Madonna was accused of shunning her brother but truth is complicated
Madonna’s Skid Row brother: For years the superstar, 64, was accused of shunning him. But after Anthony Ciccone’s death, TOM LEONARD – who once found him living under a bridge as a hopeless alcoholic – says the truth is more complicated
- Ciccone insisted Madonna had deserted him and didn’t care if he lived or died
- Last week his brother-in-law revealed Anthony died aged 66 in nursing home
- READ: Madonna visited her brother Anthony Ciccone in rehab prior to his death
The snow now lies thick over Traverse City’s Union Street Bridge, aggravating the efforts of a construction crew working to repair the dilapidated structure in this Great Lakes town.
For now, it’s closed to traffic and pedestrians, but it certainly wasn’t back in 2011 when I visited and found an extraordinary resident had set up home underneath it.
His name was Anthony Ciccone, and the reason he could willingly live in the grim, cold and dangerous walkway beside a river was because he spent much of his time down there in a drunken stupor.
But what set Anthony apart from the other unfortunate members of north Michigan’s homeless population was that he was the older brother of Madonna.
He repeatedly insisted that she and the rest of his family had deserted him and didn’t care if he lived or died, bringing into question the true nature of the multi-millionaire singer-songwriter who prided herself on her humanitarian values.
Anthony Ciccone and Madonna, circled, with their siblings in 1991
He repeatedly insisted that Madonna (pictured last year) and the rest of his family had deserted him and didn’t care if he lived or died, bringing into question the true nature of the multi-millionaire singer-songwriter who prided herself on her humanitarian values.
His antipathy towards his sister bubbled under the surface during the few days he and I spent together discussing his astonishing circumstances.
Last week, the tragic saga came to an end when Anthony’s brother-in-law revealed he’d died aged 66.
He passed away not under a bridge but in a nursing home 12 miles further up the Lake Michigan coast in the town of Suttons Bay, where for decades the Ciccone family have run a vineyard, bought with Madonna’s money.
Anthony had been ill for at least six years. According to insiders, by the end he had lost a lot of weight and had removed the oxygen and feeding tubes keeping him alive just two days before his death.
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As the old accusations that she’d cruelly neglected a sibling once again circulated online, Madonna, 64, paid tribute to him on social media, saying he was an ‘important’ influence on her life.
‘Thank you for blowing my mind as a young girl,’ said Madonna. ‘You planted many important seeds.’
They ranged from the jazz greats Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to Buddhism, ‘expansive thinking’ and Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac.
The Ciccones have refused to talk about Anthony’s death and the cause remains unclear, although it was said not to be directly down to his drinking.
But family sources told the TMZ news website that Madonna had not only visited him before he died but had also been footing the bill for his treatment for years.
According to Craig Limon, 57, one of Anthony’s grizzled old pals from the Traverse City street scene whom I encountered last week sheltering from the cold in a bookshop, Anthony had developed a brain tumour six years ago and could no longer cope on his own.
He believes he moved first into a house at the family vineyard in 2017 and later into a care home.
Mr Limon’s account of Anthony’s final years in full-time medical care was echoed by others around town.
Karen McCarthy, a former board member of Dann’s House, a pioneering charity that offers homeless addicts a roof over their heads, confirmed that Anthony lived there from 2014 to 2017, but had to leave after developing a medical condition they could not deal with that was unrelated to his alcoholism.
However, having met him in 2011 and seen for myself how he lived, it would have been a surprise if bad health hadn’t caught up with him.
Anthony smoked like a chimney and drank himself senseless every night he could.
Nights, incidentally, where the temperature in winter falls as low as -10C, he spent dossing down on the cold concrete of a grubby footpath under that bridge, sharing damp, threadbare blankets with a friend and fellow alcoholic named Mike Champ.
The latter, a gentle soul who used to chide and correct Anthony whenever he felt he was being unfair, such as when he claimed his family had never helped him overcome his alcoholism, died aged just 43 in 2012 after falling down some stairs blind drunk.
By the time I encountered him, Anthony had spent 18 months sleeping rough after falling out with his father over his drinking.
He’d lost his job at the family wine-making business after being found sprawled on his back drinking wine straight from the vats.
Although he could find shelter and hot food on really cold nights in local churches, Anthony usually spent his days and nights outdoors – he and Mike taking it in turns to stay awake because street crime and the threat of violence made it too dangerous to fall asleep at the same time.
He was something of a local celebrity, which didn’t help him as people often offered to buy him drinks.
The book of remembrance opened online by the undertaker for Anthony’s family and friends to post tributes and comments is full of praise for his intelligence and extensive knowledge – he was rarely seen without a book, from classical philosophy to pulp fiction.
A police mugshot of Anthony Ciccone when he was arrested in 2013
One line reads: ‘In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.’
Anthony certainly led an eventful life, as he told me during the sober moments between his frequent bouts of guzzling Wild Irish Rose, a cheap, strong and sweet fortified wine beloved of penniless alcoholics here.
But it was a life that, as far as he was concerned, had been blighted by the shadow of his super-famous sister, two years his junior.
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Talking to Anthony, a scruffy bear of a man with a white beard stained nicotine brown by the endless cigarettes he rolled and who wore four layers of smelly clothing to keep warm, it was hard to connect him with the impossibly toned and glamorous Madonna.
He clearly had very mixed feelings about her – being on the one hand genuinely pleased for her success, but sick of being seen simply as ‘Madonna’s brother’.
Anthony often sang her hit Like A Virgin when she became famous in the 1980s. He told me he was ‘proud of her’, but added: ‘It’s been a burden, because I can’t be me.’
