The plot sounds like Joseph Roth at his most cynically extravagant: a demobbed soldier, down on his luck, has a chance meeting with a political agitator on the rise, and the two forge an alliance that propels the soldier onto the world stage. He marries a rich American opera singer, governs an African colony, conducts an epic legal battle with the Vatican, embroils himself in the darkest villainies of his exceptionally brutal era, is executed multiple times without realising it, and ends his days on an island in the Mediterranean. The fact that it is all true, researched by Victoria de Grazia down to the minutest detail of couture gowns and canonical law, only makes it more fantastical. The soldier was Attilio Teruzzi, a wine merchant’s son born in Milan in 1882. The American diva was an elastic trouser-belt heiress called Lilliana Weinman. The agitator was Mussolini.
Teruzzi, who was pushing forty at the time of the fateful meeting, had begun his army career as a furiere, or quartermaster, in the Italian colony of Eritrea. The furiere, de Grazia tells us, is a character type in Italy, ‘indispensable but also infuriating’, and Teruzzi had a gift for making himself both, along with a nose for provisions and supply lines that stayed sharp to the end. A superior recommended him for officer training, and he spent two years gentrifying himself at Modena, where he acquired a taste for brothels and fancy outfits, and experimented with the facial hair that was to become a surprisingly significant element in his destiny. In 1913 he was fighting the Ottomans in Libya, where he won a silver medal for advancing under fire after having his arm shattered by a bullet. In the First World War he won another medal for his efforts ‘to re-establish order in the troops’ – a euphemism, probably, for shooting his own men. He may or may not have participated in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s freebooting occupation of Fiume in 1919, in which the poet and his cohorts seized the town for fifteen months in the name of free love, anti-feminism and publicly funded music (D’Annunzio later described him as a ‘beloved comrade in arms’). By 1920 Teruzzi was back in Milan, one of more than a million veterans adrift in a nation that had little use for them, living with his mother and loafing around the arcades by the Piazza del Duomo in his uniform despite growing hostility towards the officer class from socialists and anarchists.
It was here that he first glimpsed his twenty-year-old future bride, ‘robust and blue-eyed, with a big pouf of ash-brown hair’. At that time she was too obviously out of his league for a direct approach (though he did engage in some mild stalking). And it was here, one afternoon in September, that he ran into an old friend, Guelfo Civinini, a war correspondent for the Corriere della Sera, who, impressed by Teruzzi’s full beard which ‘stuck out like a banner of youth and courage’, invited him along to the offices of Popolo d’Italia, Mussolini’s newspaper and power base. ‘What an amazing man!’ Teruzzi exclaimed as they left. ‘Even if he was in civvies, his stare made me feel like some pathetic grunt.’ The admiration was mutual: ‘We are going to need men like you,’ Mussolini told him, inviting him to return.
Fascism was in a transitional phase, a shift (roughly) from feral aggression against the establishment to a more blandly populist, Make Italy Great Again jingoism, aimed at exploiting fears of civil unrest in order to turn itself into the establishment. To that end it needed to unify its fractious squadre d’azione – local militias – and impose some discipline on them. Teruzzi was a natural choice for the job. He proved himself quickly, entering history in March 1921 at a funeral for victims of an anarchist bomb attack, where he headed a column of two thousand perfectly synchronised squadristi whose newly restrained demeanour, ‘silent, martial and grave-looking’, was instrumental in winning over a hitherto sceptical citizenry.
Like his boss – ‘a man of both order and disorder’ in de Grazia’s words – Teruzzi combined organisational flair with a wild pugnacity. In May 1921, he reportedly fired off his gun at a rally, instigating a shootout, after anti-Fascist pranksters paraded a dwarf above the balcony where he and other speakers were standing. The same month he was involved in a raid on a labour co-operative at Vigentino outside Milan that ended with two unarmed workers shot dead. He was in the truck that smashed open the doors of the Palazzo Marino during the takeover of Milan in August 1922, and later that day he led a raid against the socialist paper Avanti!, ransacking its offices and burning them to the ground. A photo from October that year shows him and Mussolini seemingly vying for best Fascist face. Mostly, however, his delinquency operated at a cooler temperature, which served him well for the petty graft he soon settled into, as well as the deception and callousness required by his busy sex life.
By the winter of 1923, a year after Mussolini seized power, Teruzzi was a significant cog in the Fascist machine: vice president of the national party as well as lieutenant general of the militia. But he hadn’t established a real political base, and lacked a potentially useful tool in the advancement of any political career, namely a brilliant marriage. That December, on his way to Sicily, he saw Lilliana Weinman again, boarding his train in Milan with her mother. Now a man of consequence, he sent a mutual acquaintance into her carriage to arrange an introduction.
