In 1936, Walden Cassotto was born into a poor Italian-American family in East Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Walden’s family, which consisted of his sister, Vanina “Nina” Cassotto, and mother, Paula “Polly” Cassotto, moved to an Italian Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs of New York City. Polly’s husband, Sam, a petty criminal and drug addict, died in prison before Walden was born. Walden’s family had a secret.
In 1944, when Walden was 8 years old, he began suffering from a sore throat and fever. Unbeknownst to Polly and Nina, Walden had a bacterial infection called streptococcus, commonly called strep throat. They treated Walden’s sore throat and fever as well as they knew how, but it was far from enough. Lacking proper medical attention, Walden developed an inflammatory disease known as rheumatic fever which severely damaged his heart. The doctor’s prognosis was grim. Walden’s chances of living until the age of 16 were not good. His heart was so weakened by the fever that Walden only had the slimmest chance of surviving past the age of 35. Polly and Nina would have preferred to keep his weakened heart a secret, “but,” Nina later explained “how can you bring up a child without telling him why he can’t jump rope or play ball?”
Walden’s life changed drastically. Polly and Nina became overprotective. Nina remembered that Walden “used to play stickball and he’d go up to hit and someone else would run for him.” Both of them constantly reminded him that he was unable to do certain physical activities because of his weakened heart. “However,” Nina added, “it didn’t keep him from doing what he wanted to do.”
In 1968, when Walden was 32 years old, circumstances forced Nina to reveal the family secret to Walden. (Polly, Walden’s mother, had died nine years earlier.) Nina had always hoped no one would ever discover the family secret, especially Walden. Polly and Nina taught Walden to always be honest. Nina declared “We were a very truthful family … Once you tell a lie, that lie must become the truth for the rest of your life,” a lesson she and Polly certainly relayed to Walden constantly in his younger days. With the uncertainty and confusion surrounding the Vietnam War, Walden considered seeking a political office in California. Nina knew that if Walden ran for office, his political rivals would discover the family secret and would use it against him. Nina feared that Walden’s weakened heart would be unable to survive the shock. Unable to deter Walden from his political aspirations, Nina could not avoid the family secret any longer.
Calmly, carefully and cautiously, Nina told Walden that Polly’s husband, Sam, was not his real father. Sam died in prison 19 months before Walden was born. Walden listened intently. She explained that Walden’s mother had broken off her relationship with Walden’s real father shortly after she became pregnant. Walden’s mother never told his father of the pregnancy. Walden sat in silence and stared at Nina as she continued. She explained that Polly was not his mother. The woman who claimed to be Walden’s mother was, in fact, his grandmother. Walden was in shock. After a few deep breaths, Nina revealed that she, the girl thought to be his older sister, was his mother. Nina explained that she was 17-years-old and unwed when she got pregnant. Rather than having a forced marriage to someone she was not in love with, Nina broke up with him. When they moved into the Italian Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx shortly after Walden was born, Polly and Nina created the story so that the family would not be ostracized in the local community. Nina did not reveal the name of Walden’s real father, nor did she ever.
At first, Walden was understanding and compassionate toward Nina. “You must be the strongest woman in the world,” he told Nina. “No, the strongest person in the world.” Over time, however, Walden became bitter over the family secret. It churned in his mind and “poisoned his relationship” with Nina. “You told the biggest lie a woman could ever tell,” Walden exclaimed to Nina. “You denied your own child!” Everything Walden thought he knew about his family had been a lie. His own family, the people he trusted most, had lied to him his entire life.
Walden ultimately decided not to seek political office but continued working in his original career field. Despite his doctor’s expectations, Walden surpassed his 35th birthday, but not without complications. Beginning in the late 1960s, doctors often had to administer oxygen to Walden due to his weakened heart. In 1971, Walden had open heart surgery to replace two heart valves. Two years later, at the age of 37, Walden died in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, following an open-heart surgery to replace one of the heart valves he received in the 1971 operation. Walden once said “I’d like to be a legend by the time I’m 25 years old.” Whether or not people considered him a legend when he was 25 is debatable. He certainly is a legend now. When he was 21 years old, Walden recorded “Splish Splash,” and within a year he recorded and released “Dream Lover,” “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” You and I know Robert Walden Cassotto as Bobby Darin.
A writer of history, Brad Dison earned his master’s degree in the subject from Louisiana Tech University. He has written four history books and has been published in newspapers and scholarly journals. Keep up with the column through the Facebook group “Remember This? by Brad Dison.” For more real stories about real people with a twist, listen to Brad Dison’s podcast “Remember This?” at http://www.Brad Dison.com. Dison’s book “Remember this?” is available for preorder on that site.