EDDA MUSSOLINI: THE MOST DANGEROUS WOMAN IN EUROPE. Caroline Moorehead is a bestselling and prize-winner author, and the biographer of Bertrand Russell, Freya Stark, Iris Origo, Madame de la Tour du Pin and Martha Gellhorn. Her recent books – a quartet focused on resistance to dictatorship, particularly in Italy – were shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Orwell Prize and the Costa Biography Award. She lives in London.
Caroline Moorehead, your latest book is Edda Mussolini: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe. Who was Edda?
Edda was Mussolini‘s eldest child, definitely his favourite child. She grew up very close to her father. Her next brother was born when she was six, so she had a long time being the only child. Mussolini took her everywhere, so she witnessed the brutality and mayhem that was happening in the wake of the First World War. She was 12 when he came to power in Rome.
Why did you want to write this book about Edda?
What made her interesting was her position: Mussolini’s daughter, Count Galeazzo Ciano‘s wife. She didn’t have power but she had influence, not only over fascism but also over Mussolini’s progress into the war on the German side. She kept on at her father about the importance of this when he was wavering. Not for nothing was she on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1939. She was called “The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe” because of this influence. She had this extraordinary build up from nothing to greatness to tragic fall. Through her life in those extraordinary times I wanted to show what fascism was like.
Is Mussolini the real protagonist of your book?
Mussolini plays a big part. It was impossible to write about Edda without writing about Mussolini. I wanted to use Edda’s life as a way of explaining what it was like to live under fascism in Italy and how the Italians accommodated themselves to fascism. What she did and what she became perfectly exemplified the fascist world.
Benito Mussolini and his wife Rachele came from Predappio, a little village in Emilia-Romagna where Rachele eventually died. Can one say that they never really left their origins?
The family was extremely poor on both sides. Mussolini’s father was a blacksmith, Edda’s mother Rachele very little educated. They went to live in Forli and then Milan. Edda had enough to eat, but they lived in considerable hardship. When Mussolini came to Rome in 1922 the family suddenly acquired wealth and standing. Until then he had been a journalist and a political agitator, editor of Il Popolo d’Italia newspaper but with very little money. Edda didn’t get much education. She did a year in a posh girls’ school for the Italian aristocracy, but Edda was by nature wild, feral. Her nickname was cavallina matta, “the mad little horse”. In this grand school she behaved extremely badly, was very rude to the Mother Superior, and they were delighted when she left. Then you have her arriving in Rome at 17 or 18 to live in the Villa Torlonia with Mussolini and Rachele and her younger brothers and sister, looking out from this impoverished background into the great grandeur that was Rome.
“I wanted to use Edda’s life as a way of explaining what it was like to live under fascism in Italy.”
Caroline Moorehead, was Edda’s father a good journalist?
He was thorough and had read and studied a great deal himself. A quick learner, he wrote well. He had a style which made his arguments come alive, so he was, by definition, an extremely good journalist.
What made you point to a physical similarity between Edda and her father?
She looked very like him, had the same structure of her face. She was not a pretty child or woman, but handsome and elegant, and she knew how to wear clothes. Sometimes in pictures of them together their similarity is absolutely striking. Towards the end she got alopecia and lost her hair, and all that remained was shaved off. Then her similarity to her father was staggering.
Edda is only 34 years old when she ends up in Switzerland, her husband executed by the Germans and the fascists, her father killed by partisans. She witnessed the whole parabola of the fascists.
That’s why I decided to finish the book in 1949/50, though she lived for many decades after that. Born in 1910, she married Galeazzo Ciano at 19 and went off to China where Ciano was made Consul in Shanghai and where she was the youngest of the diplomatic wives. She loved the two and a half years she was in Shanghai, possibly the most happy time of her life. She made a great thing of being a good representative of Mussolini, a hostess who turned the consulate into a place where people wanted to go. From people being very wary of this young daughter of Mussolini arriving in Shanghai, one of the major journalists there called her “The First Lady of Shanghai”.
