Steubenville: The place dreams aren’t made of
There is no Dean Martin Museum in Steubenville, Ohio. And the town’s other most famous export, former porn star Traci Lords, is not honoured with a statue in the town park.
Steubenville is a dying steel town on the Ohio River. In fact, the place is more or less deceased. Dean Martin, born Dino Crocetti, got out of here in the mid-1930s, at the age of 17, and headed for the lights of Chicago.
Ms Lords got out of here in 1980, when she was 12. Back then, her name wasn’t Traci Lords. It was Nora Kuzma. Her father’s family was Ukrainian and her mother’s side was Irish.
By the age of 10, she’d already been raped and had seen her mum repeatedly smashed to pieces by her dad.
Nora knew something was wrong. Her mother had been a beautiful, hip young woman who listened to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, wrote poems and played the guitar. She had fast become a beaten mill town wife.
The jagged black stitches across her mother’s face said it all. Her mum, chasing a new boyfriend and a new life, took Nora and her sisters on a Greyhound bus to California.
Nora wasn’t chasing the lights. She just wanted to grow up in a normal home. But her new life in California was dysfunctional and she was left to her own devices. The lights found her.
Dean Martin Boulevard runs along the Ohio River alongside Steubenville and there’s an annual Dean Martin Festival in June. But there’s not much else to celebrate “Steubenville’s Favourite Son”.
This is a faded little town of many churches and a Catholic university. Traci Lords is never described as “Steubenville’s Favourite Daughter”.
Vinnie Fristick runs the local antique store. He’s got a small Dean Martin memorabilia room up the stairs of his shop, most of the items for sale. There’s a lifesize cutout of Dino and Vinnie’s most valuable possession is an engraved bracelet, which was a gift to Dean from Sammy Davis Jnr.
There’s a signed photo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in a convertible in downtown Steubenville, taking in 1950 or 1951, with local crowds gathered around.
It was, Vinnie thinks, the one and only time Dean every came back to Steubenville. “A lot of people think he shunned this place by not coming back,” says Vinnie.
But why would he come back? “That’s exactly right,” says Vinnie. “Why would he?”
Given her memories of Steubenville, it is doubtful Ms Lords has been back either.
On the wall of Vinnie’s store there’s a picture or two of Ms Lords, but no real memorabilia exists. She was press-ganged into porn at the age of 15. By the time she was 17, and still a minor, she had made 20 X-rated films. Then the FBI moved in on the people who’d been using her.
Apart from one film, made when she was 18, the films and photo shoots in which she appeared were, and still are, contraband.
Ms Lords, who developed a drug habit at the age of 15, got out of porn after a short and awful three years. She took years to recover. The process began with the help of director John Waters, who cast her in the film Cry-Baby, with Johnny Depp.
On that set of that film she hung out with a weird bunch that made her feel she wasn’t such a freak.
The girl born here as Nora Kuzma made a decision early on to own the name she had worked under in porn, not as a celebration, but as an admission that she would never be able to escape a reputation she had built as an exploited child.
“She used to live down on 6th St,” says local police captain John Young, who has come into the antique store check on his friend, Vinnie.
Steubenville, which broke down when the steel industry failed, became a place of bad street crime and crack-cocaine in the 1980s, just as Nora Kuzma left for good.
The town is cleaner these days, but Vinnie, who spent 30 years in the mills before opening up his antique shop, is still wary about the potential for mad crack heads to bust in and hold him up.
He appreciates the police officer’s routine visits but, even so, he carries on his person two pistols at all times.
Steubenville’s that sort of place. “I don’t ever want to hurt nobody,” Vinnie says. “But I’ll kill someone if I have to.”
Ohio is still talking about the recent Chardon High School killings, where the 17-year-old TJ Lane shot three others dead with a pistol, about 200km north of here. Vinnie tells me America’s legal gun culture disturbs him. But he says it’s now a case of having to defend yourself against the others who have guns.
The police captain comes back down the stairs and says: “Here. I found this.”
It’s Traci Lords’ 2003 autobiography, Underneath It All.
In the opening lines, she writes: “I grew up in a dirty little steel town called Steubenville, in eastern Ohio. It was one of those places where everyone was old, or just plain seemed like it. Even the little kids felt the times, and the times were tough.”
She remembered streets filled with men in Levi’s carrying metal lunch boxes. She remembered many bad moments from this place, where her beauty made her a target.
Dino lived a pretty good life, by all accounts, never forgot his Italian heritage, didn’t croon just for the cocktail set but also did some good country - and some really weird songs as well. In case you doubt me, have a listen to Hey Brother, Pour the Wine.
He bought the farm in 1995 at the age of 78 and, last heard from, Traci Lords was living happily ever onwards.
She writes in her book that underneath it all, she was just a small-town girl. But she wasn’t, of course. Neither was Dino. Steubenville just wasn’t for them. These days, it’s not for anyone much.
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