he problem, Chantal Dubois declared, was one of stubbornness. Testardo, she said. Obstinate. Defiant. Why, she demanded to know, would he not die? He’d been nearly dead for a week, then four. Why procrastinate? Who were these cunning doctors to encourage the clinging? The effrontery. The tenacity. In Italy, she said, reason would prevail, though what kind wasn’t clear.
“The ‘Gaul’ of the man,” clucked Jim Long, the wire editor.
The off-color pun fell flat. “That’s French,” he added.
Chantal carelessly flicked ash from her ivory cigarette holder. She wore tight silver-sequined outfits that made her look like a fading diva scheming for an upgrade in a mediocre hotel. During Italy’s hand-me-down 1950s she’d gone by her real name, Gabriella Lepre, straddling politics and show business to make a reputation. Now, as the fairytale Chantal Dubois, her penname-turned-trademark, she published the Rome Daily American newspaper.
It was November 1975 and Chantal wanted the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco dead. Not tomorrow. Now. Where was the editor, she bawled (he was former Associated Press correspondent David Mazzarella, a distinguished journalist later to run USA Today.) How could he be absent when she was present?
Dubois then issued her famous edict. “Tomorrow’s headline, show it to me,” she demanded of Long. He produced a proof sheet with four stately serif words in 72-point Bodoni type: “FRANCO CLINGS TO LIFE.”
“Nonsense,” said Chantal. “What you must write is: FRANCO SAREBBE MORTO.”
“But Madame,” croaked Long.
The paper’s editors demanded clarity, succinctness, and the amputation of verbiage from agency reports. Working with pencils, the staff complied.
Not Dubois. Hearsay — ipotesi — was her fact. Italian newspapers wickedly merged best guesses with partisan wishful thinking and lip-synched the package into news. The surname of a leading politician, Mariano Rumor, was emblematic.
Outraged at the newsroom’s collective failure to grasp the obvious, Chantal jabbed at Long with the cigarette holder she held pinched between thumb and forefinger. “Non è possibile,” she quivered. “It must be clear! Don’t you understand? FRANCO SAREBBE MORTO.”
Yes, he understood, sighed Long; but no, Mazzarella told her later, he would not run such a headline. Literally, it meant “Franco could be dead” or “Franco might be dead.”
Chantal didn’t know it at the time but her headline advised my Italian life. Living in Rome three decades ago was to dwell in the conditional.
I ARRIVED in Italy on the Italian ocean liner Leonardo da Vinci, sailing from New York to Naples with brief calls in Boston, Lisbon, Algeciras, Palma de Majorca, Cannes, and Genoa. For $909, I’d purchased an inside stateroom on Boat Deck, the ship’s prosperous first class neighborhood (the Left Bank, second class, lay far below). I carved the money from a poetry grant I’d received at the end of my junior year at Columbia University. The award — $1,500 — urged its recipient to spend the funds “on furthering a commitment to the arts and literature.” Instead, I bought the stateroom and a small quantity of marijuana. Once in Rome, I found a store called Città2000 and spent the rest of the cash on a 50-watt Marantz pre-amp and two throbbing Bozak speakers (Arturo, Città2000’s wiry manager, greeted me with “Ciao America!” and bafflingly told me “Sei un mostro!”)
The spending spree was easy to rationalize. Be arty, I told myself. Who’ll ever know?
I crossed the North Atlantic in mid-May, when the Atlantic hibernates from its winter snarl and the night sky is effervescent. Galaxies are pinups for dreamers, which is why I’d brought the flaky narcotics, to better appreciate the stars. I also had cassettes heavy on keyboards and electric guitars — Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way,” Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters,” Larry Coryell’s “Barefoot Boy,” Jeff Beck’s “Blow by Blow” — and a small Sony tape recorder with a miniature earpiece.
