Most people have heard the name Robert De Niro. But the A-lister was only the second to bear that name – the first being his father, Robert De Niro Sr. Now, De Niro Sr. lead a fascinating life, and left behind a series of journals after he passed away. But his son can’t stand the idea of actually reading them, at least not yet.
Like his son, De Niro Sr. had had an illustrious career, even if he wasn’t as widely known. Indeed, he was an expressionist abstract artist, and his work was exhibited all over the United States. Furthermore, he was married to fellow painter Virginia Admiral, and Robert De Niro Jr. was their only child. However, they separated not long after he was born, because De Niro Sr. revealed he was homosexual.
Sadly, De Niro Sr. died of prostate cancer in 1993, on his 71st birthday. But his son kept his legacy alive over the years with exhibitions, documentaries and the like. What’s more, some parts of De Niro Sr.’s journals are public knowledge, as his son granted access to them. But he’s never read the whole collection, which are full, he told The Observer, of his father’s “demons.”
Now De Niro Sr. met Admiral at a painting class in Provincetown, Massachusetts. According to the 1996 book Untouchable: A Biography of Robert De Niro by Andy Dougan, the pair were a “golden couple.” Indeed, the actor writes, “They were among the best in the school, attracting attention in an atmosphere where painters either excelled or were ignored completely.”
After this, the pair got married in 1942, but De Niro Sr.’s true sexuality meant the relationship couldn’t continue. When they divorced, in 1945, De Niro Jr. was only two years old. And the little boy began living in Manhattan with his mother, now a single parent. But his father was still involved in his life, and spent time with him where possible.
Talking to Parade magazine in November 2009, De Niro Jr. said of his family background, “My father’s side was working-class, lower middle-class. My mother’s side didn’t have much money. They were kind of academic. My grandfather was a working man. He worked for the health department.” So what was it like growing up amongst artists for the young De Niro?
Well, in the same Parade interview, De Niro Jr. said of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, “It was an exciting time to grow up. Kind of bohemian. Things were happening. There were big changes.” He went on, “I wasn’t really a part of it, though. I was more on the outside. But by virtue of being an actor, I was a good observer of it.”
What’s more, De Niro Jr. was a shy child, but he was able to overcome it via acting. At the age of ten he played the Cowardly Lion in a Wizard of Oz production at school. And hooked on cinema, he dropped out of high school at 16, and began seriously looking into acting.
In fact, he simply “didn’t have a Plan B” he told Parade. “I never quite got to the point of needing one. I did one thing, then the next. I was able to sustain myself,” he said. Surprisingly, De Niro was just over 30 when he hit the big time, and he was glad about that. “I had some regular life behind me,” he explained. So what did his parents think of his ambitions as an actor?
Well, De Niro Sr. and Admiral were always supportive of their son’s chosen path. In 2019, speaking to Architectural Digest, De Niro Jr. said they “were the kind of parents who weren’t going to oppose my wanting to be an actor.” In fact, he considered that his parents had an unconscious influence, even, on the performer he became.
To this day De Niro Jr. is a massively celebrated and popular actor. And it’s not difficult to understand why. Indeed, he has two Oscars, a Golden Globe, and an AFI Life Achievement Award under his belt. Oh, and let’s not forget the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 2016. Among his most famous films are The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Taxi Driver. But let’s get back to family matters.
So after De Niro Sr. passed away in 1993, De Niro Jr. dedicated his new film A Bronx Tale to him. Touchingly, it was the first film he had ever directed, so it had special significance. Talking to Interview magazine that year, he said, “I thought it would be a nice thing to do—and the movie’s about fathers and sons.”
In the same interview, De Niro Jr. shared other tidbits about his parents. For his father had often been “struggling, I guess, for want of a better word,” with his artist’s lifestyle. But he would take his son out to the movies sometimes. “I liked things [films] like A Taste of Honey and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” De Niro Jr. said.