De Grazia describes Lilliana as a ‘pure product of America’s grand experiment in meritocracy’. She was clearly hard-working as well as talented, but gave an impression – or seemed to want to give an impression – of existing in a fairy-tale world of furs, gowns, curtain calls and airborne bouquets. A letter from 1920 shows her fleeing a parade of ‘hideous’ socialists who had just won a municipal election: ‘We became frightened and flew into the first available open door. Fortunately it happened to be our furrier … It was very thrilling!’ The only child of Galician Jews who emigrated to New York when she was small, she had lit on opera at the age of fifteen as the career best suited to what she called her ‘effervescent personality’. Her doting parents encouraged her, and on the advice of experts in New York she was sent to Milan to train as a prima donna, accompanied by her mother, her maid and her manager, a married Italian called Umberto Ferulli who had previously been attached to Caruso. At the time of Teruzzi’s appearance in her train carriage, she had already triumphed (under her stage name, Lilliana Lorma) as Elsa in Lohengrin and Desdemona in Otello, and was on her way to Cairo with Manon and La Bohème.
The meeting was brief and formal. But Teruzzi had a chance to make a more forceful impression when the train arrived late in Naples, seizing command of Lilliana and her mother’s five trunks so they wouldn’t miss their connection. Her reaction to this instance of Fascism’s legendary way with rail travel isn’t recorded, but when Teruzzi began courting her in earnest when she returned from Cairo the following spring, she was receptive. It didn’t hurt that he had just been elected a deputy to Parliament (the next free election was in 1946), or that her own career had taken a dip, the Cairo tour having been plagued by illness and other misfortunes.
All went smoothly until the opening of Parliament at the end of May, when the Fascists, after disrupting proceedings in their usual way (stealing papers, manhandling socialists), found themselves at the receiving end of a two-hour lecture from the opposition deputy Giacomo Matteotti, detailing the fraud and intimidation that had accompanied their campaign, and denying the legitimacy of their victory. Incensed, Teruzzi hurled himself at Matteotti as he left the podium. He was held back, but eleven days later Matteotti was stabbed and punched to death by three men as he walked to his office. Teruzzi took charge of the cover-up, settling with the widow and paying off the killers. But the murder, in which both he and Mussolini were implicated, shocked Italy and seriously damaged the Fascists’ public image. Mussolini retreated from view for a month. Teruzzi slunk back to Milan, where suddenly nobody was wearing Fascist insignia any more. The opera world had been especially shaken by the killing – Matteotti’s brother-in-law was a well-known baritone – but that didn’t deter Teruzzi from making an impulsive visit to Varese, where Lilliana was rehearsing for William Tell, and proposing to her. She rebuffed him: ‘Please, I think of you as a friend.’ He left, furious.
It would be nice to imagine that this cultured American had woken up to the unpleasantness of her suitor’s politics, but that wasn’t, alas, the case. By the beginning of 1925 Fascism was back in style, with Mussolini assuming full dictatorial powers and Teruzzi appointed undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry. Lilliana allowed herself to be impressed. ‘I wonder if you know that Teruzzi became secretary of state, if you please,’ she wrote home, adding ‘he was very sweet to me.’
The courtship resumed, but the romance took on a decidedly mercantile character. Teruzzi ordered his people at the ministry to confirm the exact extent of the Weinman family’s wealth, pushed Lilliana to get her father’s consent as soon as the numbers proved satisfactory, and made jealous scenes whenever her ardour showed signs of cooling. None of which stopped him conducting affairs squalid enough to incur even Mussolini’s displeasure – among other things, he got a Roman haberdasher pregnant.
Lilliana was weighing her options just as carefully, if more quietly. Fascism’s embrace of the ‘new woman’ meant that in theory there was no need for her to give up her career, but Teruzzi’s old-school amour propre required it, and most of her family’s subsequent manoeuvrings seem to have been intended to make sure she was trading up. For a time Isaac Weinman withheld his consent, urging his daughter to use Teruzzi to pull in Fascist bigwigs for her performances, while also dangling his potential usefulness to Teruzzi as a conduit to American business leaders, should the marriage go ahead. What seems to have decided him in favour was Mussolini’s approval. Family values were high on the Fascists’ current agenda, and the Duce was keen for his faithful but intemperate lieutenant to settle down. ‘I am happy that you are marrying an American,’ he told Teruzzi after the engagement was confirmed. ‘English women are ugly, French women perverse, Spanish women bring us bad luck.’ That she was Jewish wasn’t an issue: in 1926 race laws were still far off, and Lilliana’s religion was no more troubling to Mussolini or Teruzzi than their politics were to her family. ‘What a great Man he is,’ Isaac wrote after meeting Mussolini.