For the most part he would bridle when Madonna’s name was mentioned by others.
They were the oldest of six children (one died in infancy) born to their reportedly strict father Silvio and mother, also named Madonna.
‘We hated each other – sibling rivalry, I imagine,’ he told me, describing how she’d ‘sneak guys into the house when my father wasn’t around and I was supposed to be responsible for us all’.
‘She’d be in the bedroom with some guy, and my little brothers and sisters would be standing outside with their ears cupped to the door, listening. I’d have to bust the door open and kick the guy out. She didn’t forgive me for that.’
He and Madonna shared the unenviable experience of being the only Ciccone children considered old enough to be shown their mother in an open funeral casket when she died, aged just 30, of breast cancer in 1966.
They were nine and seven at the time. ‘It made a lasting impression on us both,’ he said. ‘It was a macabre thing for two little kids to see.’
Some mental health experts now argue that such childhood trauma can have a very powerful effect on lives, shaping personalities and susceptibility to addiction.
Madonna’s burning desire for fame and love has often been attributed to the painful loss of her mother, and many experts would say it’s more than possible that the shocking bereavement also drove her brother to become an alcoholic.
The pair grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Detroit, where Mr Limon went to school with them.
Anthony’s friend told me he remembered Madonna not as the pop world’s wildest child, but as a conscientious and hard-working Red Cross volunteer, babysitter and swimming pool lifeguard. ‘I thought she’d become a teacher,’ he said.
When Madonna’s singing career took off, Anthony was working for the Unification Church, better known as the Moonies, after his then girlfriend – a member of the cult – had recruited him in California.
A wandering spirit and a loner, he worked variously as a cook, house painter, piano tuner and film location scout.
He spent time with his sister in New York during her 1980s heyday, later recounting with pride how he, Madonna and Mick Jagger once shared a joint as they sat at a nightclub table with David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
He also remembered wandering around ‘bemused’ with David Lee Roth, singer with the rock band Van Halen, ‘looking at the freaks’ who had turned up for a bondage-themed party thrown by Madonna. However, it was her world, not his.
‘He was a lost soul trying to find his way, but he was a good person,’ said Carolina Gengo, a girlfriend at the time.
‘He had books everywhere, that was all he really had. He was into reading about life and philosophy, and he wanted to sit around and talk about it.’
Ms Gengo recalled Madonna’s assistant once ringing him on his birthday to ask how much money he’d like as a present.
That sort of treatment alienated him, she said.
Anthony moved to Los Angeles and became a stage set carpenter after Madonna’s movie director father-in-law, Leo Penn – father of her first husband, the actor Sean Penn – gave him a job.
He settled down with a costume designer, Mary Jane Lawson, and they had a son, Angelo, in 1993.
Union Street Bridge in Traverse City, Michigan, where the homeless Anthony Ciccone slept rough
But domestic bliss crumbled in 1999 when he lost his job – blaming Hollywood’s move to computer-generated rather than hand-built sets – swiftly followed by his girlfriend and their son.
She claimed he had threatened her, which he denied. However, she had a restraining order taken out on him that prevented him seeing his son, whom he said he adored.
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Anthony claimed the experience drove him ‘insane’, adding: ‘They were all I ever wanted.’
He went seriously off the rails, spending two years living rough in downtown LA and – some claimed – developing an addiction to crack cocaine. In his literary way, Anthony told me it was ‘like a descent into Hades’.
Although he claimed his family left him to die on Skid Row, the truth was very different.
After he returned to Michigan on a Greyhound bus and took a job at the family vineyard in 2005, Madonna and their father arranged for him at separate times to go into rehab – on one occasion for a two-month stint in Houston, Texas – but it never worked.
When sober, he could be personable and entertaining – everyone was impressed by his bookish education – although he had a prickly exterior.
Talking to him, he wouldn’t even accept he had a drink problem, so one could easily imagine how his family – Madonna included – found him infuriating to deal with.
The word usually used to describe their relationship was ‘complicated’.
After going on the streets in 2010, he had a few brushes with the law in Traverse City – once for being drunk in a church and, more seriously, for resisting arrest in a public toilet in 2013 on an outstanding warrant for trespass.
He ended up with nine stitches on his head when it hit the floor during the struggle with police officers trying to take him in.
But such instances were the exception rather than the norm, according to Lieutenant Steve Sivek, of Traverse City Police.
‘He was not a troublemaker, but he had his demons,’ Lieutenant Sivek told me.
‘He’s missed by a lot of us here. Anthony was enjoyable to just sit and talk with – actually a very nice guy.’
Lieutenant Sivek said he hadn’t seen Anthony for a few years, adding: ‘He didn’t like it when people asked him about his sister, but he was very intelligent and very well-read.’
In 2014, Anthony stopped living full-time on the streets and moved into Dann’s House, a charity which gives homeless alcoholics a roof over their head and other support but allows them to keep drinking.
He made considerable progress and cut his alcohol consumption, said Karen McCarthy, adding: ‘He very much missed his mother.
‘He felt abandoned by his family, but he also deeply loved them.’
However, even after moving back out to Suttons Bay and the watchful eye of family members, Anthony – a keen cyclist – occasionally pedalled back into Traverse City to see old friends, Mr Limon revealed.
Anthony’s friend added: ‘His dad would give him something to do in the vineyard and a little money, like $20, to spend in town.
‘He got a bike for him, but Anthony got it stolen.’
To many, Anthony Ciccone was the troll under the bridge for Madonna.
He can no longer pop up from underneath to embarrass and tarnish her carefully curated image – but people will always wonder how she could adopt four children from Africa when her own brother couldn’t be rescued from ruin.
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