And come 2014, De Niro Jr. collaborated on a documentary film about his father, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. And when asked on The Today Show why he had done the HBO premiere, the actor answered, “Because I owed it to him and all the family, because of the great work that he had done.”
Furthermore, De Niro Jr. also thought he owed it to his children. For he has six kids in all. His oldest daughter, Drena, is the daughter of his first wife Diahnne Abbott and he adopted her. Also, he has twins Julian and Aaron from a relationship with model Toukie Smith. To add to that, he had two more children with his second wife Grace Hightower.
After completing the documentary, De Niro Jr. told Flatt magazine, “I wanted my younger kids — who were born after he died — to know what their grandfather did. I even kept his painting studio intact so they could see it. I’ve kept my father’s studio for 20 years — since he passed away. I’ve kept it just about the way it was.”
What’s more, De Niro Jr. almost got rid of the studio. Yes, he was thinking of videotaping its interior then letting it go. But, he told Flatt, “I realized it’s different in person than it is on video. It’s another experience. So I’ve held on to it. At a point I realized how important it is for children to appreciate certain things that their parents want to share with them, like my father did with me.”
Although the documentary focused a lot on his father’s art, De Niro Sr.’s sexuality was obviously discussed as well. And during the Flatt interview, De Niro Jr. got so emotional he started to cry. Indeed, it appeared there was a lot of baggage in his relationship with his father. “I get emotional. I don’t know why,” he said.
Of their early relationship, De Niro Jr. told Out, “We were not the type of father and son who played baseball together, as you can surmise. But we had a connection. I wasn’t with him a lot, because my mother and he were separated and divorced. As I say in the documentary, I looked after him in certain ways.” So what about the actor’s own experiences as a parent in comparison to his late dad?
Well, De Niro Jr. said, “I think of my own kids… They have their issues as teenagers. I give them their space, but when I have to step in and be firm about something, I am. But my father wasn’t a bad father, or absent. He was absent in some ways. He was very loving. He adored me… as I do my kids.”
Touchingly, the actor also discussed his love for his father’s pieces of art. “I have Venice by Night at my house,” he said. “I love the ones at Locanda Verde [his own restaurant in NY], at the grill upstairs on the second floor. There are a lot of black-and-whites that are terrific. I like the delicacy of them, the refinement. They have a certain kind of clarity. They’re really great.”
Then the interviewer for Out asked De Niro Jr., “It seems that you are trying to recuperate your father’s legacy, to maybe make his name last longer than yours.” And the actor answered, “Well, you never know. His art could last longer than my films. Although the digital stuff, it’ll always be there. Great art should last forever.” So what was De Niro Sr.’s approach to art?
“He spent a lot of time alone, or with a still life or a model. That was his thing,” the actor said. “What I remember him saying was, ‘People, what they appreciate in art, that’s their taste. It’s as valid as anything else.’ On the other hand, he had very high standards.”
Now, excerpts from De Niro Sr.’s diaries were featured in the documentary film. “I haven’t even read all the diaries – I started,” De Niro Jr. explained to Out. “I read the ones for the film, but I haven’t read all the other material.” Asked if he had plans to share the rest of the diaries, he answered, “I’m not sure.”
Indeed, De Niro Jr. thought he might have to talk to his family about sharing the diaries. And while his mother had died in 2000, there were other people who had loved his father. “I’m going to go over them and talk to everybody about what they think,” he said. “I have no problem with that. That’s part of his legacy, too – what he was, what he felt.” But just years later the diaries were discussed yet again.
Yes, because a new book was being published about the elder De Niro in October 2019. And it was called Robert De Niro, Sr.: Paintings, Drawings and Writings: 1942-1993. Now, De Niro Jr. had once again made his father’s journals available, this time to the authors of the book.
Furthermore, De Niro Jr. told Architectural Digest, that he was doing it not just for his children but his grandchildren. As he went on to explain, “My older kids knew him, but my younger kids didn’t, and I want my grandkids, my great-grandkids all to be aware of who their grandfather was, their great-grandfather, that he was a genuine artist and a wonderful artist.” So had the Goodfellas star since been able to read his father’s diaries himself?
