February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

May days

By |2023-12-13T22:31:11+01:00May 1st, 2006|Memory Lane, Other Works|
The Red Brigades left Moro's body in central Rome.

necdotes were our campfire songs. The night before it ended, Anette told us the threesome story: She, a blue-eyed Dutch brunette with boot-camp hair, and the two unctuous Italians from Ostia. One was her dentist; the other — she loved this part — managed a seafront pet store that specialized in rare talking birds, Avis Exotica, Uccellini Tropicali. There, hemmed in by a thunderstorm, she befriended a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Commandante whose repertoire consisted of “Se habla español.”

She’d scampered from dentist (oh, his looks!) to pet store (her red angelfish needed food) and Mr. Rare Bird, his battered red Ducati front and center, kicked up drizzle and pheromones on the breathless ride home.

Anette called herself Jackie Blue, from a popular song by a Missouri band called The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. She loved the dare part.

By the night of the threesome, Aldo Moro had been out 50 days of a soon-to-end life. Caged cats, we prowled the city for stories, finding few. Like the cockatoo, we mimicked the lines we knew best, adjusting emphases for boss-warming effect.

Jackie Blue worked for Dutch radio and an Amsterdam tabloid. Laughter convulsed her night’s retelling: Men peeled from artifacts, she said; Grecian Urn lovers. “The Iliad,” right? No, too serious. Her English was flawless, so was her French, Italian, and Spanish.

How about the giants in Asterix? Remember them?

Casual around the edges, scruffy, she hadn’t slept. Exhaustion made her pretty. Had she mentioned that men lack a sense of humor? Or how the bed coils tangled her bra (such as it was)? Or how wine worked wonders after Novocain?

Had she told us the dentist started it?

Yes, we said, but tell us more.

Imagine days before the lacquered premeditations of television. Imagine the irregular squeals of radio and typewriters sounding like towel-ends snapping.

We marked time to Anette’s strip poker stories, convex vagaries that couldn’t be verified. Who knew what was true? Truthfulness in surreal Italy seemed like an exaggerated conceit based on alien notions of guilt. The Dutch carried no such burden.

Gifted journalists yielded to vanity. I had dined with Alvin Shuster, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief, and the Italian author Furio Colombo, two years before. “You know why I like being a journalist?” asked Shuster, answering a question posed mostly by wine. “Because I like seeing my damn name on Page 1, that’s why.”

I believed him.

During a particularly somnolent and malnourished Moro stretch (weeks passed with little news), one journalist, to spite another, teased up a rumor that Mafia “insiders” had joined forces with police to find Moro. The underworld had wearied of surveillance, she wrote; bad for business.

The Frascati-induced fancy made global headlines.

Fiction suited our mood.

We’d make up anti-news snippets: Terrorists, like vampires, feared garlic. If only Italian police knew.

For a while, I translated for the late ABC correspondent Bill Stewart. He came pre-soured. Why not the Middle East or South America? Someplace with whining rotaries and kerosene. Anyplace but Rome.

In Managua a year later he found the menace Rome denied him. A Nicaraguan solider shot him dead at a checkpoint. He hadn’t turned 40. The jagged footage, repeated often, helped lauch CNN.

“Nothing happens here,” he said.

He’d wake me up before kiosks opened. “What’s up today?” “Any roadblocks?” “What do the papers say?” “Want to meet?”

What a waste of time, he said. What a place to sink a career.

Know any terrorists who feel like talking? Maybe a hideout?

I didn’t.

Lunch? Could I at least help with that?

Yes, that yes.

I knew a restaurant.

But in the end I went alone.

La Pentola is (no, was) a half-a-block from my favorite street in Rome, Vicolo del Divino Amore. I’d maneuver girls there hoping to kiss them until I realized they didn’t want to be kissed and I was left alone with deaf cobblestones.

On the morning of the 54th day, whim took over. No work, I said. A rest day with a full lunch. No listening, no waiting.

Over time the kidnappers recruited us into a soap opera and tweaked the volume (flyers, threats, tracts) whenever our attention waned. The story line was self-hypnosis.

Between March and May the police caught only one full-fledged terrorist, named Christopher.

Cristoforo Piancone. Christopher was by then a rare name in Italy. His sainthood so alarmed the cult-fearing Vatican that he’d been dropped from the worship menu.

No surprise, Cristoforo had nothing to do with the kidnapping.

I worked for a newspaper called the International Daily News. Bill Stewart said I belonged to the “new journalism”; I answered by writing too much.

Sometimes, three decades later, people ask, “What was it like during Moro?”

The idiosyncratically brilliant historian Robert Katz (also in Rome at the time) answered most such questions in his 1980 book “Days of Wrath,” an out-of-print gem.

My own remembrance is more subjective, memories gleaned from tea leaves.

How, I wonder, do you fast-forward Moro in terms that might be understood today?

