Most of us do not realize that Benito Mussolini was named “Benito” in honor of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s most beloved president. His mother was devoutly Catholic and his father was devoutly atheist, who wanted to instill in his son ideals of political reform.
I was sitting in a little café in Denver some years ago, eating salami sandwiches and drinking Red Lady Ale with a musician-turned-stockbroker. He told me that while he was wandering through Italy in the late 60s he found himself one afternoon eating salami and sipping with several companions when a heavy-set, sophisticated-looking man walked in and joined them. He was Vittorio M. Mussolini, a filmmaker and the second son of Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, who had been leader of the Italian National Fascist Party and Prime Minister of Italy.
Not only had Vittorio worked with Federico Fellini, he had also partnered with Hal Roach (already famous for “Our Gang” and “Laurel and Hardy”) forming RAM Pictures (“Roach and Mussolini), although Roach was so badly ostracized by forces in Hollywood for linking with a “Mussolini” that he reluctantly bought himself out.
Vittorio told those at the table that he was gathering stories about the women in his father’s life. (This was finally published in 1973 as Mussolini: The Tragic Women in His Life.)
My friend said he could never again think about Il Duce in quite the same way after that afternoon.
Mussolini himself, as a young man, was a socialist, but by the time he returned from World War I (fighting for the Allies) he had decided socialism was a failure. The British Secret Service helped Mussolini get his start in politics with a salary of £100 a week. He also denounced the authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, but for political reasons (Italy was still a very Catholic country) after ten years of civil marriage he married his wife in a Catholic ceremony.
By 1922 he was the 40th Prime Minister of Italy and by 1925 he was using the title Il Duce and was almost equal in power to the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III. By 1936 his title had expanded to “His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Head of Government, Duce of Fascism, and Founder of the Empire.” In 1938 he began again his attacks on the Catholic Church, attempting to convince his cabinet that “Islam is perhaps a more effective religion than Christianity” and that “the papacy is a malignant tumor in the body of Italy and must be rooted out.”
Arrogant? Yes. Obsessed with power? Yes. Reformist? Yes. Other European leaders admired Mussolini for his efforts to modernize Italy, to create jobs, to build roads, to provide public transportation, to build economic relationships with Italian colonies.
Mussolini until the early 30s sided with France against Germany (and had denounced Germany’s racial ideology), but because of the massive military might of their almost immediate neighbor to the north, on 10 June 1940 Mussolini led Italy into World War II on the side of the Axis.
Three years later, with the Allied forces deep into Italy, the Italians deposed him. Ultimately he attempted to escape to Switzerland, but was captured, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, near Lake Como, where, April 28, 1945, they were executed. Their bodies were hung upside down on meat hooks from the ceiling of a gas station where civilians stoned their bodies.
Mussolini’s fourth son, Romano, adored his father. He became a jazz pianist, married Sophia Loren’s sister, Anna Maria Villani Scicolone, and they gave birth to a daughter—Alessandra—who became prominent in Italian politics. Her aunt Sophia Loren helped lead her toward a career as an actress, although she is equally well known as a glamour model, even posing for Playboy. Alessandra left the film industry after being pressured to change her last name—Mussolini.
Alessandra is a leader and founder of Social Action, a conservative political party, although she is now a member of The People of Freedom party. She is a past member of the European Parliament and is currently a member of the Italian Parliament. She, like her grandfather, is often outspoken, condemning, for example, the Vatican’s comparison of homosexuality with pedophilia—stating “You can’t link sexual orientation to pedophilia.” She has kept her own last name—Mussolini—and has campaigned to change Italian law so that all children, should they choose to do so, may take their mother’s last name.
Well, that summer afternoon back in Italy, sipping fine wine with Mussolini’s son, deepened forever the way my friend looked at life (as well as history). I asked him what he said to Vittorio when Vittorio was introduced to him as “Mussolini’s son.”
He told me that was one time he was really at a loss for words. The only thing he could think to say was “Bummer about your old man.”