Well, speaking to The Observer recently, De Niro Jr. revealed that he wanted to read his father’s journals, but still couldn’t bring himself to. “I’m anxious to read them. I’ll read them when it feels right … but at the moment that’s how I’m dealing with it,” he said. And the bits he had seen, he said, were “sad for me to read.”
Indeed, the extracts that have already been made public go deep into his father’s struggles with his mental health and sexuality. Crucially, these were things that he only discussed with his son in “vague ways,” De Niro Jr. told The Observer. And he had only learned his father was gay “when I was a young adult.” The journal excerpts do certainly make for difficult reading.
For instance, in one, De Niro Sr. writes, “I am full of fear … of the discomfort caused by my own thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses.” He goes on, “There is so much I have left out of this journal … My laments, wailings, self-pity and complaining are much greater than I have [indicated] here.” But that’s not all.
For in another one of the entries, De Niro Sr. writes of praying for his “mental and emotional sickness” to end, and goes on, “If God doesn’t want me to be homosexual (about which I have so much guilt), he will find a woman whom I will love and who will love me. But I really don’t want my homosexuality to be cured.”
Being gay in De Niro Sr.’s era was, of course, far from easy. For example, he would have been around for the “Lavender Scare” which took place during the 1950s. In that period, President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought in Executive Order 10450, which banned gay people from working in the federal government. As a result, thousands lost their jobs, and more were publicly “outed” in the process.
What’s more, the Stonewall riots, considered to be a turning point in LGBT history, didn’t take place until 1969. And the following year gay pride events took place in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. But that didn’t mean LGBT people couldn’t still face homophobia. Indeed, even the 1990s weren’t as friendly as some would have you believe.
For example, when De Niro Sr. passed away in 1993, same-sex marriage was still illegal in the United States. And in December of that year, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for members of the United States military began. Shockingly, this meant an LGBT soldier couldn’t talk about their sexuality or their same-sex partner if they had one. Moreover, the rule lasted until 2011.
These days, De Niro Jr. speaks determinedly about LGBT rights and the scourge of white nationalism in the United States. In January 2019, after being sent a pipe bomb because of his political views, he told The Guardian, “Yeah, I worry, and one of my kids is gay, and he worries about being treated a certain way. We talk about it.” Sadly, that is in contrast to the conversations he didn’t have with his own father.
Yes, because during his original interview with Out, De Niro Jr. pondered about whether his father was ashamed of his homosexuality. “Yeah, he probably was, being from that generation, especially from a small town upstate,” he said. “I was not aware, much, of it. I wish we had spoken about it much more.”
So part of De Niro’s willingness to speak out about his father now comes from that past regret. “My mother didn’t want to talk about things in general, and you’re not interested when you’re a certain age,” he told Out. “Again, for my kids, I want them to stop and take a moment and realize that you sometimes have to do things now instead of later, because later may be 20 years from now — and that’s too late.”
Surprisingly, De Niro Jr. thinks his father was a little resentful of his success, although not enough to create a rift. “He was very proud of me. At the same time, part of him might have been saying, ‘I wish I had some success too,’” he told The Observer. “He always used to say to me ‘great artists are recognized many years after they’re gone’.”
And in his own journals, the elder De Niro does indeed speak of his pride in his son. In one entry he writes of De Niro Jr., “He is tanned from a sunlamp – for his new movie part – and looks much better than when he returned from Italy two weeks ago. I wanted to run my fingers through his hair and to kiss him, but I hardly think that he would have appreciated it.”
Above all else, De Niro Jr. remembers how much his father loved him. As he went on to explain to The Observer, “It wasn’t like we sat down and he told me, ‘I like this movie’… But I know he was proud.” And that was perhaps best illustrated in another passage from his father’s personal diaries. For you see, he wrote in one that De Niro Jr. was “getting all sorts of movie and stage offers” at the time, and “My little baby-doll has grown up.”