Drugs alarmed me in college. My roommate Dan, a diminutive Dutch-American with Popeye forearms, announced one morning that he’d taken LSD to probe the concealed mysteries of soap suds. Soap suds bored me, but I was 20 and cautious. Dan was another matter. Six hours later, I found him in front of the kitchen basin where I’d left him, his palms marbled and bloated. Let me help you, I urged him. “I see three of you,” he replied. “Which one do I pick?” I coaxed him to his room where he slept for 14 hours, occasionally blurting out a word that sounded like “Moppy.” Another time, Dan tried tossing his Smith Corona typewriter from our 10th floor dormitory window. He lost interest when the window jammed.
Others pursued more benign hallucinogenic activities, including staring for hours at television reruns of George Reeves’ black-and-white “Adventures of Superman” series. One entranced freshman leapt to his death from the roof. Imitation is flattery, commented his laconic roommate.
By comparison, marijuana seemed comical. I’d been impressed less by its effects on me than how I could dupe others. Sober, I’d told three puffed-up friends to support dorm room walls I insisted were falling. This they did unflinchingly. Meantime, I snacked. By 21, my powers were prodigious.
THE BOAT DECK steward on the Leonardo da Vinci was a peevish Neapolitan with pigeon eyes who introduced himself “Mangozzi, Ercole.” I wondered who’d name their child Mangozzi until I recalled the Italian habit of stating surnames first. A servant of rectitude, Hercules Mangozzi scorned long-haired youth (“capellone,” he once simmered aloud, but I assumed it was lunch). He also suspected all odors that were not female perfume. “St’odore non meh piakwe.” I assumed this meant the odor wasn’t pleased. My clumsy translation came after he smelled something while tidying up my cabin on the second day out, when we quit Boston’s clammy fog for the open Atlantic. My tiny Collins Italian-English pocket dictionary later revealed it wasn’t the odor that was unhappy.
Mangozzi’s terrier instincts drove me to devise strategies against anyone who might sniff out Book Deck bohemians. I stuffed my modest marijuana stash into an emptied-out Pepto-Bismol bottle. I’d tuck pairs of underwear into the air vents in the cabin’s bathroom before awkwardly rolling a joint to furtively get in four or five puffs (smoking on deck was too risky). After midnight, I’d sneak up to Sun Deck, climbing a tiny ladder to a vacant spot beneath the Leonardo’s giant coin-slot smokestack. From there, cross-legged, I’d install my music and scan the deliciously bright sky for meteors.
Emboldened by the drugs, I’d occasionally scramble forward to the ship’s juggernaut bow, up against the tattooing burn of wind and foam, or ply back corridors upward to the bridge — an adventure possible only on Italian vessels (British and French liners were far stricter). With young officers of the past-midnight watch, I’d listen to the slush of unseen water or camp out over the radar and peer at the yellow lines as they made their indolent arcs. From the bridge I saw distant splinters of lightning stab the sea. Few objected to my illegal migration or my array of questions. They liked speaking English. They also enjoyed inoffensive company. Later, I’d make similar forays into the cockpits of Italian commercial jets.
Returning from the deck one night, my salt-drenched hair whipped wildly into braids, I faced rapidly-blinking Hercules Mangozzi. My behavior, he stammered cryptically, “Potrebbe necessitare un intervento.” Trembling, I again extracted my mini-dictionary. Conduct. Necessitate. Intervention. The only word I ignored was “might.” Yet it was the crucial one. “Potrebbe” and “ipotesi” promised drama, but threat and bluff mattered more than follow-through. I’d missed the lesson.
On the fourth day of the nine-day cruise I met William Drower, a retired British diplomat who’d just finished teaching at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School. Drower and his wife took to me. I dined with them, walked the deck with them, listened to tales of wartime Malaya and the abundant shortcomings of the Labour Party (then under bull-dogged Harold Wilson). When Mangozzi saw me dressed elegantly for dinner one evening he nodded approval. I had been rehabilitated.
Meanwhile, I continued lighting up.
THE FIRST ENTRY in my faded Rome notebook reads (almost illegibly) as follows: “Dank, fumey, complaint-filled.”
No different now.
My first acquaintance was the Neapolitan poet Lino Curci (Curci, Lino was not his style). My writing award called for translating some of Curci’s poems. A garrulous dumpling of a man decked out in fuchsia scarves even in summer, he had the puzzling habit of supporting every assertion with a rhetorical question: “Ma, come mai così?”
The sun is shining, he’d say. How nice! “Ma, come mai così?” It was a confusing affectation.
I avoided discussing more intimate matters for good reason. Curci was visibly infatuated with my mother and missed few opportunities to extol the virtues of late-blooming romance.
This gallant trait apparently endeared him to Rome cafè society. Along Viale Parioli, I met fulsome aristocrats whose mannerisms supported a turn-of-the-century vision of Italy remote from a nation with a thriving Communist Party, which they uniformly loathed. They considered communist leader Enrico Berlinguer a demonic figure — ironic since he was a Sard with noble blood. In opulent apartments, hired help dressed in flawless white and greeted guests obsequiously — “Si accomodi nella casa della principessa.” Some butlers and maids were from the deep south and borderline literate.
Though I never told my friends, my mother was a princess of Albanian pedigree. But getting to the source of her Muslim ex-husband’s title (A king’s nod? Noble genetics?) proved impossible. A princess didn’t answer indiscreet questions. She merely was. My mother’s fur-draped friends, meanwhile, despaired at my long hair and prehistoric apparel. Could I be a some kind of American communist sent by the CIA to pose as a son and translate poems?
Curci’s latest volume furthered his obsession with the Moon landing. “Gli Operai della Terra,” he’d called it: “The Workers of the Earth,” or, to me, Earthly Workers.
“Ma come mai?” Curci ventured.
The Workers of the Earth, I told him, could be a Karl Marx chapbook.
But Curci didn’t flinch: “Ma come sarebbe?”
His jabber was tireless. Why was this done in that way? Why should that not be this instead? “Ma come sarebbe a dire?” How do you mean? It was a bizarre mix of curiosity and self-consciousness ill-suited to a writer who poems embodied a solar system of his own making: “The stars speak to other stars/and think of their pupils.”
Yet a pattern of semantics emerged. In Italian dailies, subjects defied direct objects with personal pronouns and adjectives running riot. Ambitious sentences journeyed to the ends of the earth but rarely reported back. Most essays presumed cultural elitism. If you didn’t know the topic and the actors the fault was yours.
The king of all obtuseness was Umberto Eco, whose 1980 novel “The Name of the Rose” would take the United States by storm. He churned out reams of comma-salted newspaper prose that glorified the condition of “maybe-ness.”
If I were to write, Eco posited, would I actually write what I am writing? Or would I not? And if I did, would it be appropriate? Possibly, he’d add. But who knew? A few years later the satirical newspaper “Il Male” lampooned Eco’s style with a fake essay (the editors mocked up a Corriere Della Sera front page) in which he welcomed the arrival of aliens. “Are they here? Possibly, it might be. And if they are, what does it mean? Who knows.”
As I sought meaning in scrabbled paragraphs I was comforted by the essayist and food writer M.F.K. Fisher. “Any half-decent approach in the use of words,” she wrote in 1969, “is as mysterious as that of a sex initiation into a Congolese tribe, but much slower.”
Sadly, the voluble Curci, whom I came to know as a decent and funny man, cut short my half-decent approach. He died of a massive heart attack at Rome’s main post office building in the autumn of 1975, only weeks after I’d begun my sketchy translations. Hearing of an “accident,” I called his home. The hysterical housekeeper spoke of a “disgrazia.” He’d been stricken by a “malore.”
I deduced from this that he’d been “disgraced” by a terrible “badness” and demanded to know what kind. “Eh, eh, signore, non c’è di peggio!”
I felt like writing an obituary with the line: “He was survived by his children, Obfuscation and Conditional.”
But I knew better: “Ma come sarebbe a dire?”
ROME OF 1975 battled its own demons. Soiling rush hour traffic had turned the Coliseum black. Police clashed with protestors at Piazza del Popolo. Guns were out. But the maybe-ness of the political outlook downplayed the worst. The Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro, later abducted and murdered by the Red Brigades (great loathers of the maybe), masterfully refined the concept of the svolta, which literally means a turn for better or worse. But Moro’s svolta unhinged the concept itself. He rationalized centrist overtures to the dynamic Communist Party in terms of what he called “converging parallels.” Even my mother, the shrewdest of princesses, thought this disingenuous.
Opportunism, not geometry, informed Moro’s strategy. How could the Christian Democrats, close Vatican allies, coexist with Communists? They couldn’t. Instead, Moro devised a separate-but-equal ploy that located the parties as converging parallel lines. Parallel lines never converge, snarled critics. Precisely the point, Moro explained calmly (“Anche se potrebbe sembrare paradossale.”) His uncanny dexterity in the political half-light so exasperated the compromise-loathing radical left that its armed fringe finally silenced him for good in 1978.
Until that watershed year, the Christian Democratic ruling class felt untouchable. Few of its leaders were ever shamed into withdrawal — which made Richard Nixon’s Watergate resignation in 1974 nearly impossible to fathom (“You kick out a great president only because he is corrupt,” objected Curci. “Here they must be corrupt to lead.”) The tiny Amintore Fanfani, a Moro contemporary, served as a minister or a prime minister so often that Romans spoke of him as a Walt Disney dog: “You throw him out the front door and he comes back through the window.”
Yet living by conditional rules had a Machiavellian catch. You couldn’t stray far from your lair. A playwright colleague who was also the public affairs spokesman for the Italian presidency refused to take vacations (except in August) fearing schemes to steal his “poltrona.” He had been appointed for life, he told me. But absence could yield power plays. Cabals lurked. The impossible could turn probable. Maybe.
MY GODFATHER Felice Ippolito set the table for my sense of Italy’s infinite ambiguities. When I got to know him in 1962 he headed the Italian nuclear energy agency. A powerful man with powerful connections, he zipped me from the city to his family’s summer house at Anzio in a red Fiat 1500 Spider convertible. We’d wade in the amniotic sea and he’d pull out detritus from the 1944 invasion. I’d install these rusty mementoes in my war collection.
Felice’s two daughters, Angelica and Susanna, cuddled me secretly in their side-porch hammock. Susanna had immense brown eyes. I wanted to marry her. She was 15; I was nine. In Rome and Anzio, Italian servants cooked lunch and dinner in the languorous heat. I knew nothing of the class system. I imagined family and servants as one until I saw Felice’s wife shouting at a sobbing teenage cook.
Felice, then in his 40s, lived in a uncompromising world I learned about only in stages. In it, the mighty intimidated those beneath them: “Lei non sa chi sono io…” — “You don’t know who I am.” Felice once said this to a police officer who had flagged us down for a routine check (the only time I’ve been stopped by police in four decades in Italy). The startled officer walked away. Seconds later, we returned to our cruising speed, 160 kilometers an hour. Privileges and personal charm outweighed social egalitarianism.
Such arrogance endures, but less visibly. In 1962, the reconciling of an agrarian past and an industrial future was still in a work progress. Many newer locales along the seashore near Rome (Sabaudia, I remember) lacked running water. Social shifts were generally south to north, with the south losing millions of villagers to Fiat’s smoky Turin. There was also emigration, mostly to West Germany, where Italians entered the work force as unskilled laborers.
Meanwhile, Rome, to me, was Felice’s playground. And he always drove fast — until Italian President Giuseppe Saragat intervened to stop him. In 1963, he called Felice a crook. An ambitious Social Democrat tied to Italy’s large oil companies, Saragat feared the growth of nuclear power. And so the discrediting began. “Secondo Saragat, Ippolito avrebbe favorito…” and so on.