What if extreme rightists kidnapped Gianfranco Fini, the foreign minister and former deputy prime minister, killing his bodyguards and justifying their actions by claiming he’d betrayed the root values of some imagined proto-Fascist legacy? What if his own party was divided over how to respond, and his chief ally, the prime minister, refused to negotiate? What if all this occurred when TV screens went dark early and satellite feeds and Internet hawking were non-existent. What if discussions about terrorism happened after midnight, innuendo molted into collusion to liven up smoke-filled rooms?

Far-fetched and romantic yes, but there’s little that isn’t about the reconstructed past.

After September 11, writers probed al-Qaeda’s loathsome American masterpiece; this, they said, was paramount venom.

But it was Hollywood venom.

The Red Brigades, children of World War II and the Cold War, managed urban terrorism cynically. Disquiet wrote their pamphlet, with preface, climax, and denouement. And Moro helped craft his own drama, sending hand-written poison pen letters from a “prison” no one could find. The result was two months of piercing psychological warfare waged at the highest level with the public rarely the wiser about the intentions of state or terrorists.

Moro was nervous breakdown territory for journalists — Where exactly was the news? — and a playground for European essayists, who scanned the hieroglyphs of terrorist communiqués.

I read the communiqués of course, and tried my own convoluted interpretations. But finally I preferred laughing with Anette and helping out nervous Bill Stewart.

The owner of La Pentola was a refined Tuscan named Franco. He had the sartorial cheek of a Corto Maltese count emaciated by intelligence.

Once, perhaps it was in the second week, he’d made an intriguing remark. “These terrorists,” he said confidently, “they know what they’re doing; they have the discipline of a platoon in battle.” Una pattùglia.

Grudging admiration was all around.

Who were these people (wrongly thought foreign), able to conduct a guerrilla operation, maintain discretion, and stick to a plan? Revulsion and admiration for their strategic brilliance mingled and broke apart and mingled again. A society buttered by gossip and rhetoric got Moro as a toy. It produced a dire paradise of words.

Just past 2 p.m. on May 9, 1978, Franco approached me, stricken. I had only started my pasta. I had not brought my pocket radio.

I knew instantly.

It took me 15 minutes on the run. Past the dark Pantheon façade, around the screaming vehicles that made Largo Argentina into a merry-go-round of sirens.

Take a walk to Via Caetani today and you’ll find a large plaque with florid homage.

That afternoon, on the 54th day, there was a just beat-up red Renault with a fish-flopped corpse inside. Irritated plainclothesmen shoved me away. Vattene. Get lost.

The night before, Anette had gone on and on about the threesome. Brazen and cheerful, she left Rome the next year. The city, for her, had run out of inducements.

She never mentioned that night again.


Aldo Moro, a five-time Italian Christian Democratic prime minister and the architect of controversial détente with the Communist Party, was kidnapped in residential Rome on March 16, 1978, by a Red Brigades commando team that killed four of his bodyguards; a fifth died the next day.

Though his 54-day captivity lacked a key ingredient of contemporary public drama, images, few terrorist organizations (certainly not Islamic militants) have practiced rogue psychological warfare as effectively as the Red Brigades. The group circulated one much-published photograph of a hangdog-looking Moro holding up a national newspaper with a primitive, five-pointed star on a stale backdrop with the words “Brigate Rosse,” but little else.

The Red Brigades, who thought themselves betrayed by mainstream Communists, orchestrated a primitive but insidious cat-and-mouse campaign using randomly-dropped communiqués and hand-written letters by Moro that grew increasingly bitter toward those who failed to rescue him. These ghost-documents (roughly equivalent to anonymous Internet postings) mesmerized the nation’s collective psyche and embarrassed a rattled government, which dismissed them as the writings of a man under duress.

The connivances of that hard-line government, led by Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti, with former President Francesco Cossiga as interior minister, has fed many books and films. Less often debated is how the powerful Communist Party, fearing its own discrediting by the extreme left, vehemently supported the no-negotiation position.

Conspiracy theorists nonetheless insist that Moro was ruthlessly abandoned by fellow Christian Democrats who deplored his compromises with the ascending Communists and feared the consequences of his release.

Later, Red Brigades mastermind Mario Moretti (and Moro’s executioner) wrote that the terrorists marveled at the usually-malleable government’s refusal to negotiate — the terrorists had sought the release of imprisoned colleagues. “Nobody in the world should ever have to feel as alone as [Moro] did,” Moretti wrote in 1994. “Here was a man who knew the most powerful people on earth; the men in the government were his men, the interior minister, his friend, and not a single one of them lifted a finger to help him, or made the slightest move to step forward from the pack. This was what Moro could not accept.”

Moro was shot 11 times and his body left on May 9, 1978, in the back of a car abandoned on Via Michelangelo Caetani, midway between Communist and Christian Democratic headquarters in central Rome. He had been held in a Rome apartment throughout his captivity. Despite 100,000 police and military assigned to the case, no leads to his whereabouts were found during the ordeal. Cossiga resigned but was elected Italian president a decade later.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.