At the age of 18, one year before she was married, Mussolini sent her to India on a boat, to learn manners and English. Wasn’t this a rather modern idea at a time when European families usually spoke French and German as foreign languages?
Yes, and also he wanted to get her away, because she was playing around and he wanted her to learn some English and some culture. Reading the reports of her on the ship and in India it’s difficult to get behind the praise and the propaganda, but she obviously did very well. People liked her, she threw herself into things. She was sporty. She wasn’t proud.
Mussolini the father comes out of your book as a very intelligent man, also similar to the daughter. They’re both quite wild sexually, he has plenty of mistresses and she plenty of lovers. He doesn’t gamble but she does, and she’s a heavy drinker which he isn’t, but he understands upgrading, changing his way of dressing and his behaviour and in this he is helped by his lover Margherita Sarfatti?
Friends tell him what he should be wearing and he goes to a good tailor and tells the other gerarchi (high officers of the National Fascist Party (PNF)) that they too should be respectful and look good. He’s very conscious of it. The person who doesn’t do this is his wife Rachele, who does not want to enter the social fray of diplomatic life. The descriptions of her when she gets to the Villa Torlonia made me laugh. She identifies an area which she can turn into a kitchen garden, and she keeps chickens and rabbits and grows her potatoes and doesn’t go out. So when Edda comes back from Shanghai aged 22 she has to move into the role of being the face of female fascism.
Her husband was titled Count Ciano and so Edda became a Countess. How did this misguided couple represent the fascist regime?
Rome in the early twenties was quite provincial and closed off. Something like 300 noble families were living in their palazzi, and they reacted to the fascists with distaste. The gerarchi and their wives were violent, uncultured, crass, uneducated; and they were appalled. Edda and Ciano were able to bridge the gap. They had impeccable fascist credentials but they were also personable. Edda spoke English, Ciano Spanish and French. A good looking couple who knew how to behave, when they went out they were received. Galeazzo was a great friend of the noblewoman Isabella Colonna, who ran an almost parallel court for him in the Palazzo Colonna, but, rather like her mother, Edda did not really like social life. A curious and enigmatic figure, she liked to be the centre of attention, but she didn’t like big receptions. Edda liked Capri, where she lived with her friends and was not so much on display. In Rome she did what her father asked of her: opening things, going to dinners, becoming a hostess in place of her mother.
Why did Edda criticize her husband for being too devoted to Mussolini?
She had hoped that in her disagreements with her father Galeazzo would stand up for her, but Galeazzo became a Mussolini yes-man and that maddened her. After the death in 1931 of Mussolini’s brother Arnaldo, who was very close to Mussolini, Edda became his confidante; and, at the same time, she became Ciano’s confidante. This odd dual position became odder as they moved towards the war.
“As we go towards the war, you find Edda in her role as confidante to Mussolini more and more pressing her father for the war she wants.”
Bourgeois people from Emilia-Romagna would watch Mussolini on Saturday mornings being strong and sporty on the beach of Riccione. Caroline Moorehead, was he a family man?
Women clustered around Mussolini when he went into the sea. They used to rush in after him and his guards had to make a circle around him so that people wouldn’t come too close. Yes, he was definitely a family man. He was always saying to Edda that she shouldn’t smoke – and she smoked. She shouldn’t wear trousers -she wore trousers. She shouldn’t dance – she loved dancing. Edda and Galeazzo were somehow above the fascist rules, because fascist Italy as conceived of by Mussolini was meant to be fairly frugal. Women were meant to be mothers of little warriors and stay at home. They were not meant to have good jobs. They were not meant to go out.
Aged 25 in 1935 Edda was in London, having great parties and seeing the king and the ambassador Dino Grandi, a fascist friend of Mussolini. Then she’s back in London aged 28 with Galeazzo, and it looks as if they were Anglophiles but they have this alliance with the Germans and she goes to see Hitler several times. Yet Ciano was not liked by the Germans, and he and Ribbentrop hated each other. The alliance was against his natural feelings, but was Edda a Germanophile?
