's heart. Besides, I believe Joan is a little afraid of her.
I don't recall my father ever scolding Madonna or disciplining her, except once. Madonna comes home late one night, Joan slaps her, and she slaps Joan back. Madonna is grounded for a week and banned from driving her car -- a 1968 red Mustang that we all wish we had.
Another time, Madonna and some friends drive over to the local gravel pit, about twenty miles north of Rochester, where we always go swimming. She and Paula much prefer swimming when they aren't with our father and Joan because our father has banned them from wearing bikinis, which Madonna resents.
During the summer, though, because Madonna wants to protect her fair skin, she never sunbathes like the rest of us. But she's always been a good swimmer and enjoys swimming at the pit. On this particular day, however, we aren't with her.
Late that night, she arrives home with a black eye and a bloody nose. Joan is really upset because she does care about Madonna, and all of us, and asks her what happened.
It turns out that a group of bikers drove up to the pit and started playing loud music. Everyone else was really annoyed, but only Madonna had the guts to go up and say something. So one of the biker chicks beat her up. Madonna shrugged the whole thing off, her confidence and bravery intact.
Apart from the odd excitement, such as Madonna and the biker chicks, our lives fall into a certain rhythm.
School days invariably begin with us all rushing to get ready, always late, flinging our clothes everywhere, making Joan so mad that she invariably comes out with her favorite phrases: "Your room looks like the wreck of the Hesperus" or "Your room looks like the Russian army went through it." We, of course, have no idea what she is talking about.
She sighs, then makes us her school lunch standby: cracker sandwiches -- two saltine crackers with mayonnaise between them, which we hate. Then we all run for the bus stop, just two houses away, slipping and sliding along the key road, trying to catch up with the yellow school bus, and usually making it -- but not always. Which means having to walk the three miles between our home and school.
When we ride home from school in the bus, we crane our heads out of the windows to see if Joan's car is in the driveway. Because if it isn't, we know we'll have a great afternoon. No red-faced stepmother, no one to yell at us or chase us around with a wooden spoon or slap our faces if we defy her.
If Joan is a strict disciplinarian, our father isn't exactly a pushover either. He is a man of action, who makes his intentions clear and doesn't deal in ambiguities. He lets us know when we did wrong and lets us know when we did right. A conservative Catholic, he attends church every Sunday and is a church deacon. If we swear or make a smart-ass comment, he drags us into the bathroom and tells us to stick out our tongues. Then he gets out a bar of soap and scrubs our tongues with it. When he's worked up quite a lather in our mouths, he finally lets us rinse our mouths and spit. It's a long time before any of us make the same mistake again.
If our father and Joan decide we have been well behaved, in the evening we are allowed to watch TV with them in the family room. Our favorite programs are My Favorite Martian, Mister Ed, The Three Stooges, and I Dream of Jeannie.
We aren't allowed to watch television often, but it isn't banned. Madonna, however, doesn't allow Lola or Rocco to watch any TV whatsoever. But when I last visit Madonna's Sunset Boulevard home, I find it puzzling that there are TVs all over the house.
As the years go by, our father and Joan develop a benign, loving companionship. They are not touchy-feely -- but then neither am I, nor Madonna, not even when she was married to Sean Penn, or when she was dating Warren Beatty.
Although we are a Catholic family and always celebrate Christmas and Easter, our father belongs to the Christian Family Movement, which fosters tolerance between Christians and Jews. So every year, we celebrate Passover together. I often wonder whether Madonna's early familiarity with this sacred Jewish holiday -- and with Judaism in general -- was not only the genesis of her attraction to Kabbalah, but what also helped her bond with the powerful Jewish music moguls whom she charmed at the start of her career. As for me, as a child, I assume that our Passover celebrations are part of Easter and, until I become an adult, never quite grasp that there is a difference.
At Christmas, we always attend midnight mass at St. Frederick's or St. Andrew's, which is intensely dramatic and our first introduction to theater. During Lent, our father makes us go to church every morning before school. We are such a large family that we each can't afford to buy nine gifts every Christmas. Instead, about two weeks before Christmas, our father puts a big paper lunch bag on the kitchen table. We each write our names on a separate piece of paper, then put them in the bag. Our father shakes the bag, and we each pull out a name. Then we buy a Christmas gift for the named person, and no one else.
One Christmas, when I am fourteen, I draw Madonna's name, but don't have any money to pay for her gift. My father goes to Kmart for an auto part. Marty and I go with him. The place is abuzz with Christmas shoppers, loud Muzak, and glowing fluorescent lights. I wander the aisles worrying how I am going to get a gift for Madonna. When my father and Marty aren't looking, I steal a small bottle of Zen perfume for her, stick it in my overcoat pocket, and skulk out of the store. Suddenly, I'm grabbed from behind, marched into the manager's office, ordered to empty my pockets, and the Zen falls out. I am caught and fear my father's wrath more than anything else.
Next thing I know, I can hear over the PA system, "Is there a Mr. Ciccone in the store?" Within a moment, my father is in the manager's office. He looks at me, says, "You stupid little shit!" and yanks me out of the store.
In the car, he doesn't say a single word to me, but I know I am in big-time trouble. I am shocked when he does nothing. I suppose he knows that I haven't stolen for myself, but because I wanted Madonna to have her Christmas present.
I realize that it would be heartwarming if I claimed to have stolen the perfume for my sister because I loved her so much, but that isn't true. I didn't then really love her at all. In fact, I hardly knew her. I felt alienated from her, alienated from my whole family. I was not a bad child, not a good child, just quiet, and watching, always observing.
