Victoria de Grazia is the author of the new book The Perfect Fascist: A Story of Love, Power, and Morality in Mussolini's Italy. Her other books include Irresistible Empire. She is Moore Collegiate Professor of History at Columbia University, and she lives in New York City and Sarteano, Italy.
Q: How did you first learn about Attilio Terruzi and Lilliana Weinman, and at what point did you decide to write a book about them?
A: A lovely Upper West Side New York woman had a bagful of family papers. Her son and daughter-in-law reached out to me. I went over to meet her, and her question was, Why did Cousin Lilliana—a gifted, Jewish, brilliant opera singer—marry a 20-years-older Fascist?
When I reached into the bag, three items struck me. There was a wedding album, with Mussolini as a best man. There were photographs of military conquests—the Italians conquered Libya around 1922. The third was a volume of an annulment trial.
I was interested in nailing a Fascist, but how? It’s very hard. I had to understand it so I could confront it. This was an inside story. I thought the book would write itself—that this was an opera, a Netflix show, in three acts or five acts. I deluded myself.
It was the combination of the serendipity of finding this insider story and the problem of how to open up a system—to look at a male-female power couple, how they operated in this world. And this man was very powerful, although no one had written about him before.
Q: Why not?
A: He didn’t fall into the normal categories. He was a military man, but not a top military man. He was the perfect adjutant. He developed himself as an orator. He was also very adept at being a “good fellow”—he was a best man at weddings, he sat in at christenings. He knew about the police. He knew about cheating. He wrote very long reports. He was a professional “yes” man.
Q: So how did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially intrigued you?
A: I wasn’t sure whether to write about her or about him. A young Jewish woman goes to Italy, and it only emerges later that she was deeply scathed. Is she a heroine, or an antiheroine? And what about him? Why did he marry her, and who was he?
I’m not a biographer, I’m a social historian. I set off after him. He never was really visible. I looked at him in his wedding picture, and wondered, Could he be a violent guy? He was known to be impetuous and histrionic.
It took me a very long time, going through local newspapers, and there he was, leading police and squads in raids against socialists. I could see he was very much involved in the actual fisticuffs.
Then I began to work back. He was in Africa, and they used force against the native troops. I looked into military records. By the nature of his role as a captain, he had to kick his men into [line] and if they wouldn’t go he had to shoot them.
You get a picture of dynamism—a man of order in charge of restoring order. The perfect military man. He comes home and becomes the head of the security forces. They wanted disciplined vigilantes, and he was a very powerful figure.
To Lilliana, he was a perfect gentleman—until he wasn’t any more, and he realized this woman was a liability. She was too big for the kind of operation he was involved in. Too many people were talking about her.
It’s a cumulative “so what”—fascism evolved in terribly corrupt, dubious, melodramatic ways.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: Titles are so hard. I thought of The Diva vs. the Despot. I liked that—it was more of a MeToo kind of title. But then there was also the other woman [in the story], who was equally valuable.
The most surprising thing I found is that there were women everywhere. Fascists were not all male. There’s an image of an all-male operation, great virility—that’s hokum. Power is very complicated.
I really was perplexed by love—how much that word was used by Fascists. And power—that was striking, the raw power. And morality—I did have the idea that the book could be called A Moral History of Mussolini’s Italy, like a social history or a political history. That’s why there’s the threesome—love, power, and morality.
Q: Azar Nafisi wrote of the book, “Its two entwined narratives—one political and public, the other personal and private—perfectly complement one another and help us understand why the personal is political for those who insist on reshaping people and society.” Can you talk about how the personal and the political play out in the book?
A: From the way feminists have evolved, influenced by historians, we understand there is no singular personal or political. It’s more conceptual. I see a constant shifting in which people restated “this is private, this is public.”
In Lilliana’s case, she was the bearer of an American, bourgeois, immigrant family on the make in the early 20th century. She had devoted parents. She thought, I love him, I’ll marry him, we’re going to move into Mussolini’s inner circle. It was so very American. Here they are in the maelstrom of Fascist politics.
Here’s a guy with no capital of his own, trying to manipulate the system. They’re being tossed around. This big woman provides him with a whole private world. He has a primitive notion of the private protecting him. Her private pushes into the public zone.
The private and the public in these extremely polarized, reactionary politics was always changing. Mussolini was pitting everyone against each other.
If you read this, you’ll see what fascism was in its time. It was bound up in the globalism of its time. We need other terms now. The U.S. is the leading nation today; it wasn’t in the 1920s and ‘30s. We have to have a very different vantage point. This story has to be told if we want to use the past and make comparisons and connections.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Some conceptual poems.
And I really want to write about how important Italy was to the imagery of a “good Europe” from the 1960s on.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: One hope is that the book could almost be read like a novel from the 19th century or early 20th century, to get a sense of the people and what that kind of politics meant to people, to a nation, to the people conquered by the Italians. It was a local movement, but also global.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb