Read an Excerpt
The Woman Who Shot Mussolini
By Stonor Saunders, Frances
Metropolitan Books Copyright © 2010 Stonor Saunders, Frances
All right reserved.
Wednesday, 7 April 1926
A glance. Duration one, possibly two, seconds. In particle physics, an eternity. In history, the briefest of encounters, an infinitesimally small exchange. Two arms are raised, Benito Mussolini's in the Fascist salute, Violet Gibson's in the leveling of a pistol. The distance separating these two people, who have never met, is approximately eight inches. Close enough to breathe each other's breath. Murder can be a very intimate business.
Violet, the daughter of a peer, looks like a pauper. She is wearing a black dress, shiny with wear; her gray-white hair is pinned up in an erratic bundle with straggles that have fallen loose; she is very thin. Mussolini, the son of a blacksmith, is dressed like a stockbroker. Butterfly collar, black tie, spats, overcoat with velvet-trimmed collarclothes picked out that morning by his Jewish mistress, who has spent the night with him. He hasn't slept very well, on account of a suspected stomach ulcer that causes him frequent discomfort. (Away from the crowds, it has become an everyday reflex for him to loosen his trousers and knead his stomach with his hands.) Violet, who has been preparing to kill Mussolini for some time now, hasn't slept well either, because she too suffers from stomach pains.
Until she raises the pistol and points it at Mussolini's face, it's been a normal Fascist morning. At eight o'clock Quinto Navarra, Mussolini's valet, arrived at his apartment in the Palazzo Tittoni on via Rasella. Shortly after, they got into a black Lancia and were driven to Mussolini's office at Palazzo Chigi. His Excellency the Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, Il Duce, sat behind his desk, receiving his proconsuls and listening to their petitions. His staff and security services have been fine- tuning his schedule, issuing detailed orders for its flawless execution. The chief of police has just completed Security Order number 08473, detailing policing arrangements for the following day. Carbon copies of these security orders are dispatched daily to those responsible for public order, including the heads of the military and political police, the Interior Ministry, and the royal protection squad. The chief of police has to cope with a poorly trained force that has no efficient telephone system, an almost complete lack of motor transport, and cramped and unhygienic local police stations. In a few hours, he will have to revise the order substantially. But, for the moment, everything is running as it should in the new Roman imperium.
Violet, in the meantime, is making her way from via Nomentana, a broad avenue of villas and apartments extending across what had been, until recently, a rural hinterland of Rome. Does she walk? Does she take the tram? Violet has no staff to draw up and attend to the minutiae of her schedule. As the nuns at the convent where she is lodging will later testify, Violet rose at six and appeared, veiled, for Mass in the convent chapel. She went out after breakfast, at 8:30 a.m. She was a little agitated, "as if she was trying to control some inner emotion." Asked if she would be back for lunch, she answered yes, with "a half-smile." Sister Riccarda was concerned. In the night, she had taken Violet some medicine for her stomach pains. The nun noticed that she had been reading an Italian newspaper and had marked up some passages. "I didn't realise that tomorrow I would have to be out for such a long time," Violet said, her meaning, as always, elusive. As she sets out from the convent, she is unaware that the mother superior, Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad, is watching her closely from a window.
Violet passes through Porta Pia, Michelangelo's great travertine portal, and heads toward the Church of Santa Susanna. Here, three days ago, on Easter Sunday, she attended Mass, seated beneath florid frescoes depicting the martyrdom of Susanna, the third-century saint who had consecrated her virginity to Christ. Violet, though not a virgin, is ready to embrace her own martyrdom, because God has willed it so. In her right hand, which is tucked into a pocket, she carries a Lebel revolver, the standard-issue weapon of the French military, capable of firing six 8mm rounds loaded into a swing-out chamber. She has wrapped it in her black veil. In her room at the convent, where she has been practicing with the empty revolver, gripping it with both hands for a steady aim, she has a box of twenty live bullets. In the left pocket of her spinsterly dress she carries a large stone, concealed in a black leather glove, with which she will smash the windshield of Mussolini's car should she need to shoot him in the vehicle. These are the implements of her saintly gest. WHAT THE TOURISTS SEE
Classical Rome, medieval Rome, renaissance Rome, baroque Rome, eighteenth-century Rome, postunification Rome. Foreign visitors (an estimated 150,000 of whom have arrived in the city to celebrate Easter) are venturing forth from hotels and pensioni to pace out their routes across all these Romes, two thousand years of history and confused memories squashed into rubble or sculpted onto soaring masonry. For many tourists, it's the last chance to rummage through their Baedeker or Murray's Handbook of Rome before beginning the exodus home. Edith Wharton loathed these "red volumes which accompany the traveller through Italy," because they had "so completely anticipated the most whimsical impulses of their readers that it is now almost impossible to plan a tour of exploration without finding, on reference to them, that their author has already been over the ground." But Violet's impulses carry her along on a trajectory unmeasured by any guidebook.