In 1972, the whole family takes a road trip across America in our dark green van. True to form, Madonna makes sure always to squeeze herself into the front bench seat, between our father and Joan, practically pushing Joan out of her seat.
Each of us is allowed to bring as many things as we can that will fit in a cardboard Rolling Rock case -- Rolling Rock was my paternal grandfather's favorite beer -- with our name on it. The girls paint flowers on their boxes; I paint mine with red, white, and blue stripes.
At night, my father and Joan sleep in the van, and we kids all sleep in a dark green army tent that reeks of mold and mildew. We drive for hours and hours, and the whole trip is a free-for-all. We visit the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Hoover Dam, and Yellowstone National Park. When we get to California, Joan suggests driving along Santa Monica beach, but the van gets stuck in the sand. We are all tired and irritable.
Luckily for us, nearby surfers come to our aid and explain to my father that by letting air out of the tires we will widen their surface contact with the sand and the van can be dislodged. We do and it works.
Looking back, I suppose our grand road trip across America is another example of my father's educational ideals, which include exposing his children to their country. He also believes in the virtue of hard work. When I'm twelve, one morning during summer vacation, he opens the front door, pushes me out, and says, "Don't come back without a job."
I wander around Rochester for hours until I come across a sign at a local country club looking for caddies. I get the job, train for a week, and on my first day at work, I walk out because my employer treats me so badly.
My father, too, has more lofty ambitions for me. In fact, his dearest wish is that all his children become attorneys, engineers, or doctors. Fortunately for Madonna and me, he isn't opposed to the arts either. Thanks to him, all us Ciccone kids have piano lessons. And when any of us admit that we have artistic ambitions -- albeit slightly reluctantly -- he encourages us to live out our creativity. I'm surprised by his somewhat laissez-faire attitude toward our career choices. Then I learn from my father's mother that my father's brother Guido, a talented painter, was forced by his wife to jettison his ambition to become an artist and work in the steel mills instead. Consequently, he was deeply unhappy for most of his life. Clearly, my father witnessed Guido's unhappiness and vowed that none of his children would suffer in the same way.
Naturally, my father, a deeply private yet even-natured man, never discusses Guido's sad fate. On the surface at least, he is repressed and not in the least bit comfortable with emotions, and will never delve into them -- his own, or anyone else's. However, as time goes by, he will relax more, and much to my surprise we will become good friends.
For as far back as I can remember, my father's greatest passion has been wine making. In this, he is following in the footsteps of his own father, who used to grow grapes and make wine in Pennsylvania. He spends much of his free time making wine in the basement. As a result, the house always smells of wine and of vinegar. My father is proud of his wine. Years after I become an adult and leave home, I come back for a family gathering and crack an awful joke, comparing the taste of his latest vintage to salad dressing. He says nothing, but his hurt is palpable, and I feel dreadful and realize how dear his wine making is to him.
Every few weeks, our father tells us to go down to the laundry room in the basement, where he cuts our hair with barber's clippers, which I hate because all my brothers and I have the identical haircut.
On one memorable occasion, he sits me down and says, "Christopher, you need to learn about sex, about relationships between men and women."
I flush scarlet, sink into my chair, and say, "Dad, please, let's cut my hair so I can get out of here. I know how babies are made."
Although my own sexual nature is still a mystery to me, Madonna's precocious sense of her sexuality, as well as her star quality, came to the fore during her first talent show. Her biographers all claim that the talent show took place when she was at St. Andrew's, but I remember it as being at West Junior High School.
I am twelve, and Madonna is fourteen. The whole family goes along to see her perform in the nondescript school auditorium. None of us have any idea what Madonna's act is going to be, but we are excited and want to support her.
We sit in the second row fidgeting as we watch all the other kids' usual run-of-the-mill talent-show turns -- one tap dances, another plays the harmonica, another recites a poem -- and wait for Madonna to come on.
Then, in a scene straight out of the movie Little Miss Sunshine, Madonna suddenly twirls onstage, covered from head to foot in green and fluorescent pink paint, which creates the illusion that she is stark naked. She's wearing shorts and a top that are also covered in paint, but as far as my father is concerned, she might as well be naked. According to his strict moral code, her appearance is utterly X-rated, and he puts down his camera in horror.
Madonna starts dancing -- or perhaps writhing is a better word. Although Carol Belanger, my sister's school friend, is also onstage dressed exactly the same way, and writhing about just as much, next to Madonna, she fades into the scenery. None can take their eyes off Madonna. Moreover, her performance is the most scandalous one that anyone has ever seen in that conservative community.
Madonna and Carol's act takes about three minutes. When the lights go up, there is little applause. Everyone in the audience is dumbstruck. People exit with a great deal of barely suppressed muttering.
Afterward in the car going home, none of us say a word, and my father keeps his eyes resolutely on the road. We all know that Madonna is in deep trouble. When we arrive home, he calls her into "the Formal" and shuts the door behind them. When she finally emerges, her face is tearstained. Her performance is never again mentioned.
For the next month, her teenage talent-show performance becomes the talk of Rochester. At school, kids sidle up to me and whisper, "Your sister Madonna is a slut." I have already been bullied and called a fag -- a word I don't understand -- that my sister's being called a slut doesn't bother me at all. But I can imagine that my father is utterly mortified in front of his friends and at work. Little does he know that this is only the beginning...
As for me, the night of the talent show marks the birth of my fascination with my sister Madonna. For on that night, I understand she isn't like everyone else; she is profoundly different. It isn't until later that I discover so am I.
Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Ciccone and Cabochon Diamond Productions, LLC