Claretta; Mussolini’s Last Lover
Yale University Press , 2017
Professor Bosworth provides an excellent, knowledgeable and extremely entertaining overview of the diaries of Mussolini’s mistress Claretta Petacci. Claretta is mostly famous for the notorious photo of her hanging from her ankles in a petrol station in Milan’s piazza Loreto. However, he kept copious diaries of all her time with Mussolini. These diaries were kept secret in Italian State Archives for a 70-year period from her death and were finally published in 2009. From the diaries and extensive research , Professor Bosworth builds an in depth picture of a woman who had been devoted to Mussolini, since she was a 14 year old schoolgirl and the story of how, despite having numerous opportunities not to do so , she chose to share his fate in April 1945. From the pillow talk described in Claretta’s diaries, the book also sheds light on Mussolini’s inner thoughts, some of which challenge generally accepted opinions on Mussolini
As well as telling Ben and Clara’s story, the book goes into detail about how Claretta consistently tried to use her relationship with Mussolini to the advantage of her family and indeed how that relationship eventually caused the ruin and exile of her family. Brother, Marcello despite starting off as a doctor, ends up as a schemer, always on the make and trying to leverage his sister’s relationship to gain favours from Mussolini. Claretta seems to have acted as an advocate for some of his more bizarre plans, most of which Mussolini rejected. Marcello paid the ultimate price for getting too involved with his sister’s boyfriend. He was driving the car in which Claretta followed Mussolini’s doomed convoy along the shores of Lake Como. When they were stopped by the partisans Marcello tried one last scam, he claimed to be a Spanish diplomat . This rather hopeless subterfuge was revealed, when one of the partisans who had been veteran of the Spanish Civil War tried speaking to him in Spanish, a language of which he had no knowledge, So unpopular were the Petacci family that 15 Fascist officials who were being lined up for execution, refused to be shot at the same time as Marcello. He made a break for it and ended up being shot while trying to escape by swimming in Lake Como. Another mover and schemer was Claretta’s sister Myriam who despite a general absence of acting talent, became a film star at Rome’s Cinecitta and then having fled Italy had a short career in the Spanish Film industry. Claretta’s mother apparently used to review the Italian prose in the letters she wrote to Mussolini. Perhaps, strangest of all was her father who had been an official doctor o the Vatican, he appears as a sort of bemused bystander to the absolute doom that his daughter’s actions were leading the family toward. In short, the whole Petacci family come across as having an eye for the main chancer created by their daughters relationship ( favours, soft loans, jobs) until it led them to prison, exile or death. You even end up with a certain sympathy for Mussolini in this regard.
Claretta’s diaries also lead Professor Bosworth to draw a picture of Mussolini’s family relationships which were “complicated “ to say the least. He was after all a man who had his son-in-law shot. Mussolini had an official family consisting of his wife, Rachele and several children and several ( possibly at least five) unofficial families. The detail is revealed from Claretta’s jealous diary entries concerning Mussolini’s ongoing relationships with his unofficial families and his continued relationships with his illegitimate children. His normal excuse was that he was only seeing the mothers to distribute child support , but it does seem that some of his former relationships had not quite ended and were overlapping his relationship with Claretta. As noted , one of Mussolini’s more complicated relationships was with his daughter Edda and her husband Count Ciano. Ciano was used as scapegoat for Mussolini’s downfall in July 1943, being extremely unpopular with both the Germans and the Fascist hierarchy he made the fundamental mistake of fleeing to Germany, while his other colleagues headed for Spain . Ciano was executed in Verona in January 1944, Mussolini it seems, always regretted that but did not do much to stop it. The diaries reveal Claretta as having been one of the cheerleaders for the “Kill Ciano” party. As Bosworth writes . “For Claretta, Ciano deserved no mercy. Edda in her judgement was no better and he must not let himself feel sorry for his wayward daughter”. As a result, Edda stopped speaking to her father, went into exile in Switzerland and handed all of Ciano’s controversial and incriminating diaries over to the Americans.
One of the interesting points that comes across from the diaries is Claretta’s journey from a naïve teenager with a crush on Mussolini, to actually becoming a far more radical Fascist than the man himself. Some of the pillow talk recorded also gives lie to the myth about Mussolini not being particularly anti- semitic. In fact he seems to have been vociferously anti-semitic in the bedroom, while not actively pursuing the murderous policies of the Nazis.
In the end, as Mussolini’s puppet government is reduced to governing the North of Italy from the lakeside resort of Salo on Lake Garda, it all starts reading like a French farce set in luxury lakeside villas. Mussolini and official family are holed up at the Villa Feltrinelli at Gardone. Claretta is at the nearby Villa Fiordalisa. Apparently Mussolini has to go there by Motorboat for his trysts with Claretta. Also coming and going are the members of the Petacci family and various of Mussolini’s unofficial families. Finally after all those years , Rachele goes to confront Claretta . Fascist officials try to confiscate the Ben and Clara correspondence, at which point Clara pulls a gun on them and then faints. Rachele then attempts suicide. All this under the somewhat disapproving eyes of the German officials who are supposed to be controlling their every movement, and a rather confused Japanese journalist who is an forced housemate for Claretta and ends up being used to deliver messages between Ben & Clara. Meanwhile, various hardcore Fascists would dearly love to see the end of Claretta and her family. It would all actually be rather funny, if it were not taking place against a background of total tragedy in German occupied Italy
So in the end all roads lead to lake Como. The newly hardcore Fascist Claretta seems to encouraging Ben to make a last stand in the ruins of Milan, fortunately he decides not too. She could have fled to Spain, Mussolini has been sounding out the Spanish and although he is persona non grata, they probably would have accepted her. She even gets as far as Malpensa Airport, but just to see her family off as they choose exile. Determined to stand by Ben until the last Claretta joins the fateful convoy until captured by the partisans, Unfortunately, is appears to have been Mussolini who inadvertently reveals her identity to the partisans who don’t really have a clue who she is. At 4,15 on 28 April 1945, Clara Petacci was put up outside the wall of Villa Belmonte and shot. She really did stand by her man. Following this extra judicial killing of a woman, who had not really down anything to merit the death sentence and the appalling treatment visited on her body after death, the narrative starts to change a bit. According to those present , Claretta actually requested to be shot along with Mussolini, and some romantic myths develop about her throwing her body in front of Ben or them both falling to the ground in a final doomed embrace, Reading through the book, I guess the narrative was always going to end there. As Professor Bosworth puts it
“And given her Iron determination, however far from reality it was, reiterated on so many occasions- to stay loyal at any cost to her version of her relationship with Mussolini ;however far from reality it was , perhaps the death at Giuline di Mezzago was indeed the kindest fate for Claretta Petacci and her obsession”
All in all, a compelling and extremely readable history book. One of the best historical narratives I have read in a long time, The style is engaging and light , treading a fine line between the comedic and tragic elements of the story. Whereas many Italian books on Mussolini seem to lack a certain balance, Professor Bosworth’s work seems to have just the right approach. Definitely a useful contribution to modern Italian history and well worth reading.