Fascist Rome, great gusts of Roman glory, the sense of what Virginia Woolf identified as "an age to come of pure, self- assertive virility." The "unmitigated masculinity" of the new Rome is personified by its leader, Benito Mussolini, whose "muscles" and "extraordinary vitality" are a delight to Lady Asquith, wife of the former British prime minister (who offers, by contrast, an unconstructed physique and indoor skin). An estimated thirty million pictures of Il Duce in up to 2,500 different poses are in circulation. He has been photographed swimming, fencing, boxing, riding, cutting corn shirtless, his chest glistening with sweat unimaginable for most of his political contemporaries. Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Roosevelt, Blum, and Franco are not visibly "men" in this way, timidly keeping their bodies as private concerns. Mussolini's body, it is said, leaves "after-images" of itself to arouse the faithful. Clementine Churchill, meeting Il Duce in March 1926, found him "quite simple and natural, very dignified . . . [with] beautiful golden brown, piercing eyes which you can see but can't look at." As if looking at him were like looking at the sun. All in all, she concluded, "one of the most wonderful men of our times." She was delighted to take away a signed photograph in memento. Lady Oxford described his sonorous voice as one of the most beautiful she had ever heard. Lady Ivy Chamberlain, wife of Foreign Secretary Sir Austen, was an enduring fan who treasured her own Fascist Party badge (and, while they lasted, the orchids Mussolini sent her). Lady Sybil Graham, wife of the British ambassador, Sir Ronald, was said to be equally charmed.
Tourist guides advise that Mussolini himself is among the sites to visit. "Everyone who came to Rome wanted to have an interview with Mussolini," observed an American journalist. "To see him was as much a part of the long-planned trip to the Eternal City as it was to visit the ruins or to walk over the places where the heroes of antiquity had once walked." Women travelers dream of tea with Mussolinithough he doesn't drink it, except for chamomile, which he takes both orally and through the rectum, as a palliative for his stomach pains.
Sister Caterina Flanagan will testify that Violet had watched an official pro cession in September 1925 but came back indignant because Mussolini had not appeared. This was not surprising, the nun explained (ignorant of Violet's intentions), as many foreign guests at the convent who were great admirers of Mussolini "were constantly trying to catch a glimpse of him, and were disappointed if they failed." How ridiculous, muses Foreign Secretary Dino Grandi, are these "elderly widows and elderly deracinated ladies"pace Miss Jean Brodie, a woman in her prime who adore Il Duce and long to give him seedcake. WHAT THE TOURISTS DO NOT SEE
They do not see the political prisoners, the castor oil, the manganello clubs, weighted with thick leather or lead; or the body of the murdered opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti, left to rot in a ditch outside Rome; or the three thousand dead and buried, bludgeoned or knifed or shot by Fascist squads. The tourists, as they settle into their wagon-lit trains (fully booked three weeks in advance, on account of Easter), do not see the prisoners transported to confino, internal exile, in cattle cars attached to third-class trains, chained, handcuffed, without food or air. The tourists do not see the smashed bones on the corpse of the anti-Fascist Catholic priest Don Giovanni Minzoni; or the contusions and internal bleeding of Socialist Party leader Giovanni Amendola, savagely beaten by Fascist thugs in July 1925. His broken body will never recover. Nine months later, on this very day, Wednesday, 7 April 1926, it is cooling on a slab in a hospital morgue in Cannes. A normal Fascist morning.