Felice was charged with abuse of office, tantamount to skimming and kickbacks. He got 11 years in prison (Saragat commuted the sentence, but not the sullying). “Might” again ruled the day. Felice might have. He could have. Who knows if he didn’t?
The “Caso Ippolito” was an institutional whisper campaign legislated by cowed courts. Even now no one knows for sure if Ippolito was guilty. He later turned left politically. In the 1980s, he ran for the European Parliament and won. But I never saw him again. And I never forgot how far he fell.
FEDERICO FELLINI’S first words to me were worrisome. “Mica sono Fellini!” — literally, “As if I’m Fellini.”
Before me was a whiny man who looked and behaved like Fellini but mischievously appeared to dare me to prove it. Tongue-tied, I couldn’t speak. That was his ploy. By the time I recovered he’d whisked himself away.
It was my mother’s idea that I interview him. Her friend Carmen knew him socially. So what about it, she asked Carmen as I lurked nervously behind living room furniture. “Potrebbe essere un’idea,” Carmen offered.
Fellini reveled in the success of “Amarcord,” which I adored for its cellophane rendering of the 1930s ocean liner Rex. He was filming “Casanova” with Donald Sutherland at Cinecittá. Carmen arranged for me to await il maestro, “the master,” after his filming day ended. The appointment was set for 6:30 p.m. in a building near the set. Carmen cautioned me about “fluidity” in the director’s schedule. He was, she said, “un tipo improbabile,” which I suspected meant he’d be late.
By then I’d learned that time itself was a central aspect of the conditional. What foreigners knew best about Benito Mussolini was that he made trains run on time (in truth, they rarely did.) Chris Matthews, then the Reuters bureau chief, wrote a deft column for the International Herald Tribune based on Rome’s countless malfunctioning public clocks. If they worked at all, they all told different times, as if mysteriously measuring progress in a separate but parallel realm. I still visit one broken Rome clock that hasn’t been tampered with since 1975. Wrong then, wrong now: It’s my proof of life.
When the Fellini vigil entered its second hour I prowled for help. I found a man with a clown hat and blue eyebrows. Fellini? The man laughed. No, he was not Fellini. He was Pippo. This in turn induced paroxysms of laughter.
As if, snorted Pippo. “Ehi, se io fossi lui!”
So where is he?
“Chi lo sa? Potrebbe essere sul ‘set’ — oppure se ne andato.”
Next, I found a rotund man with an orange bandana.
Where, I asked, is Maestro Fellini?
Ask Pippo, he said. I am only the pirate. The huffy pirate sauntered off.
At 8 p.m., the whiny man strode in with an assistant. He shouted. The assistant shouted. The whiny man sneered at the weather, disparaged the light. Where was the pirate? he howled.
Pippo dashed in half-naked holding a limp cigarette and dabbing a mole on his upper lip. He had turned in his clown hat for a pink sailor’s cap. I tugged at his belt.
Here is the journalist, said Pippo, and the whiny man’s arms fell slack.
“Mica sono Fellini.”
He examined me dubiously: “Ma come sarebbe a dire, giornalista?” (It was my age, I knew.)
Then, to Pippo, howling again, “Ma no! Non è possibile. Non proprio oggi…”
Off he went down the corridor, Pippo and assistant in tow. I was left to brood alone on the verge of tears. Carmen’s efforts at clarification just made matters worse. “Maybe he was in a bad mood,” she said. “Or maybe he might have had a moment on the set when he forgot about the appointment because it could be that he wasn’t thinking. He was possibly thinking that maybe you’d wait for him.”
And it came back to me: “Sarebbe,” “potrebbe,” “forse.”
LATE IN NOVEMBER, Chantal Dubois opened an AM radio station. “We will call it the ‘Voice of The American,'” she announced.
