On one occasion, Il Duce's little Führer apparently let him down. "It was as if I were made of wood. Not even a hair on my body was erect," Benito Mussolini said in amazement. Maria José di Savoia, the wife of the later King Umberto II, had done absolutely everything in her power to seduce the leader of the Italian fascists on the beach. But Benito simply couldn't rise to the occasion. "I wasn't a man, but a politician," he said.
This, at least, was the way Mussolini, who was prime minister of Italy for 21 years and was known as "Il Duce," later described the scene to his mistress Clara "Claretta" Petacci, who then recorded his words in her diaries.
Those diaries were published for the first time last week, to the considerable consternation of one of Mussolini's descendents. "This woman would be convicted of stalking today," says Alessandra Mussolini, Il Duce's granddaughter. She insists that "not a word" of what Petacci wrote about her grandfather is true.
The Mussolinis never had a very high opinion of Petacci, the only woman who was faithful to Mussolini literally to the bitter end.
Her father was a doctor at the Vatican, and as a teenager she rhapsodized about the "Duce, mio grandissimo Duce." She became his mistress at 19. In 1936, after a two-year separation, she became Mussolini's principal and permanent concubine, the only one who was entitled to bodyguards, a chauffeur and quarters at the Palazzo Venezia.
She called him "Ben," and he referred to himself, none too modestly, as "your giant." He would complain to Claretta, his confidante, about the tight boots he always had to wear. A sentimentalized version of her story was made into a film in 1984, with Claudia Cardinale as the lead.
Mussolini was as obsessed with sex as he was with his own power. Until the day of his removal from power, July 25, 1943, he had "a woman brought to him every day, every afternoon," as his valet Quinto Navarra recalls. The women were recorded in the guest book as "fascist visitors."
"There was a time when I had 14 women and took three or four them every evening, one after the other," Mussolini said. But now, he insisted, Claretta was the only one. "Amore," he said, "why do you refuse to believe me?"
Mussolini spent much of the night before March 13, 1938, when Austria was annexed into the German Reich in the Anschluss, trying to persuade Claretta not to be jealous, and his efforts were successful. As she wrote: "We make love as we have never made love before, until he has heart pain, and then we do it again. Then he falls asleep, exhausted and blissful."
'Your Precious Little Body Shall Only Tremble for Me'
Mussolini himself was intensely jealous and had his "bambina's" every movement observed. "Your precious little body shall only tremble for me," he told Claretta, who was 29 years his junior. Petacci wrote to pass the time she spent waiting for him. She wrote quickly and copiously, writing almost 2,000 pages in 1938 alone. Writing was "therapy" for Petacci, according to publisher Mauro Suttora, "because she spent her days doing nothing but living for Mussolini."
For the most part, however, the pillow talk Petacci describes, interspersed with diatribes against Mussolini's wife Ráchele, is a record of sex addiction, infatuation and hypocrisy. In one instance, for example, Mussolini weeps as he describes the horrors of the war in Spain, where 150 children had just been killed during an air raid. "Just think, entire buildings destroyed, as if they were made of cardboard." But Italy had just ordered the intensification of the bombing.
There have been several questionable publications in recent years that portray Mussolini as a driven man, a tragic figure coerced into persecuting the Jews by Hitler. But Petacci's notes from their love nest leave little doubt that Mussolini was anti-Semitic through and through. "I have been a racist since 1921," Mussolini confided to Petacci in August 1938. "I don't know how they can believe that I am merely imitating Hitler, who wasn't even born at the time. One must give the Italians a sense of race, so that they don't produce any mongrels, so that they don't ruin what is beautiful in us."
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