The inflation of Mussolini is continuous and pervasive. All newspapers are obliged to give prominent place to his articles and speeches; typesetters have to print the word DUCE in capital letters. There is a rush on gold paint and leaf, for decorating the lictors' maces and fasces and Roman eagles and the throne that is being constructed for Mussolini to sit upon during the ceremony, in a few days' time, to mark his elevation as "Caesar of the Modern Empire." The fascination and v©lan of Fascism; but at its heart lies a rancor, a nervous fear. The regime is permanently readying itself for "the muster, the march, the battle, the liquidation of foes who paradoxically never [lose] their menace . . . for another conflict, another test." Mussolini gives "fighting" speeches. "War" is declared against cabbies, who are told they must shave ("Edict Bans Whiskers and Prescribes Hat, Collar and Tie"); against women who are dressed in "immodest garb"; against bachelors who refuse to go forth and multiply little Fascists. On the walls of thousands of buildings Mussolini's historic slogans are daubed in indelible black varnish: Credere, Obbedire, Combattere (Believe, Obey, Fight); "Mussolini is always right"; "We shall shoot straight."
Violet knows how to shoot a pistol, having once used one on herself. But her aim might be a problem, as the bullet she fired into her body a year ago"I wanted to die for the glory of God"missed her heart and whizzed through her ribcage before coming to a halt in her shoulder bone. CAPUT MUNDI
At 9:30, after a meeting with the Duke d'Aosta, a cousin of the king, Mussolini is driven the short distance from Palazzo Chigi to Campidoglio, the Capitoline. He isn't wearing the bowler hat his mistress handed to him before he left his apartmenttoo much, perhaps, under a brilliant April sun. (He later abandons the use altogether, when he realizes that bowlers are worn by Laurel and Hardy in the Hollywood comedies he so enjoys watching.) He gets out of the car at the foot of the wide, shallow steps leading up to the capitol of the capital of the world, and ascends them at full tilt, leaving his personal secretary huffing and puffing behind him. This place is the centerpolitical, religious, administrativeof all Romes. If Mussolini has his way, it will be the center also of the new Roman Empire.
Michelangelo's exquisite geometry: a three- sided piazza of peach-colored buildings in the middle of which Marcus Aurelius rides his bronze horse, centuries of stormy events swirling at his feet. On the west side is the Palazzo dei Conservatori, which Mussolini enters through the main door. He proceeds along the dizzying marble corridors, his heels clacking like castanets against the stone. In the Sala degli Orazi e Curiazi, he mounts the podium and launches into the inaugural speech of the Seventh International Congress of Surgeons. Hundreds of surgeons listen with satisfaction as Mussolini praises their art and thanks them for their many interventions on his own body after bits of it had been blown off or shattered in the Great War. The storm of steel that hit him was a misfired shell he himself had loaded, leaving him with scores of fragmentation and puncture wounds, a smashed right collarbone, a temporarily paralyzed left arm, and a severe laceration in his right leg which became infected, requiring an agonizing scraping procedure down to the marrow of his shinbone. As it turns out, these have proved to be useful wounds, virtuous punctuation marks in the progress of a modern savior as he advances toward his triumph.
One early biographer of Mussolini wrote, in Dux, that he had so many war wounds he seemed like "Saint Sebastian, his flesh pierced as if with arrows." The author was Margherita Sarfatti, who as Mussolini's mistress was well qualified to trace the intimate details of his body. Mussolini collected near-death experiences like generals collect medals: duels (he fought at least two in 1919, and one in 1920), plane crashes (in March 1921 a plane he was piloting nosedived suddenly and crashed; he emerged with only scratches to his face and a twisted knee). And explosives. Shortly before the March on Rome, in October 1922, a bullet grazed his ear when a euphoric squadrista fired his gun into the air. As a newspaper editor in Milan, Mussolini used to keep several bombs and hand grenades on his desk, "in case his political enemies should attack him," reported Time magazine. Once, while writing an editorial, "he set fire to the fuse of one of these bombs by accidentally resting his cigarette upon it. An assistant noticed the smoldering fuse, screamed. Looking up, Editor Mussolini snuffed it out with his fingers, continued the writing of his editorial." "I like to live dangerously," Mussolini was fond of saying.