Teruzzi appreciated his fiancée’s practical intelligence, especially her advice on how to handle his boss (‘the Italians are not fascisti but Mussolinian’ was a typically shrewd observation), while Lilliana soon grasped that life as a Fascist consort was essentially opera by other means, with grander entrances, bigger crowds and more roses. Travelling to a rally in Como where she stood ‘like royalty’ above a flower-waving crowd of twenty thousand, she experienced ‘one of the greatest emotions of my life’.
The wedding, in June 1926, consisted of a civil ceremony followed (in line with Fascism’s recent accommodations with the Vatican) by a traditional Catholic service. Witnesses included the American ambassador and Mussolini himself, who lent the couple his presidential train carriage for their honeymoon. Lilliana had been demurely warding off her fiancé’s sexual advances, but now she yielded, and although Teruzzi was later to return to the occasion in a state of prurient rage worthy of some sex-maddened ruler from late Shakespeare, he seems to have been satisfied at the time, serenading his bride with Prince Calaf’s aria from Turandot – ‘I will triumph! I will triumph! I will triumph!’ – as the train rattled through the Apennines. (We know this from the extensive detail provided by both parties in the annulment proceedings that began less than three years later.)
Empire-building was the new fantasy project in Rome, and Teruzzi, an old Africa hand, was once again a natural choice for a top appointment. ‘Attilio and I go to Cyrenaica to govern there as Vice Roy and Vice Reine,’ Lilliana boasted to her father a few months after the wedding. The couple were promised a palace in Benghazi, ‘with our own stables, garage full of cars, our troops, our own torpedo boat’. As a colonial governor, Teruzzi was granted more or less unlimited power. This made him ‘interesting’, de Grazia writes, in Nietzsche’s sense of having nothing to constrain the full expression of his true self. Surprisingly, his first instinct was a policy of benign paternalism. He organised rubbish collections, helped launch the seasonal tuna hunt, welcomed Arab notables to state receptions, and embarked on an ambitious scheme to turn Benghazi into an elegant modern city. But it wasn’t long before the structural inevitabilities of colonial rule pushed him into a more brutal role. A desert patrol was massacred while he and Lilliana were playing cards after lunch one day. The insurgents captured two officers whose young wives, realising that their husbands were going to be tortured to death, went mad – not a good look for the new governor. For a while he held out for diplomatic solutions, but by 1928, pressured by hardliners back home, he’d abandoned his attempt at a mission civilisatrice in favour of reprisals and ethnic cleansing.
That December, Lilliana went back to the States, her first visit in eight years. The plan was for Teruzzi to wrap things up in Libya, and join her. But he didn’t. Instead, after postponing his departure repeatedly, he sent a telegram that began: ‘I haven’t left, and I won’t leave.’ Considering that he’d wept when they parted in Naples, Lilliana was understandably mystified. The explanation that followed in a letter two weeks later was pure opera: ‘Ferulli’s lover cannot be Attilio Teruzzi’s wife. Therefore, you will never again appear before my eyes.’
It turned out Teruzzi had been given a packet of letters Lilliana had written to her old manager, Umberto Ferulli, while Teruzzi was courting her. De Grazia dismisses their content as merely the ‘campy salacity of “Diva talk”’. She calls Teruzzi’s accusation ‘preposterous’, and goes to great lengths to find other explanations for his outburst: he was stressed by new political duties; he was being manipulated by Ferulli, who admitted to the alleged affair purely in order to revenge himself on Lilliana for dispensing with his services and to extract a favour from Teruzzi; he was upset over a friend who had been killed by an exploding bathroom heater. All of which may have been true but seems beside the point. De Grazia is a scrupulous raker of archives, but her psychology sometimes feels off. Here are some samples from the letters: ‘sleeping terribly as I have become so accustomed to stretching out my hand and finding my Umbertucciolo’; ‘My period tomorrow, do you understand, my love?’; ‘I’ve not had the sheets changed because they smell of you.’ More lover than luvvie, surely. But so what?
