Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: "Va Fa Sa: A Young Man's Memoir" by Hugo Cipriani

“Va Fa Sa: A Young Man’s Memoir.”

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Recently I was given the book “Va Fa Sa: A Young Man’s Memoir” by Hugo Cipriani.  Cipriani died in  his home on March 4, 2014 at age 100. He and my father were childhood buddies growing up in small town Bedford, Ohio,  and eventually settling just south of Pasadena. I knew him and his family my whole life.

“Hugo wrote a book?” I said with surprise when I was handed the book.  “And what the heck does Va Fa Sa mean?” I asked.  I promised to read the book, but I knew it would be boring, probably just the stuff that he and my father would always talk about, reminiscing about the Depression and the War and whatever it is that “old people” talked about.  How surprised I would be!

“Va Fa Sa” was Cipriani’s coined saying, meaning “to go, to do, to know.”  It encapsulated his philosophy in life that you had to go somewhere and do something if you are ever to learn anything. Just reading things is insufficient. How I wish Hugo could be preaching to today’s dumbed-down Youtube generation. As he writes, “Nothing becomes real until it is experienced; even a proverb is no proverb till your own life has illustrated it.”

“Va Fa Sa” is Cipriani’s account of growing up in a small town, living through the Deperession, hitchhiking to California to go to school at UCLA, how he earned a living, all peppered with observations about how to live a good and full life. The book ends when he went into the service at the onset of WWII, and no sequel was ever written. “At 29,” Cipriani writes, “I’m still a young man,” and perhaps that’s how he wanted it.

As I began reading the briskly-written book, I admit that I was looking for insights into my own father, who is mentioned frequently when my father and the author exchanged letters or discussed their futures.

I was quickly drawn up into the narrative taking place during the Great Depression.  Part of this was due to Cipriani’s incredible recall of names, dates, classes, street addresses, etc. Did he take and keep notes of all these details, I wondered?  What I presumed would be a boring telling of long, long ago turned out to be an insightful look into life in the United States during the Depression, and how one man’s upbeat attitude continually improved his condition.

Cipriani describes the chaos and panic that set in, with unemployment at 25%, and how his older brother earned $16 a week at the Cleveland Chain Company.  Poverty was widespread, and there were no federal welfare programs.

“And yet,” explains Cipriani, “there was no increase in criminality or violence.  I know there was a special kind of glue that held us together. There was a sense of belonging to one family, to one neighborhood, and to our hometown. There was a sense of duty and discipline. It was this bond that brought the mutual respect to each – in our family, in our neighborhood, and in our community.  When you are all in the same boat, you don’t want it to sink.”

Cipriani goes on to describe Roosevelt’s March 4, 1932 inaugural address where he stated, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear – is fear itself.  Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. There is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways to achieve our goal, but if we only think and talk about it, we won’t get there.  We must act, and act quickly.”

Cipriani describes that message as being a tonic to his spirit.  “I loved his words, caressed his ideas, and agreed wholeheartedly.  He would be my new hero. And the philosophy of politics would become my new passion.”

Indeed, FDR seemed to be telling the nation to follow Cipriani’s motto: Va Fa Sa.

Cipriani was the first scout from his small town to hitchhike across country and see what the promised land of Hollywood was all about.  And work he did. Cipriani worked at every job he could, and did good.  He describes every dollar he earned, and the reader begins to realize that most youth today have no sense of what it means to earn a dollar wholly on your own, with no one and no government propping you up.

One day he saw the “Prophet” book in a Hollywood bookstore.  While reading the chapter on “work,” Cipriani realized why he felt so much joy at his UCLA coffeeshop job. He realized that he was working with love. Quoting “The Prophet,” he writes that “I knew now that it was true – All work is empty save when there is love.”

Cipriani did borrow money from time to time, and he tells us how he paid back each dollar.  He shares his delight at a 40 cent all-you-can-eat restaurant, and how he only needed a dollar a day when hitchhiking across the United States.

While working at the coffeeshop, the waitresses gave him a surprise birthday card which everyone signed. On the card, a Sidney Smith quote was written: “It is noble to seek truth, and it is beautiful to find it. It is the ancient feeling of the human heart that knowledge is better than riches. It is deeply and sacredly true.”

It is this deep knowledge that Hugo Cipriani managed to share in his memoir of his first 29 years.  Through his detailed telling of the most formative years of his life, he’s managed to capture an essential aspect of Americana, a way of thinking, and a way of being, which seems all but lost today.

Though the book is no longer in print, “Va Fa Sa: A Young Man’s Memoir” by Hugo Cipriani can be found on

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