I first mat Steve Maffini around 1980, when we both served on the board of directors of the Leonardo da Vinci Society, to this day a sister organization to Il Cenacolo. Not only did the two organizations have a sort of interlocking directorate (Sai Reina, Joe Simini and Al Cavagnaro were on the board), but we often traded speakers. Steve rose to be first vice-president of the Society in the 1985-86 cycle, but his presumptive candidacy as next president was truncated by his untimely death at age 73, on January 11, 1986.
Stephen Dominic Maffini, the fifth president of Il Cenacolo, was born in Fort Bragg, California, on August 25, 1912, to immigrants from the town of Angera in the province of Varese in Lombardy. In 1900, the town had 2,733 inhabitants, and it was then situated in the province of Como, when Varese was simply a circondario, or district, not yet having been raised to the status of province. We don’t know for sure what sort of business his family engaged in, but Italians up in Mendocino County were heavily involved in the lumber industry, either as loggers and mill workers or as boarding-house keepers, grocers and purveyors to the same. By 1920, the family had settled in the city of Mendocino. When he died in 1986, Steve had one surviving sister, Josephine Round, of Fort Bragg. He was married to Justine Cerruti late in life, but the marriage ended in divorce.
On Saturday, September 27, 1975, Stephen Maffini was honored by the Leonardo da Vinci Society at the Veterans Building in San Francisco for his many contributions to the promotion of Italian culture and Italian-American solidarity and ethnic pride. As the reporter for L’Eco d’Italia recounted, it was “un signorile ricevimento” (Italian purple prose for “a lordly reception,” what we would call in English “a dignified event“). It was presided over by none other than the in-coming president, Alfred C. Cavagnaro. Steve Maffini’s curriculum was expounded upon, in the presence of the Italian Consul General, Paolo Emilio Mussa, who also held the title of “ministro plenipotenziario della Repubblica ltaliana,” and of Claire Giannini Hoffman, daughter of the founder of the Bank of Italy, later known as Bank of America.
During the proceedings, it was pointed out that Stephen D. Maffini had graduated with a B.A. from Stanford University in 1934, followed by a law degree from the same institution in 1937, and that, subsequently, he was admitted to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1955. (I don’t think that I’m stepping too far out on a limb to say that Italian-American Stanford graduates in 1934 were, as Virgil said, rari nantes in gurgite vasto,“ that is, few and far between”. Indeed, David E. Lombardi, Jr., recounts that his father, who was the Cenacolo president in 1974-75, had been Steve’s classmate at Stanford and that the few Italians there stuck together like wildebeests surrounded by the wide Anglo savannah.) Steve had belonged to the premier academic fraternity at his alma mater, Phi Beta Kappa, and in 1971-72 he was president of the Northern California chapter of its alumni association (Phi Beta Kappa, that is), covering 20 counties with 8,500 members. It’s no wonder then that AI Cavagnaro remembers that Steve always had “an intellectual air about him.” Before entering into private general practice in 1946, he had worked in the legal department of PG&E and in the San Francisco offices of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. His obituary in the Chronicle also mentioned a stint at the War Department, perhaps here in San Francisco during World War II
As we noted, during the “signorile ricevimento” of 1975, the Italian Consul General was present to honor Stephen Maffini’s many activities and positions within the local Italian colony. By that time, he had been president of Il Cenacolo, president of the Italian Hospital and Benevolent Association, president of the Italian Federation of California, president of the Vita Nuova Lodge of the Sons of Italy, and member of the board of directors of the Columbus Civic Club, a North Beach political forum whose candidate endorsements were much sought after. Before doing research for this talk, I had frankly not realized how prominent and ubiquitous Steve Maffini had been in the local community. (By the way, the Hospital and Benevolent Association, which by that time was pretty much limited to social events, had actually founded an Italian Hospital in 1921, also known as the Dante Hospital or Dante Sanitarium, on the corner of Van Ness and Broadway. This handsome complex still exists as residential housing for senior citizens. During World War Two, It was commandeered by Letterman General Hospital in the Presidio as a convalescent facility for U.S. servicemen. If you remember, it’s sort of what happened to the old Cenacolo digs in the Fairmont Hotel, taken over during the war for office space by the U.S. Army.) Within the Sons of Italy, Stephen was a longtime member of the scholarship commission of the California Grand Lodge. Indeed because of his efforts to promote the teaching of the Italian language in Bay Area middle schools and high schools, he was awarded a medal by the Republic of Italy in 1902, the so-called “Stella di Solidarietà.“