By this time Mazzarella had escaped to the United States, leaving scuffling Jim Long in charge. “This is insane,” Mazzerella confided to me. (It’s worth noting the Daily American of the mid- and late-1970s boasts distinguished alumni: Mazzarella, Bill Grueskin, who was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Stephen S. Hall an award-winning science writer, Joe Shapiro, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio, and Charles C. Mann, a distinguished author and social historian; the list is long.)
Long told Chantal that “Voice of The American” might be misunderstood. “There’s the Voice of America,” he explained. Chantal pouted.
Before the proliferation of TV networks, private radio stations dominated Italy and the radiantly deluded Chantal sought to solidify her media mogul status. In short order, swarthy workers who roared insults and smoked furiously erected soundproof studios in the back offices of the newspaper’s fourth floor (now occupied by the Wall Street Journal‘s Rome office.) The second-hand equipment arrived so abruptly it seemed as if Chantal had raided a wealthy competitor. It turned out that most of the gear came from a bankruptcy auction.
Dressed in gold sequins and a feathered shawl, she then staged a theatrical meeting in which she told the staff that the station’s transmitters would reach millions and that employees would be called on to read hourly news bulletins — at no additional salary. Instead of payment, she said, we should be honored, as English-speakers, to disseminate our native language. Some balked while others haplessly entertained themselves as would-be radio stars. One female staffer got her own program and did a commercial that began, “Che traffico a Roma!” Her American accent thrilled Chantal.
In time, I also got my own program — on the least coveted night, Sunday. I called it “Sunday Music Spotlight,” or SMS. At first, I bumbled the stylus and failed to distinguish between two and 10 on the volume panel, transforming the bearded sound man into an electrocuted cat. From then on, station technicians eyed me suspiciously. Mimicking an FM radio voice I’d heard in New York City, I played Jimi Hendrix’s “If Six was Nine” (“Go ahead, Mister Businessman, you can’t dress like me…”) and The Allman Brothers Band live version of “Whipping Post” (“I been run down, I been lied to…”). I hauled stacks of LPs from home (the station owned few) and proudly announced that my entire two-hour program was commercial-free — accurate since no one advertised. I also invited my millions of listeners to call in requests. None did.
This demoralizing lack of commercial flattery prompted Chantal to listen to a crony who told her a producer or a boss of some kind might reverse the station’s fortunes. Everyone had one, after all. “Un dirigente potrebbe essere una buona idea.”
In a rare moment of pragmatism, Chantal demanded to know a station director’s role. He would run “il tutto,” the crony advised. The idea of involving an outside figure to manage “the everything” amused Chantal sufficiently that she hired a local producer, Riccardo Maffei, to direct the station.
I remember him as a slender, combustible man gifted with an array of passionate gestures. He had a spectacular way of pointing, for example, snapping his fists as if banging on a cymbal or hurling birdseed into the center of the earth. The hurling meant “yes.” When he waggled his head side-to-side so his brown eyes marbled into corners the answer was “no.” Despite his hydraulic skill, he was ineffective as a business manager and advertisers were few. Sunday Music Spotlight remained commercial-free for months on end. So did the rest of the station, known by then as Radio RDA. But one morning Chantal told Maffei of her revelation. She had decided Maffei was “troppo Italiano,” too Italian.
Ah, but she had a solution. Henceforth, Riccardo Maffei would be “Dick McGrath,” like the “Raimond Andler” detective, she explained. But Raymond Chandler had no Dick McGrath, I said. She scoffed. I had read the wrong book.
Maffei was to promote himself on air as Dick McGrath, answer calls as Dick McGrath. The sleek American slant would certainly attract sponsors.
Maffei-McGrath worked hard to occupy his new name. “Deke Magath,” he’d say. “Ho detto bene?” he’d ask me.
On a Sunday near Christmas I found him disconsolate near the sound booth.
Problems, I asked?
“C’è di peggio,” he answered.
“Che ne sai?” he challenged.
Oh Dick, I know. Believe me I know. What if Franco came back to life?
And for the last time before he lost his job, Dick McGrath laughed. By the early 1980s, the radio had closed.