Mussolini’s Daughter

By Caroline Moorehead

Writing the biography of very famous people can’t be easy. For some perennially popular subjects the field is now so crowded as to put off any but the most determined or revisionist of historians. And while familiarity hasn’t stopped new biographies of Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler appearing every year, with scraps of previously undiscovered material getting turned up every now and then that lead to new perspectives, I think there’s a law of diminishing returns in operation.

One way of getting around this problem is to shift focus to someone close to the main figure in the story who isn’t as well known. One example being Rosemary Sullivan’s biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter. And now Caroline Moorehead’s account of Edda Mussolini, who was Benito Mussolini’s favourite child.

Edda’s name doesn’t appear in the title or subtitle of Moorehead’s book, perhaps signaling her secondary role in the world-historical events that follow. A famous figure in her day, I think Edda’s largely been forgotten in the years since the end of the Second World War and the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime. Edda lived to be 84, dying in 1995, but Moorehead’s book skims over her final 50 years in a mere handful of pages. For biographical purposes, Edda life ended with her father hanging by his heels from the roof of a gas station in Milan. “I write, I dream, I drink, I smoke,” is how she described her postwar existence to one friend. “And yet,” she would add, “I continue to live, not vegetate.” Which is setting a low bar.

Edda herself remains a bit mystifying. Moorehead confesses at the outset that “what follows is as close to the truth as I have been able to get.” But does this mean there were hidden depths to Edda’s character, or that there was actually less to her than met the eye? I’m drawn toward the latter position. She and her husband Galeazzo Ciano – for a time Italy’s foreign secretary – became the Fascist poster couple, which may have been incongruous in some ways (particularly given their louche lifestyles) but in so far as they were usually presented to the public as images without much in the way of substance, they fit the bill. Edda wasn’t particularly attractive, but she was tall and thin, while Ciano was a peacock. “Edda and Ciano were everything Mussolini had dreamt of as his model Fascist family: young, healthy, fashionable, forceful and fertile.” But did they even get along?

In terms of personality, Edda was a wild child and very much her daddy’s girl: a hothead “with a taste for dramatic scenes.” She shared many of the same mannerisms (like throwing her head back and sticking her jaw out at someone she was berating) and, even more shocking, the same sexual promiscuity. When asked how she resembled her father she replied “I wouldn’t be able to say the ways in which I do not resemble him. I am a faithful copy.”

For good and ill. She was also her father’s closest confidant and perhaps his only friend, and in this social narrowness she also took after him. I was surprised when I read Moorehead’s account of the sinking of a ship Edda was stationed on (she’d been in her cabin reading P. G. Wodehouse when it was torpedoed). Apparently “her closest friend,” a fellow nurse, died in the attack. The friend’s name didn’t ring any bells and, checking the index, I found out that this was the only mention of her in the entire book.

Who else did Edda like to hang out with? Like a lot of today’s power couples, her marriage to Ciano seems mostly to have been one of mutual convenience. It’s hard to say if she was ever in love with any of her lovers. Apparently she got along well with Magda Goebbels, which doesn’t say much in her favour as Magda seems to have been a very dull woman.

But then wasn’t Edda, despite her glamorous profile (which included an appearance on the cover of Time Magazine in 1939), a bit dull herself? Fiery, to be sure, but still an uneducated peasant girl whose shallowness is evident throughout Moorehead’s account. In Edda’s defence, her position in the Fascist regime was one she didn’t seek and seemed to not particularly enjoy, though the evidence here is ambiguous. Meanwhile, the question of her culpability in the crimes of the Fascist state is one that exercised investigators then and now.

Was she a power behind the throne? Moorehead’s subtitle is taken from a profile of Edda that appeared in an Egyptian magazine, but it has to be given some interpretive shading:

Edda, [the profile] said, “rules her father with an iron fist.” This, certainly, had become the accepted view in many circles, but as with so much else in Edda’s life, it has to be seen in context. Her power was never of a concrete kind, not least because she was a woman, and because she was quickly bored with the minutiae of daily decisions. But her closeness to her father and Ciano’s reliance on her, together with her impatience at equivocation, made her formidable, even when she was least aware of it.

Try parsing that out. A Fascist figurehead unaware and uninterested in her own power? It seems odd, but a similar contradiction also informed Edda’s description of her father as both “feeble and authoritarian.” Which he was, at least at the end, when he’d become a sock puppet or, in Edda’s phrasing, a “rag in the hands of the Germans.”

Of course, Edda herself would deny having any influence in matters of state, though after the war there were good reasons for downplaying any role she might have had. On trial, she remarked “It wasn’t as if I was Helen of Troy.” Of some significance, though again it’s hard to interpret, is her absence from Ciano’s diaries, the preservation of which played such a large part in her escape from Italy at the end of the war. Did her husband see her as not being involved? Was he trying to protect her? Was he jealous of her? We can’t say.

Moorehead does point out that Edda was more pro-war than Ciano, which counts against her on many levels. Italy, for example, just wasn’t ready for war. As Mussolini quipped at the time, “With an army like this, one can declare war only on Peru.” But Il Duce was the decider, and he was growing feeble.

If Edda remains a cipher it’s no fault of Moorehead. As well as being highly readable this is a full and honest account that leaves much to the reader to interpret in their own way. I came away from it thinking of Edda as little more than a high-strung, Fascist fashion model who flew (or was carried) too close to the sun. That she survived the wreckage is testimony to a certain resourcefulness and resiliency, but that’s the best I can say.

Review first published online November 11, 2022.

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