During that same 1975 event, Claire Giannini Hoffman was also present. In her case, It was to give a very personal tribute to Stephen D. Maffini. In 1969, Steve had spearheaded a coalition of Italian-American organizations to successfully petition Bank of America to name the plaza in front of its new headquarters building in honor of its founder, Amadeo Pietro Giannini, a member of II Cenacolo. (That Italian Americans actually had to fight for this is again indicative of their waning influence within the City, as well as of the bank’s effort to forget or suppress its immigrant past.) Another cause dear to Claire’s heart was the issuance of a U.S. postage stamp in honor of her father. Once again, Steve Maffini was instrumental in this effort, and on June 27, 1973, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 21-cent green regular-series stamp bearing the image of A.P. Giannini. (I’m passing around the laminated first-day-of-issue cover, on loan from my evil twin cousin, Flank Zaccaro, a longtime employee of Bank of America. I believe that there are few, if any, Italian organizations in America who can claim that one of their members is honored by a postage stamp. LaGuardia, Fermi and Basilone have their own stamps, and I suppose they might have belonged to some Italian clubs, but none of them were Cenacolisti!
That brings us to the subject of Stephen Dominic Maffini, Cenacolista. He was our president from June 4, 1964, through June 7, 1967, succeeding Salvatore Reina, who had held the post for 13 years. We don’t know exactly when Steve joined the club, but he had been on the board of directors since 1955. During his presidency, the established Cenacolo functions continued according to a set pattern: weekly luncheons and monthly board meetings at the Fior d’ltaIia, the June business meeting again at the Fior, the Opera Outing at the Monte Rosso Vineyard, and the Christmas party at the Bohemian Club (I’m circulating a Tom Vano photo of Steve during the 1966 Opera Outing, catered by Oreste’s Restaurant.) During Maffini’s tenure, our finances were stable: we had assets of $7,300 when he took over and $7,500 when he left. The only membership stat that I was able to find was for the beginning of his term, when there were 171 dues paying Cenacolisti and 15 honorary members.
Unfortunately, the journal of minutes for Stephen Maffini’s term no longer covered the weekly luncheon meetings. We do know that at one meeting per month the after-lunch talk was in Italian, because that was the rule set down by the board. The annual business meeting of June 1, 1966 was attended by a special guest who indeed spoke in fluent Italian. It was none other than the Acting Attorney General of Somalia, the Honerary Mohammed Mogdito, sponsored by the U.S. State Department to study the American judicial system. At the 1965 Christmas dinner (which, by the way, cost $9.50 per person), the Italian Consul General, Dr. Alessandro Savorgnan, was the guest of honor, a precursor to the “Man of the Year” award. He had an American wife and probably spoke in English.
One thing that emerges from the minutes is clues as to the history of our archives or collection of books and photos. In February, 1966, past president Guido Musto turned over to Sal Reina what was left of our prewar library back in the old Fairmont Hotel days. This included the Enciclopedia Italiana as well as the Buddhist temple print donated to the Cenacolo in 1932 by insurance broker and art collector Albert M. Bender. Sold at auction in 1991 for a considerable sum, the proceeds were earmarked for the Renzo Turco Scholarship Endowment Fund.
That brings us to today’s function, a continuation of a long tradition. During the presidency of Stephen D. Maffini, each year II Cenacolo donated $200 to the California Grand Lodge of the Sons of Italy for a scholarship in the name of our club. We also donated $25 to the American Association of Teachers of Italian to fund their literary competitions, and an equal amount to the Italian Department of San Francisco State College towards an award for an essay contest on Dante Alighieri. As I said, Cenacolo funding of Italian language, literature and culture is not a new thing. $25 doesn’t seem like much, but remember that it’s almost three times what one paid back then for a Christmas dinner at the Bohemian Club.
© 2023 Il Cenacolo, Introduction to a talk by Andrew M. Canepa May 1, 2008
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