Violet approaches Campidoglio. Perhaps the large crowd gathered there draws her to the place. This is not on her itinerary for today, not the scene she has chosen for a fatal encounter with Mussolini. In her pocket is a tiny scrap of paper, the tip of the lip of an envelope, on which she has written "Palazzo del Littorio," the address of the Fascist Party headquarters where, according to the newspaper she has been reading, Il Duce will appear that afternoon. On Campidoglio, she approaches a tall, bearded man and asks if the king is present. No, not the king. Mussolini. She threads her way through the crowd and positions herself by one of the two lampposts just outside the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Nearby are two uniformed policemen. Directly in front of her are the liveried marshals of the capitol in stiffly brocaded silk coats and plumed bicorn hats. Plainclothes secret agents are everywhere. She looks old and sad and bedraggled, with precarious spectacles; she stands in the golden section of this Fascist tableau vivant, and nobody notices her.
Here he is. Mussolini has left the building and is making his way toward the statue of Marcus Aurelius, where his black Lancia is waiting with the engine turning over. It is 10:58 a.m. The governor of Rome is in front of him, and Doctors Bastianelli and Alessandri are alongside him. Behind them follow Quinto Navarra and other staff, led by the Foreign Secretary, Dino Grandi. A jostled photograph shows Mussolini striding forward confidently, chest puffed out like a cockerel. The crowd is swaying forward to get a closer look. The odd straggler pops out from behind police lines and is pushed back in. "Viva Il Duce!" is the chant, which Il Duce acknowledges with a salute. He stops less than a foot away from Violet. A group of students bursts into a chorus of the Fascist anthem, "Giovinezza."
The poets and the artisans, The landlords and the peasants, With pride at being Italian Swear faith to Mussolini. There is no poor quarter That does not send its men Does not unfurl the flags Of Fascism the redeemer.
Mussolini turns his head slightly to acknowledge the students. According to one eyewitness account, the sound of the gun firing is like a stick thwacking a stone. Mussolini's saluting arm retracts; his hand clamps to his face; blood pours between his fingers. He staggers back, one step, two. But he is still on his feet. He looks up, astonished, and his eyes settle on Violet, who is also astonished, just as she pulls the trigger again.
A misfire. The pistol hammer strikes, but nothing happens. The bullet has stuck in the chamber. Several seconds pass, in which everybody is suddenly and unnaturally fixed, held to their positions as in a game of grandmother's footsteps. Silence without, and within the amplified thud of heartbeats.
Then uproar. Mussolini, once he realizes he is not dead, summons more composure than anybody else at the scene. "It's nothing, everybody stay calm," he orders, and everybody panics. He brushes aside the famed physician Dr. Bastianelli, who was standing behind him when the gun was fired and who now produces a handkerchief and is trying to press it to Mussolini's bleeding face. More screams from the crowd. "Don't be afraid," Mussolini commands. "I'm here. This is a mere trifle." He is right: Violet's first bullet has nicked the bridge of his nose, removing a tiny divot of flesh. But such is the loss of blood that Mussolini eventually yields to Bastianelli's suggestion that they go back inside the building to stem the flow and treat the wound.
As Mussolini is being hustled away, Violet is set upon by the crowd, which "like flames of fire" leaps up into "a frenzied rage," according to one excited report. A woman standing behind Violet strikes her, hitting her about the head with a handbag and pulling her hair. She will later boast of having been the first to land a blow. The pummeling is delivered with the added vigor of personal affront, for, as she tells it, Violet had nudged her out of her original spot and obscured her view. Of the two policemen who are within arm's length of Violet, one manages to knock the pistol from her hand, while the other punches her square in the face. This blow knocks Violet backward to the ground, whereupon the mob jumps on top of her, kicking her about and tearing at her clothes.