In 1936 Mussolini sent her to Germany on a social visit, and she was having a good time meeting people, but while she was there Mussolini made Ciano Minister of Foreign Affairs and at that point a visit which had been imprecise was turned into a state visit. She met Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler. Everybody treated her extremely well whereas she hadn’t felt all that much liked in England. She goes back to Rome keen to get closer to the Germans, but Ciano stays more Anglophile. As we go towards the war, you find Edda in her role as confidante to Mussolini more and more pressing her father for the war she wants. She thinks Italy is making too many compromises, she thinks that Italy needs to be great again.
Did Ciano emerge well from the 1935/6 Italo-Abyssinian war?
He serves as a pilot in Abyssinia and comes back with a medal. It’s clear that he’s not a very good foreign minister for Italy, but then Italy is increasingly being sucked into the Second World War for which it is not equipped, because it has used its armaments and its military apparatus for Abyssinia and then for Spain, so that it’s short on uniforms, it hasn’t enough weapons, it doesn’t have the ammunition. It doesn’t have the aeroplanes. Its officer class is very badly prepared. As we advance into the War, it’s a terrible war for Italy. They lose thousands and thousands of men.
The king signed the laws against the Jews in 1938. He wasn’t an anti-Semite, and probably neither was Mussolini. The political opportunism of Mussolini and of the king started the ruin?
Yes, absolutely. They both wanted to stay in power. The king was not an admirable king at any stage in the reign.
You say in the book that until their German occupation the Italians were ambiguous about the racial laws against the Jews in 1938. What did Edda feel about this?
There is no evidence either way. There is evidence that she intervened on behalf of Jewish friends, and Ciano was in the Foreign Office when Italy controlled the regions in the South of France and the Germans were pressing the Italians to turn the Jews over to them. Ciano drags his feet. He presided over a department which did not help the Germans.
Mussolini never liked Hitler?
When Hitler and Mussolini meet in Feltre, Mussolini and all his men are dressed in these wonderful uniforms; and Hitler arrives wearing a yellow mackintosh, and at this stage Mussolini is full of contempt for him. But one has to remember that Mussolini came to power in 1922. Hitler didn’t come to power until 1933, and for much of that period Hitler looked up to Mussolini. It was only in 1940/41, when Hitler perceived that Mussolini was not a good military ally, that Hitler started despising Mussolini.
Benito Mussolini on the cover of TIME Magazine 1923
Benito Mussolini on the cover of TIME magazine 1926
EDDA CIANO on the cover of TIME Magazine 1939
EDDA IN ROME
Alain Elkann and Caroline Moorehead, author of EDDA MUSSOLINI: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, Chatto & Windus, 2022.
“Before Ciano dies there are letters between them and it is a love story, a story of a couple who’ve grown close again.”
Caroline Moorehead, Hitler may have despised Mussolini, but he saved him when the regime fell after Ciano voted against his father in law along with the other gerarchi and Mussolini was dismissed and arrested?
Hitler rescued Mussolini, took him to Germany, brought him back to Italy and set him up in a puppet government in Salò because he was still his ally, and because he thought that Mussolini would be useful in keeping northern Italian industry turning out armaments for Germany. He clearly didn’t rate him any longer as a military commander.
What does Edda do?
When Mussolini falls in July 1943, Ciano and Edda make the major mistake of thinking that because Galeazzo is Mussolini’s son in law he will be safe. Most of the other plotters very sensibly go into hiding and leave Italy. The few who remain are picked up. He should have gone to Spain but he couldn’t get there, because the Cianos by now were under house arrest, and again, it’s Hitler who rescues them. He whisks them off to Germany where Mussolini still is – he hasn’t yet gone to Salo – and there is this epically terrible meeting between Edda and Ciano, who has betrayed his father in law, and the whole of the rest of the Mussolini family. At the lunch party Rachele berates and shouts at Ciano. Mussolini doesn’t say very much, and it seems as if Mussolini has maybe forgiven him but Edda is beginning to perceive that all is not as it should be, that Hitler has promised that they can go on to Spain and then to South America but they are virtual prisoners. She sees Hitler and tries to get him to promise that they can leave but she makes terrible mistakes because she says to Hitler on one of these visits, you do know that you are going to lose the war. Hitler is furious. He’s quick tempered, and by then doesn’t like her very much. She makes the other terrible mistake of smoking in his presence, and nobody ever smoked in his presence. She goes away thinking, maybe it’s going to be alright, maybe it’s not. Then comes the story of the diaries that Galeazzo Ciano has been keeping. Nobody knows what they contain but they are thought to contain incriminating material on some of the German leaders, so they want the diaries. The Allies also want the diaries, because they think they’ll be useful to them for knowing more about the Germans. Everybody wants these diaries; which are hidden in Italy.
