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Early on a windy morning in April 1953, the body of a young woman washed up on a beach outside of Rome. Her name was Wilma Montesi, and, as the papers reported, she had left her home in the city center a day earlier, alone. The police called her death an accidental drowning. But the public was not convinced. In the cafés around the Via Veneto, people began to speak-of the son of a powerful politician, lavish parties, movie stars, orgies, drugs.
How this news item of everyday life exploded into one of the greatest scandals of a modern democracy is the story Karen Pinkus tells in The Montesi Scandal. Wilma's death brought to the surface every simmering element of Italian culture: bitter aspiring actresses, corrupt politicians, nervous Jesuits in sunglasses, jaded princes. Italians of all types lined up to testify-in court or to journalists of varying legitimacy-about the death of the middle-class carpenter's daughter, in the process creating a media frenzy and the modern culture of celebrity. Witnesses sold their stories to the tabloids, only to retract them. They posed for pictures, pretending to shun the spotlight. And they in turn became celebrities in their own right.
Pinkus takes us through the alleys and entryways of Rome in the 1950s, linking Wilma's death to the beginnings of the dolce vita, now synonymous with modern Roman life. Pinkus follows the first paparazzi on their scooters as they shoot the protagonists and gives us an insider's view of the stories and trials that came to surround this lonely figure that washed up on the shores of Ostia. Full of the magnificent paparazzi photos of the protagonists in the drama and film stills from the era's landmark movies, The Montesi Scandal joins true crime with "high" culture in an original form, one true to both the period and the cinematic conception of life it created. More than a meditation of the intricate ties among movies, paparazzo photography, and Italian culture, The Montesi Scandal narrates Wilma's story and its characters as the notes for an unrealized film, but one that, as the reader discovers, seems impossible to produce.
Friday, April 17. A week after Wilma's disappearance the case is
officially solved and is set to be "archived," pending receipt of the
medical reports and completion of all paperwork. Police put forth two
plausible hypotheses, each with its own logical intricacy:
1. Suicide. But Wilma had not shown any apparent signs of depression-after
all, she was engaged to be married and sent her fiance cheerful postcards,
whose contents she also dutifully copied into a notebook. And why would
she have taken her house keys, or meticulously washed her undergarments
that very morning, or removed her garter belt at the beach, if she meant
to take her life? (Police determined the force of the tide was not enough
to remove it-no easy task, as one medical expert testified, nostalgically
recalling his adolescent training in this area. In fact, the sea, although
rough, had not been strong enough to remove Wilma's little jacket fastened
by only one button near the collar). And why go all the way to Ostia, or
even tothe private beach at Tor Vaianica, where she was actually found,
when the Tiber River, right in the heart of the city, had well served many
young girls determined to take their lives?
2. Drowning by "misfortune" (disgrazia). But how could a healthy girl of
eighteen drown in ankle-deep water? And if Wilma had merely gone to bathe
her feet, then again, why remove the entire garter? Why not simply unclip
the stockings? Finally, if this footbath and drowning did take place in
Ostia, how did the corpse end up approximately twenty kilometers away in
Let us review. Ostia/public beach/public transport = good Wilma; Tor
Vaianica/private beach/private conveyance = bad Wilma.
Finally, police cannot fully rule out homicide. Someone-a "brute" as the
cronaca liked to say-may have dumped the body at the beach. It is possible
that Wilma was still alive, but unconscious at that time. In any case, the
final cause of death was, unequivocally, drowning.
Various shots of groups of Romans reading papers at bars and discussing
Wilma Montesi's death.
Wilma's tomb adorned with the famous headshot. (Olympia Publifoto,
Milan) [Full-size image]
Later that day. During a tearful ceremony, Wilma is buried in her nearly
finished wedding gown. Based on the extensive press coverage, and the
portrayal of Wilma as a "good girl" who met with misfortune, young women
who never knew Wilma attend the funeral in a show of support. In a brief
period, Wilma Montesi has become a public figure, a martyr-heroine for all
young girls struggling to better their status in life and yet maintain
some sense of moral dignity. Wilma's headshot is hung on her tomb in a
silver frame, and the accompanying inscription reads:
Died April 9, 1953 [Actually, this is the
day of her disappearance, not necessarily
the day she died]. Pure creature of rare
beauty, the sea at Ostia carried you away
to leave you on the beach at Tor
Vaianica-it seemed as though you slept
the sleep of God, beautiful as an angel.
Your mother, your father, your sister and
your brother are near you in their great
love and immense suffering.
During the procession through the cemetery Zio Giuseppe insistently asks a
journalist named Doddoli about the progress of the police investigation.
"Why are you so concerned?" Doddoli asks aggressively. "Did you have
something to do with it?"
"Please. Leave me out of it," Zio Giuseppe begs. The scene must be
ambiguous, as is the emotional intensity of Zio Giuseppe's response.
April 20. Three days after the funeral, the Messenger publishes an
unsigned article titled "In the Margins of the Tragic End of the Young
Wilma Montesi." Later, we will learn that the cronista following the case
for this paper is actually Fabrizio Menghini, the same individual who
presented himself as a lawyer in order to observe the initial inspection
of the body at Pratica del Mare. This explains how the Messenger had been
able to provide a detailed description of the body and implicate itself in
the family's identification. The article suggests that while journalists
(including the author himself) have responsibly (and "democratically"!)
reported on the facts given them by police spokesmen, the average man on
the street believes that the case was closed much too swiftly. All of Rome
talks of the exquisite corpse on the beach, and no one is convinced by
either the suicide or the disgrazia theory.
