Dean Martin was known as the “King of Cool.” Suave and raffish, the actor played a monumental role in American entertainment for decades, starring in movies and cutting records, with a drink in one unsteady hand, a cigarette in the other, and a sly joke on the tip of his tongue. He slouched and winked his way through a number of hit movies, as Biography notes — not only Rat Pack comedies like the original “Ocean’s Eleven” but war dramas, like “The Young Lions” (where he costarred with Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift), and even a John Wayne western, “Rio Bravo,” for which Martin’s deeply tanned face made up for his lack of a tuxedo.
Like his friend and fellow Rat Pack member Frank Sinatra, himself a Sicilian, Martin was an Italian-American of pre-war vintage. He was born in 1917 in Steubenville, Ohio, an industrial town that attracted a large immigrant community from Italy’s continental south, as the Steubenville Herald-Star reports. His name at birth was not Dean Martin, though it was close.
The child’s parents were Gaetano Alfonso Crocetti, a barber from the Italian region of Abruzzo, and Angela Barra, an Abruzzese born in Ohio (per Italy Heritage). According to Il Post, they named their son Dino; he spoke only Abruzzese dialect until he started school at the age of 5.
The pressures of his two identities, Italian and American, were never more obvious than in his name. As Nomix explains, Dino is a common name in Italy, but rare in America; it quickly became Dean. Crocetti, too, confused people: How was it pronounced? When the young Dino/Dean attempted a boxing career in his late teens, he called himself Kid Crochet, as a nod to the pronunciation of his surname. Later, when he started singing in nightclubs, he called himself Dino Martini (via The Vintage News). It was a clever gag, a play on his Italian roots and the louche, hard-drinking persona he was quickly developing. There was a problem, though. An Italian tenor named Nino Martini had become popular in the U.S., and Dino Martini sounded too similar. A friend, musician Sandy Watkins, suggested Dean Martin; it would be Dean Martin, not Dino Crocetti or Dino Martini, who became a superstar.
ITALIAN? OR AMERICAN?
As The Vintage News points out, very few celebrities in mid-century America were allowed to keep a non-Anglo birth name. Margarita Carmen Cansino, a New Yorker of Spanish family, become Rita Hayworth. Yiddish-speaking Issur Danielovitch transformed into Kirk Douglas. Ermes Borgnino moved back and forth between Italy and the U.S. before achieving fame as Ernest Borgnine (per Britannica).
Martin, however, played a double game. His Italian identity was never a secret; quite the contrary, it was as much a part of his persona as his martini and the wilted silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. He liked adopting a ham Italian accent from time to time on stage, and he sang about Italy, in numbers like “Mambo Italiano” and “That’s Amore.” But these were American songs, in English, for an American audience. Martin never sang in Italian, nor did he act in Italian films; Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist, interviewed him in English (posted at Tumblr). It was finally America that claimed him, not Italy; his name, it seems, was prescient.