Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend

By Cristina De Stefano

Other Press | 2017 | 288 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Around the world, many young scribblers preparing to enter the world of international reportage pay tribute to the provocative Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the truth-teller who wrote political commentary, novels, war dispatches, and ambush celebrity interviews. She did it all.

In this new biography on Fallaci, journalist Cristina De Stafano attempts to capture the passion, versatility, and ambition of the writer in this very brief volume. Fallaci deserved better with such a long, honored literary career, but this is the only authorized view of her that we have for now.

“La Fallaci,” as she was called by her peers, was born in Florence, Italy, in 1929 to modest beginnings. She was the eldest of three sisters. Her father made cabinets and was zealous about opposing the rise of the fascist movement. He joined the resistance when Il Duce teamed with the Fuhrer in a non-aggression pact to conquer all Europe. His daughter, too young to be stopped by the black-shirted fascists, carried messages for the rebels and often grenades amid baskets of produce.

“I live on tragedy,” Fallaci once said to a reporter in 1981. “Tragedy is in everything I say and write. My moral and political education was completed by the time I was 10 or 11, when I accompanied my father to small villages where he was fighting Nazi fascism. When they tortured my father, he never screamed, he laughed. Laughing, he said, was the same thing as crying.”

During the war, her father hid two British soldiers, who had escaped from a POW camp. Fallaci kept an old letter from one of them, thanking the patriarch for what he did. The war left a lasting impression on her as she saw Florence reduced to rubble with no water or power from the Allied bombing. These images would imprint her view of war for the rest of her life.

Other than courage, Fallaci showed a fascination with the written word, reading every chance she got. Her first role model was Jack London, whose style, imagination, and intellect she admired. When she announced her intention to write, her parents opposed the idea. Her mother, who thought was brilliant, even slammed her notion: “A writer! Do you know how many books you would have to publish to make a living?”

Still, nothing eased her obsession with writing. “I sat by the type writer for the first time and fell in love with the words that emerged like drops, one by one, and remained on the white sheet of paper,” she said. “Every drop became something that if spoken would have flown away, but on sheets as words, became solidified, whether they were good or bad.”

Bowing to family pressure, Fallaci compromised with a choice to go to medical school. Her teachers thought the girl to be very serious, disciplined, introverted, and driven to be the best. At 16, she conned the editor of a newspaper to give her a try-out. Soon she began covering police and hospital topics, then graduating to work as a regular columnist for Il Mattino, covering the evening shift. She was known to the staff as “the Kid.”

Even her fellow staffers marveled at her enormous talent. They couldn’t believe these sophisticated articles were being produced by a girl barely out of high school. In time, she went to work as a writer for Epoca, a new weekly in Milan. For the first time, she was allowed to write about politics, a topic reserved for males, and she thrived in the job. Although the post lasted for less than a year, she got the bug to do more serious subjects, especially politics.

However, this was not the time. In 1954, she left Florence with one suitcase, bound for Rome. A colleague told her that she would have more opportunities to her print work, but this is “the start of the Hungry Years,” where she survived on bread and crackers. There were not many female journalists in Italy. Landing a job with L’Europeo’s meager entertainment section, she dreamed of politics and power plays, yet she was relegated to shallow society figures and soirees.

“I felt lonely as a bastard dog,” she later confessed. “I defended myself like a bastard dog and attacked like a bastard dog, and that’s how I became the equivalent of a black man invited to the White House.”

Later that year, Fallaci maneuvered her way on a press junket with the first flight from Rome to Tehran. It was a highly organized trip with tours of familiar tourist sites and museums. After landing, she bought a black chador and visited a mosque, which was off-limits to infidels. Not content to submit to the packaged tours, she arranged to do an interview with Soraya, the Shah of Iran’s second wife. Rumors circulated the Empress was barren. Also, there was the matter of the political coup that had occurred months before. Still, the Empress agreed to see Fallaci because she was the only woman in the Italian delegation. The interview followed such pomp and circumstance, but when the writer forgot to bow as instructed, the Empress started laughing. Everything went well after that slip of protocol. Some say this was the start of the Fallaci interview style of bold questions, vivid descriptions, and a sense of urgency and conflict.