Police superintendent Ermanno De Bernardini tries to gain control of the crowd. "Leave her! Let us do our job!" he shouts. "She's ours!" somebody replies. In the ensuing melee, Brigadier Lucarini, a uniformed officer, suffers cuts and bruises sufficient to merit a visit to the hospital. This is now a massive brawl. Witness statements and police reports reveal the sheer number of agents present, the different departments involved in
Campidoglio, seconds before Mussolini emerges from the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Violet (circled) is standing next to the lamppost.
policing the event, and ultimately, the uselessness of all of them. Violet looks vacant, stunned. She does nothing, does not cry out for mercy or deflect the blows. Her rope of hair has loosened, adding to her disheveled appearance. Her spectacles have been trampled on, and the holy medallions she was wearing around her neckher protecting saints have been yanked off. With great difficulty, the policemen drag her away from the scene before the crowd can tear her limb from limb.
Mussolini, meanwhile, is in a small storeroom, lying backward across a chair with his feet in the air and his head hanging over the edge (so that it is lower than his heart), from which position he has an upside- down view of the chaos unfolding around him. If he is in danger, it is from the crush of hundreds of eminent surgeons all determined to save his life. "[They] almost killed me," he later tells his wife, Rachele. "Those illustrious scientists, in the name of helping me, threw themselves across me and almost smothered me. I confess that in that instant I felt afraid. I defended myself energetically but with difficulty." Outside, the crowd goes mad; some windows are smashed. Fifteen minutes later, Il Duce reappears with a large plaster spread across his nose and cheeks like an accidental butterfly. Once again he addresses the crowd and calls for calm, but the people press forward, knocking down the barriers and surging around him. With difficulty, he is maneuvered toward his car, bundled into it, and driven back to his apartment, where he can finally allow himself to be shocked. His mistress, Margherita, who has no idea of what just happened, is there to receive him.
Violet has been taken into the courtyard of the Museo dei Conservatori, containing the fragmentshead, hand, footof the colossal statue of Constantine the Great, the emperor who believed that Rome's future lay with Christianity. The toe of the foot is bigger than a man's waist. Against the gargantuan proportions of these marble remains, miniature Violet is like Alice in Wonderland. She is very confused. Nearby, the sound of shattered glass as a window is broken. Somebody sends for a brandy to calm her nerves. "Drink me." She does. She stammers out her name and two addresses in Rome, then refuses to speak further.
An hour or so later, when the square has been cleared and closed off as a crime scene, she is driven in a police car the short distance to the Mantellate prison, a vast complex on the west bank of the Tiber. She is seated in the back of the car, without handcuffs, between police superintendents Epifanio Pennetta and De Bernardini, both of the Political Police. She remains silent. At the prison, she is received by the nuns who run the women's section. She is photographedtwo mug shots, one in profile, the other straight onnext to a criminal identification number, 14967. Her cheeks are flushed, a sign of incipient swelling from the punches she has taken. There are scratches and cuts on her face, as if she just ran pell-mell through a bramble bush. Her starched white collar is torn. The line of her mouth and lips is a thin horizontal, framed by two deep creases running down the inside of both cheeks. Her once fine facial structurethe raised cheekbones, the well-defined jawlinesuffered subsidence following the removal of most of her upper teeth some years previously. Her eyes are suffused with a kind of mist; her gaze is both terribly resigned and painfully direct. She looks out as if at a porthole, beyond which lies the vast wilderness of the world.
She is then fingerprinted, each digit of her left hand ink-pressed and held under the guiding hand of a police officera careful process, like rolling gnocchi in flour. She is handed over to the nun-jailers, who strip-search her and confiscate her garter belt and hair clips. A search of her clothes turns up the little scrap of paper on which she has written "Palazzo del Littorio." There is nothing else. No handbag, no money, no identity papers, no personal effects. Violet is then washed and taken to the infirmary so that the cuts and swellings on her face and body can be attended to.