Edda uses her lover Emilio Pucci, whom she met in Capri, to take them to Switzerland?
She uses him to collect the diaries, and they make a deal with some Germans, but without Hitler knowing. The deal is she will give them the diaries and they will rescue Ciano from prison in Verona, where he is awaiting trial. She is going to turn the diaries over to the Germans and the Germans are going to get Ciano out, but Hitler learns of the plot and immediately says that he will have anybody who goes through with this shot. So the plot is off.
Ciano is sentenced to death with the other plotters?
Mussolini, who could have intervened, does not. He says later that he didn’t know and the request for clemency never reached him. He could have saved Ciano. He doesn’t. Edda thinks at this point that it’s possible that Ciano has been saved and crosses the border into Switzerland, helped by Pucci, who is picked up later and tortured by the Germans, who want to know where she is and where the diaries are. Edda gets into Switzerland with the diaries and asks for asylum, and after 24 hours they give it to her. She’s taken to meet her children, who’d been got out to Switzerland before her, and she is there when somebody arrives to tell her that Ciano is dead.
At this point she hates her father but starts to love her husband more?
The relationship that she’d had with her father, probably the most important in her life, is over. Mussolini courts her from Salo, sends her money, sends her messages via a priest. He terribly wants for it to be alright. She won’t see him, and won’t have anything to do with him. Barely a year later Mussolini himself is killed, and she’s lost the two people in her life that she loved. From the very beginning of her marriage Edda realised that Ciano was going to be unfaithful, and she distanced herself from him and then she had affairs, and up until the moment when Ciano was in danger they led quite separate lives, but at that point something happened to her. She fell in love with him. There is no other way to look at it. She was absolutely determined to do everything she could to save him. Hence this great thing with the diaries and going to Hitler and everything else. Before Ciano dies there are letters between them and it is a love story, a story of a couple who’ve grown close again.
Caroline, you tell anecdotes and events, you describe characters, but you don’t judge?
How I see myself as a writer is to put everything I can find that I think is interesting and important before the reader. I want the reader to make up their mind, whether they like the people or not, whether they think they’re great or not. As a reporter I want to entertain my readers and I want them to work out for themselves whether they think that Edda was good or bad.
Was the Edda book interesting to work on?
I was fascinated by the Roman archives and the Mussolini archives. It’s a treasure trove because Bocchini, Mussolini’s head of police, set up this incredible spy network. There were spies spying in the Vatican, spies in schools and spies on everybody. All these spies wrote up their reports and sent them in, and Bocchini had them typed up and showed a few to Mussolini. You get this picture of the society, and of Edda. As the 30s went on there was never any public bad stuff about Edda because newspapers were totally censored, but people wrote in all the time, so you get letters from the public to Mussolini saying, how can you let your daughter become a whore in Capri? She’s sleeping with everybody. It’s a wonderful period to write about.
Who is your next subject?
Leonardo Sciascia, and his fight against the Mafia and against corruption in Rome. I wanted to write about a man who defined himself by morality at a time of sleaze, like we have now. This also allowed me to write about Sicily.
Thank you Caroline Moorhead for this interview.
If you enjoyed this interview you would very probably also enjoy reading the extraordinary interview with Maria-Jose of Savoy that Alain made with Giorgio Calcagno for La Stampa in 1993. Click HERE
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