“I owe everything to journalism,” Fallaci was quoted years later. “As a child, I was poor; because of journalism I didn’t grow up to be poor. I was full of curiosity, hungry to see the world, and I was able to do this because of journalism. I had grown up in a society that oppressed and mistreated women; because of journalism I was able to live like a man.”

Following her return to Italy, she maintained her gig for L’Europeo, covering the antics of the film business and high society. She was bored. That next year, she moved to Milan and worked for L’Espresso, where she again worked hard. She handled any topic her editor sent her way: a meaningless suicide, a con artist swindling orphans in her care, a Brit in transition with a sex change, and the tawdry romantic lives of Italian starlets.

But something occurred on the world stage that caught her eye. On October 23, 1956, the citizens revolted against the might of the Communist regime in Hungary. Fallaci sensed this was the story she was waiting for, the little guy versus the powerful Soviet-backed army. Once the Soviets invaded and the borders were sealed, she knew she had little time to get the capital before it was isolated. She tried to get a taxi there, but it was stopped. She tried to hitch a ride with a Red Cross convoy, but it was stopped.

There in the remote parts of Hungary and later in Austria, she was confronted with the brutality of the Russians and their Hungarian puppets, and the flood of the damaged people entering the refugee camps. As the carnage of the revolt continued, she sat with a radio operator broadcasting rebel messages: “How can you ignore the cries of our women and children who are being murdered? People of the world. Hear the desperate cries of a small nation!” Her series of articles from the front were shattering, but the last one ended with the lasting image of a student’s demolished face with his tongue severed because he would not name the name of his comrades.

America was a dream for Fallaci since the Yank troops marched into Italy during the World War II. She always described Americans as “angels dressed in khakis.” In 1955, she toured as a press member to Hollywood, Washington, and New York. On that trip, she tried to interview Marilyn Monroe, but the search was fruitless.

Hollywood suited her. In her profiles, she recreated every facets of their personality down to the fine detail. She identified Judy Garland as a young girl who just wanted to sing yet her talents were misused. She called Loretta Young a lonely woman clinging to her rosary. She described Elvis Presley as an idiot. She carried a grudge against Frank Sinatra because he refused to meet her in Rome. Still, she detested the “falseness and arrogance” that was infested Tinsel Town.

An eager student of the celebrity game, she probed the techniques of the leading publicity mavens, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Sheila Graham. Hopper, a former actress and national gossip columnist, advised her: “Don’t spare anyone. Speak ill of everyone. Take pleasure in being known as a snake.”

In the mid-1950s, her profiles in Hollywood appeared in several Italian newspapers, where she was gaining a large following. The celebrity articles are revealing, bold observations without missing any detail, full-blown narratives with warts and all. Soon her popular list included Yul Brynner, William Holden, Kim Novak, Arthur Miller, Hugh Hefner, Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Sean Connery, and Cecil B. DeMille. She also counted Ingrid Bergman, Maria Callas, and Orson Welles, who wrote the preface to her first book.

Writing was her life. If there was down time, she would start to be restless, to crave activity. To be certain, there was always a hot spot or a personality at the heart of a percolating news story. “If I do nothing, I feel guilty,” she said. “If you want to see me fade like a dry flower, just leave me in one place, even if it is in the best house, the best circumstances.”

In 1963 and 1964, Fallaci became mesmerized by the NASA space program and spent quite a lot of time with the astronauts. They permitted her to full access with them, dancing and drinking and dining with the boys. Astronaut Charles Conrad took a photo of Fallaci as a baby with him on the second trip to the moon. Two very successful books about NASA, astronauts, and space travel, If The Sun Dies and That Day On The Moon, were published in 1966 and 1970 respectively.

Nevertheless, covering hard news and politics were her first loves. She linked it to her father, who taught her when she was 13 that “politics is the highest form of human activity.” Eventually, the writer learned that politics corrupted, veered into dark spaces of vice, betrayal, fraud, and sometimes war.

