In 1947, while working for the U.S. Department of State in Switzerland, Natalie Croce Lagorio went on holiday to Egypt.
“Down in the Valley of the Kings, I saw a sign rising up from behind the Sphinx that said, ‘Drink Coca-Cola,’” says Lagorio, 94.
To an armchair traveler, there’s something cinematic about the irony in her anecdote. Much like her life, it was something Lagorio happened on — it wasn’t planned or scripted.
Lagorio’s two-year stint in foreign service as a secretary led to another overseas post with James David Zellerbach, American ambassador to Italy. She lived in Rome as the ambassador’s secretary from 1957 to 1960, an era bookended by lush, romantic films like “Roman Holiday” and “La Dolce Vita,” which Lagorio says captured the feel of the times.
“I was really happy for myself. My parents were Italian immigrants. I had an Italian spirit, I guess you could say. It was a perfect time to be there,” she says. “I traveled all over Italy, to Sicily, and also Belgium and Austria.”
In the fall of 1959 she met Henry Lagorio, a professor of architecture on sabbatical from the University of California at Berkeley. Though the two grew up in Oakland and even attended the same high school, they were strangers.
Henry’s sister, who knew Natalie and where life had taken her, encouraged him to make a connection once he settled abroad. Their relationship developed over a few short months and continued once they returned to California. They married in San Francisco in 1962.
Their careers kept life interesting. The couple lived in Honolulu for a time, as well as Washington, D.C., where Natalie worked at the Smithsonian Institute and Henry, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, established a program for architecture students to study earthquakes.
“I couldn’t imagine anybody having a better husband. He was very funny, had a wonderful sense of humor. He was very easygoing, never cross,” she says of Henry, who died in October 2013.
After Henry’s death, Natalie decided she didn’t want to live alone, so in February 2015 she moved to Piedmont Gardens.
“The people here are outstanding, and we’re in the hubbub of Oakland,” Lagorio says. “I love the theater — Berkeley Repertory, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theatre. I have memberships to MOMA, Legion of Honor and de Young, and I’m a member of the Faculty Wives of University of California.”
She also enjoys special moments with her nieces and nephews, whom Lagorio says visit often and treat her like a queen. Recently one of them even made her the namesake of a new addition to the family.
And like her trip back to Italy last year, Lagorio continues to travel. One wonders what fun, what chance encounters are yet to come.
“You make decisions as your life comes, but life works out the way it does,” she says. “I was lucky and things just fell into place.”