On October 7, 1959, singer Mario Lanza died suddenly at age 38 of a heart attack just as he was getting ready to check out of a medical clinic in Rome. He didn't mean to kill himself, but his entire adult life was full of behaviors and actions that are known to cause heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and premature death.
At the time of his death, he was probably the most famous opera singer in the world, even though he had sung in very few operas. He wanted to have a classical music career, but after giving a concert at the Hollywood Bowl at age 26, the handsome and talented Lanza was offered such a huge seven-year contract by MGM Studios that he could not refuse it. To protect his potential future operatic career, he stipulated in the contract that he would work only six months a year for MGM so he could spend the rest of the year training and performing.
He became a Hollywood star after his first film in 1949. He sold two million copies of his recording of "Be My Love," which was the most-played song on jukeboxes in 1950. Soon afterward, he starred in The Great Caruso, a blockbuster movie that grossed an astounding $19 million in its first year., which would be $178 million today.
Rapid Rise and Self-Destructive Behavior
He was born Alfred Arnold Cocozza to Italian immigrant parents in Philadelphia, and was gifted a marvelous voice and perfect pitch. By age 16, he had started preparing himself to be an opera singer. He took weekly lessons in solfeggio (sight reading) and Italian, and received a scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, Massachusetts from Serge Koussevitsky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After serving as an entertainer in the Army during World War II, he moved to New York where he studied under Enrico Rosati. He appeared to be headed for a brilliant opera career when he was recruited by MGM.
His movie career earned him so much money, made him so famous, and put him in such demand that there was no time for serious work in opera. However, his millions of fans who cared nothing about opera thought of him as a great opera singer because of his movie portrayal of Caruso.
With his rapid success came serious behavior problems: frequent binge drinking, massive bouts of over-eating followed by drastic dieting, and fights with his directors and producers. During the filming of The Student Prince in 1952, he had a dispute that got him fired from the film, and he was replaced by another actor who lip-synched to Lanza's voice. Lanza was so upset that he ate and drank even more than the excessive amounts he had taken in previously.
He moved from the United States to Italy with his wife and four children, made a film in Rome, continued to alternate between gorging himself and crash dieting, and frequently passed out drunk. His health rapidly deteriorated; he developed clots in his legs that spread to his lungs and he had extremely high blood pressure, alcohol-and-overeating-induced cirrhosis of his liver and an enlarged failing heart. On October 7, 1959, Mario Lanza died at the very young age of 38. Doctors who had treated him over the years refused to release Lanza's medical records, so details remained largely unavailable to the public.
Answers 50 Years Later
Fifty years after Lanza's untimely death, Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak, vice chairman of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Lanza's biographer, Armando Cesari, went to considerable lengths to trace the multiple causes of his death. They reported their findings in Pharos Magazine (Winter 2010).
Frightening Weight Loss Programs
Yoyo Dieting: Dr. Mackowiak reported that when Lanza was in the army in his early 20s, he ate two and a half chickens at one sitting. He was only 5 foot, 7 inches tall and spent his movie career ballooning up to 260 pounds and then down to less than 170 pounds to be ready for his next film. He weighed more than 250 pounds when he died. Every time you lose weight, you lose fat and muscle. Every time you gain weight, you gain only fat. So with each yoyo episode, you become fatter and fatter at the same weight and your skeletal and heart muscles become smaller and weaker.
HCG: At a weight loss clinic in 1957, he was injected with hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin, extracted from the urine of pregnant women) and allowed to eat only 500 calories per day. Dr. Mackowiak states that, " during one stay in that clinic he goes in there weighing 260 pounds and in the first 9 days loses 30 pounds and then in the next 3 months loses another 44 pounds . . .I also believe he was made hyperthyroid by the use of hCG." Too much thyroid hormone can cause irregular heartbeats and sudden death. HCG has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for weight loss because it has not been shown to be effective or safe. Taking in fewer than 500 calories a day for several weeks causes the body to break down the heart muscle itself and use its protein to fuel the rest of the body. This loss of heart muscle weakens the heart, can cause it to beat irregularly, and can prevent the heart from pumping blood to the brain which can kill a person (Am. J. Clinical Nutr. 1981;34:453-461).
Twilight Sleep: In 1958, Lanza was treated at a German clinic with an even more extreme weight loss program called "twilight sleep therapy" that keeps the person immobile and heavily sedated for a long period. When you lie in bed sleeping, you do not eat and all the muscles in your body get smaller and weaker. This includes the heart muscle that can become too weak to pump blood through your body.
Almost all the alcohol in your body can only be broken down by your liver. The alcohol you drink goes to your liver to damage it and markedly increase your risk for diabetes. A high rise in blood sugar damages every cell in your body. To prevent blood sugar levels from rising too high, your pancreas releases insulin that lowers blood sugar by driving sugar from your bloodstream into your liver. However, if your liver is damaged or full of fat, your liver does not accept the sugar, no matter how much insulin your pancreas produces. Your blood sugar rises to high levels, you suffer diabetes and are at high risk for premature death. See Alcohol Has No Health Benefits
Events Leading to his Death
In April 1959, Lanza suffered a heart attack. In August he had pneumonia and probably suffered another heart attack. On September 25, 1959, he entered Rome's Valle Giulia clinic for more "sleep therapy" to lose weight for an upcoming film. Again he was sedated and prevented from moving for several days. Immobilization markedly increases risk for any of three potentially fatal events:
• a pulmonary embolism: A year and a half before he died, he fell while visiting Lana Turner's estate near London. He injured his leg and developed a clot in his leg that appears to have persisted for the rest of his life. The clot could have traveled from his legs to his lungs to block the flow of blood there and kill him.
• a massive heart attack, possibly his third, in a heart too weak to pump blood and with arteries full of plaques,
• a stroke: a clot or hemorrhage into brain.
Dr. Mackowiak reported that Lanza had additional risk factors for all of these possible causes of death:
• Malignant High Blood Pressure. He had severe systolic high blood pressure, as high as 290. He could have popped a blood vessel in his brain to cause a major stroke and died as a result of that.
• Lack of Exercise: In his teen years, Lanza tried to exercise by turning his bedroom into a gym with weights and a stationary bicycle. Since it didn't work then, he never again attempted a sustained exercise program that would help to prevent arterial plaques, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and sudden death.
• Family History: Two of his children died of young heart attacks, suggesting a strong family history of heart attacks. His youngest child, Marc, died in 1991 at age 37, while his older son Damon died at 55 in 2008.
The Primary Lesson: Avoid Excess
Mario Lanza died at the very young age of 38 when he should have had a glorious career ahead of him. According to Dr. Mackowiack, he had just about every imaginable risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, yet he did nothing to prevent his own death. He
• ate and drank excessively.
• did not exercise
• was massively obese at times
• repeatedly lost and regained weight
• damaged his liver with excessive alcohol
• had incredibly high blood pressure
• received dangerous unapproved medical treatments.
January 31, 1921 – October 7, 1959