“If you want to see me all lighted up, just show me a little piece of politics, any politics,” Fallaci said. Her observations were published in many influential European and American publications, including Le Nouvel Observateur, Der Stern, Life Look, New York Times, Washington Post and The New Republic.  

During the space craze of the mid-1960s, Fallaci noticed the full-scale American intervention into the Vietnam conflict, with thousands of combat troops posted alongside the military advisers. The writer, drawn to the flame of war like a moth, left for Vietnam in November 1967 with a photographer. She was open-minded and would chat to anyone, filling up notebooks with leaders and soldiers from both sides, including the Vietcong.

Fallaci spent seven years in Vietnam, both North and South, all on the front lines each time. Her most harrowing experience occurs in Hue, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war, defended by the Viet Cong against GIs and elite South Vietnamese soldiers. She was stunned by the once beautiful city, with its traditional palaces and temples, smashed into rubble with corpses stacked in the streets.

Highlights during the war included an exclusive interview with General Vo Nguyen Giap, an enemy commander of the anticolonial rebellion against the French and “a living legend.” She was granted forty-five minutes with him. After the Tet Offensive, he assured the Americans will be beaten and their Dien Bien Phu would happen. She also interviewed two captured American pilots and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, who denied he was an American puppet.

“Interviews are direct and effective and dramatic,” Fallaci said during an interview at Harvard. “They are beautiful because they are theater.”

Whereas the writer could be bored with talking with a celebrity, a politician or military figure would intrigue her. She acted like a brazen infidel when she interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeni for six hours and suddenly tore off her chador and tossed it at him.

Henry Kissinger felt Nixon’s wrath when she got him to say: “I see myself as a cowboy leading the caravan along astride his horse.” Golda Meir called Arafat “an animal” for his plan to destroy Israel. Indira Gandhi dismissed regrets and fear as a waste of time both in life and politics. Her subjects also included Ali Bhutto, Yasir Arafat, Archbishop Makarios, Willy Brandt, Hussein of Jordan, and the Dalai Lama.

Fallaci loved confrontations. Other than Hungary and Vietnam, she reported revolutions in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and the infamous Tlateloloco Messacre in Mexico City, where she was shot by the police, suffering wounds in the shoulder, back and knee. Also, she covered the Lebanon civil war and the Kuwait War.

She was the author of 15 books, all but three translated into English. They have been translated into 26 languages and published in 32 countries. The books have included: The Seven Sins of Hollywood (1958), The Useless Sex (1964), Penelope At War (1996), If The Sun Dies (1966) The Egotists (1968), Nothing And So Be It (1972), Interview With History (1976), Letter to a Child Never Born (1976), A Man (1980), Inshallah (1992),and The Rage and the Pride (2001).

What can you say about a legend? De Stefano described her as very pretty, very feminine, somewhat small at five feet one and 92 pounds. “Her face is expressive and always in motion, illuminated by her curiosity and inner vitality.” She had bad teeth from too much smoking, and her voice was low and slightly hoarse from three packs of cigarettes daily. She hated fools and loathed to be edited. She loved airplanes but didn’t trust elevators. She never married but had many long, passionate love affairs. She loved her solitude.

In the final years of her life, Fallaci lived between Italy and Manhattan. In 1992, she had a tumor in her breast removed and lived to complete more work. She died in 2006 in her beloved Florence.

Author De Stefano could have probe much deeper into the inner workings and achievements of Fallaci, who many considered “the greatest political observer of our time.” There are several more detailed, comprehensive biographies of La Fallaci in European bookstores. We’ll have to wait for them. This is a “clip job,” politely packaged, designed to skim the surface. Still, we’re lucky to have this small glimpse of her.

Of her journalism and books, Fallaci, the hell-raiser, thought history would treat her well: “To leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more, outside the dogmas that this society has nourished us with through centuries. To give stories and ideas that help people to see better, to think better, to know a little more.”

Robert Fleming is a frequent contributor to The Neworld Review.

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