Shots of various groups of Romans discussing the case.
Then, unexpectedly, on April 22, journalists are granted a meeting with
the chief of the "flying squad," the branch of civil police initially in
charge of the investigation, formed after the war by a politician named
Mario Scelba. Scelba has recently been promoted to minister of the
Interior and he oversees all of the police. A Christian Democrat, he is to
the far right on the political spectrum. He is also friendly with rich and
famous individuals, including a dapper Sicilian hunting preserve manager,
as we will see later. Let us note, for now, that it was Scelba's "flying
squad" that dismissed the possibility of homicide and declared the death
Shot of police announcing results of their investigation as reporters
eagerly take notes:
On April 9, Wilma Montesi of Via Tagliamento 76, suffering from calluses
caused by her new antelope shoes, left her apartment and headed to the San
Paolo train station. Although her family claimed she had no knowledge of
public transport, it is certainly plausible that she had access to the
information necessary to cross town. She boarded a train to Ostia,
intending to bathe her feet. She arrived at Plinius, the largest public
beach nearest to the Ostia train station where several witnesses had
already claimed to see her at a cafe (and we must recall that Wilma's
picture had been published in the papers on April 14). Finding the area a
bit too crowded for her liking, the modest girl decided to move up to the
next beach at Castel Fusano where, believing herself alone, she removed
her shoes, stockings, and even her garter, in order to wade, unimpeded, in
the water. Wilma could not swim. She was struck by a sudden
illness-probably due to her postmenstrual state-and she drowned. Someone
later came and removed her clothes from the beach. Castel Fusano is close
to a deep canal into which Wilma's body must have floated. The body was
then carried a fair distance south to Tor Vaianica where it drifted toward
shore and lodged in the sand.
To some degree, the whole case at this point hinges on the question of the
garter belt. Wilma's father gives detailed testimony, noting that his
daughter always wore a simple, 20 cm long band of black silk around her
waist. As it moved toward the back, the band diminished in size until it
was about the width of the elastic itself-6 cm. On the left side there
were 5 fasteners. Wilma only wore the garter when she went out. She did
all the fasteners for fear the garter might slip off. Our viewers may be
struck by the intimate knowledge Wilma's father seems to possess about his
daughter's garter. At other points in our film, however, he will appear
detached, out of touch with Wilma's desires. A former maid contradicts
Rodolfo, noting that Wilma actually wore a one-piece bra-girdle-suspender
belt, fastened so tightly that the maid had to help her put it on and take
it off. Clearly, a full-piece would be removed by the tide only with the
utmost difficulty, and not without dragging off the victim's shirt or
sweater. On the other hand, one might understand that Wilma would remove
such a restrictive garment (were she actually wearing it) in order to
enjoy greater freedom of movement on the beach. Wanda testifies that her
sister would never have taken off her suspender belt on a public beach
unless she felt so sick that she absolutely had to-in extremely hot
weather, for example. Who can legitimately speak to the particulars of
Wilma's undergarments, her peculiar habits, her tics? Her father seems to
have the last word, like a stern voice-over dubbed over an ambiguous scene
in a narrative film, but should his authority over her most prosaic
manners be questioned?
As Fabrizio Menghini notes in his unsigned piece in the Messenger, the
police version of events has not convinced the public. The paper has
already begun to receive many letters from all over the country, including
one that states: "A man opened the gate of the old royal hunting reserve
(Castel Porziano) for a car which had entered the other gate at Capracotta
[sic-this means "cooked goat"; as we will soon learn, the estate in
question is actually called Capocotta, "cooked head"] with a man and a
woman on board. The person who observed this may even know the name of the
driver, and has recognized the dead woman in the photographs published in
the papers as the very passenger in that car."
As we will learn, a car did indeed pass through the reserve around the
time of Wilma's death, exiting a gate not more than two kilometers from
where Wilma's body was discovered, and then parking on the dirt road along
the beach. The passengers got out and "spent some time together," as the
papers euphemistically reported. The driver of the car will turn out to be
Prince Maurizio d'Assia (Hesse, in English), nephew of the last king of
Italy. Could he have been involved with Wilma? For a few days, members of
the press hint at scandal and search for clues to support their
suspicions. There is, however, no evidence to link the prince with Wilma's
Capocotta had long been a royal hunting ground, retooled in the postwar
era as a private club for wealthy gentlemen. A vestige of the monarchy,
Capocotta posed uncomfortable questions for the democracy. It was a sort
of no-man's-land, neither private property nor land with free public
access. Stocked with game like the lavish reserves of Renaissance princes,
Capocotta was a potential target for critics who delighted in accusing the
ruling class of profiting from antiquated forms of social connection. To
enter this magical terrain, one had to be invited, and most important, it
gave access to the sea. Surrounded by fences and protected by tall trees,
Capocotta was a breeding ground for ambivalence and paranoia in the
developing democracy. To this day, it has retained something of its regal
aura: it is the property of the Italian president.
Excerpted from The Montesi Scandal
by Karen Pinkus
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Cast of Characters
Part One - Wilma Goes Out
Part Two - The Muto Trial
Part Three - The Pause
Part Four - The Venice Trial
Part Five - The Afterlife of Scandal