Shortly afterward, and still in the infirmary, Violet meets the men who will determine what will happen to her: the chief of police, the crown prosecutor, chief superintendent Pennetta, and two investigating magistrates. There is an interpreter, because none of them yet knows whether she speaks Italian. She replies falteringly to their questions, in English with a light Irish accent, giving some personal details and confirming that she has been in Rome for some time. She tells them she tried to commit suicide last year, that she has not returned to En gland because she fears her family will put her in a lunatic asylum. She is shown the Lebel pistol but says she doesn't know what has happened; she has never seen Mussolini before. The questions become more heated. "I don't know anything. I don't remember anything." And then, with a look of surprise: "Mussolini? Are you sure it was me?"
Are you sure it was me? The Honorable Violet Gibson attempted to assassinate Mussolini on Wednesday, 7 April 1926. Of this there is no doubt. The facts, down to the smallest detail, can be recovered from the record: from police files, eyewitness accounts, medical notes, diplomatic dispatches, private correspondence, newspaper reports. Journalism in the 1920s was surprisingly purple: sensationalist and hyperbolic, at times it bordered on the hysterical. Typographical errors abound. But on the whole, the factual content is reliable and corroborated by other external evidence.
The record shows that Violet Gibson made history. She was the only woman to try to eliminate the Italian dictator, and of a score of would-be assassins the only one to wound him. The events on Campidoglio proved to be a turning point in the way in which Fascismthe twentieth century's first regime to announce itself as "totalitarian"shaped itself. With few exceptions, world opinion rallied to denounce Gibson and support Il Duce and his bold enterprise. The intricate negotiations between Britain and Italy to resolve the crisis sparked by the affair strengthened a diplomatic alliance that accorded invaluable certificates of merit to a dictatorship that was as ridiculous as it was dangerous. In the cruelest of paradoxes, as Gibson drew Mussolini's blood she set in motion a chain of events that would ultimately fortify him.
For all this, history has made nothing of Violet Gibson. In the mile- long shelf of tomes on Fascism and Mussolini, she barely merits a mention. If she does appear, it is merely to be written of (or written off ) as a "demented Irishwoman" (Denis Mack Smith), a "half-mad mystic" (Max Gallo), a "crazy Irish spinster" (Adrian Lyttelton). Historians and biographers who excavate the site of their subject with forensic concentration, probing away for years with toothbrushes and tweezers, have raised the shard of Violet Gibson's story only to throw it over their shoulders as an accidental and useless piece of detritus that doesn't belong in their trench. They then turn back to the task of sifting through a welter of material designated as significant, to discern a design and unearth an argument worthy of the grand demands of history.
Are you sure it was me? It does seem unlikely. Violet Gibson lived her youth at the epicenter of the Victorian establishmentaristocratic, outfitted in privilege and revers of silk and fringes of pearls. How did she become the disarrayed woman who shot Mussolini? For a single moment, in the middle of a normal Fascist morning in 1926, Violet Gibson is dramatically in focus, more real than reality, hyper-real. Before that, and sometime thereafter, she is less clearly seen, as she recedes into the fog, the dim envelope of circumstance. The woman who shot Mussolini is elusive not simply because history has forgotten her, but because she made elusiveness the object of her life. Intensely private, her carefully nurtured secrecy was a strategy for living, a way of moving about unnoticed through a world whose full glare was too strong for her. So successful was she in this that nobody saw her standing a foot away from Mussolini pointing a gun at his face.
In a key passage in Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's protagonist Clarissa meditates on the woman she can see moving around in the opposite house, about whom she knows nothing. Clarissa discounts deep metaphysical explanation"love and religion"preferring to see in "the midst of ordinary things," in life itself, a riddle. "The supreme mystery . . . was simply this: here is one room: there another"which stands for the nugatory knowledge we have of the lives of others. We see, but we see across an impassable distance, another human being, passing from one room to another. Violet Gibson; how little we know. We see her in one "room," one stateleveling a pistol at Benito Mussolini. We see her in another "room," another statea slender debutante, smiling, radiant. The mystery is how this woman, so vivid to us in each state, each contradictory state, achieves the short, enigmatic journeya lifetime and a momentfrom the lighted room to the shadows of the one beyond.
Excerpted from The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Stonor Saunders, Frances Copyright © 2010 by Stonor Saunders, Frances. 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.