Teruzzi’s rage, it seems, had less to do with the affair than with the notion that Lilliana had somehow tricked him into believing she was a virgin on their wedding night. He became increasingly fixated on this, consulting Italy’s leading gynaecologists, who fed him scenarios involving muscular contractions and capsules of red dye. Lilliana dashed back to Rome to try to salvage things. She telegraphed ahead, but this time instead of flowers she was greeted with dog shit: Teruzzi had trashed the apartment before moving out, leaving the pets behind. The next day his lawyer showed up, demanding Lilliana’s consent to a separation. She refused. Unluckily for Teruzzi, Mussolini had just ceded sole power to dissolve marriages to the Catholic Church, and so began a titanic battle through the Vatican courts.
A stated aim of The Perfect Fascist is to use Teruzzi’s marriage ‘as a springboard to explore moral life under Fascist rule’. Certainly this unlikely union between a Fascist leader and a Jewish American opera singer offers interesting perspectives on Fascism’s evolving attitudes to race, religion, culture, gender and so on, particularly as they bear on the annulment proceedings. Mostly what emerges is a surprising ineffectuality on the Fascist side, and a strong tendency towards farce. Teruzzi’s opening gambit was to offer the court an absurd version of the marriage, in which the acquaintance who introduced them on the train becomes a pimp, and Lilliana becomes a conniving prostitute who concealed hideous abnormalities, including a mane of thick black hair over her entire body, until their wedding night. When this failed to impress the clerics, for whom it all had to be translated into Latin, Teruzzi’s advocates attempted to make an issue of Lilliana’s Jewishness, essentially claiming that the Talmud’s tolerance of divorce rendered her legally unfit to enter into a Catholic marriage. The curia was open to the argument, handing Teruzzi a provisional victory at one point, but in the end its attachment to its role as enforcer of marital vows prevailed over its antisemitism. By now Lilliana had retreated to Paris, where she and her father began denouncing Fascism from their suite at the Crillon. Once again infuriated by his scandal-plagued protégé, Mussolini ordered him to shave off his beard (he later relented, allowing the profoundly mortified Teruzzi to grow it back).
It is all fascinatingly medieval, especially given Fascism’s preferred hyper-modern image. But the book’s appeal goes well beyond its diligent scrutiny of life under Fascism through contemporary lenses of gender, identity, bodily autonomy etc. There is the perverse pleasure of checking off its foreshadowing of our own recent moment: the sleaze, the incompetence, the militias, the cynical embrace of religion, the gilded son-in-law (Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s Jared Kushner, came to an instructive end, tied to a chair and shot in the back on Mussolini’s orders after turning on him a little too early). And there is the elemental satisfaction of the story itself, which progresses like a classic war novel, private passions unfolding against a backdrop of steadily escalating public strife, in settings ranging from New York to Addis Ababa, boudoirs to battlefields, silk-lined music rooms to colonial churches palisaded by shards of exploded poison gas canisters.
It’s true that its principal characters don’t change, or grow, or learn anything about themselves in the conventional novelistic way, and remain stubbornly unlovable. This becomes a limiting factor, especially with Lilliana. One wants to rejoice with her as she pummels Teruzzi in the Vatican courts, but it’s hard to cheer for theocratic Catholicism, and harder still, as the years pass, to understand why she doesn’t just sign the papers and move on, especially after America enters the war and Teruzzi’s name becomes, in her inimitable phrasing, ‘a very definite hindrance to my peaceful and happy existence’. Even de Grazia seems stumped: ‘It would take a book to figure out why.’ At a certain point the image of Bianca Castafiore, the ‘Milanese nightingale’ from the Tintin books, with her jewels and intrigues and placid narcissism, superimposed itself on Lilliana in my mind, and wouldn’t go away.
In Teruzzi’s case, however, the unremitting sameness is curiously mesmerising, perhaps because he has a wider field in which to become more concentratedly himself. Following him through the years, one has the sense of watching some distinct human type distil itself to its leathery essence. In 1930 he swindled a villa out of an acquaintance and began building himself a castle. In 1937 he was sent to Spain to lead a detachment of Blackshirts in support of Franco, and brought a private harem with him. In 1938 a member of this harem, Yvette Blank, bore him a daughter. Yvette was Jewish, but even at this dangerously late date (and even as he was using antisemitic tactics against Lilliana in court) he became, for a time at least, genuinely attached to her. In 1939 he was appointed minister of Italian Africa, and conducted a series of ceremonial tours through the Horn of Africa that combined political propaganda with advanced lechery and plunder. It was here that he truly became his unfettered Nietzschean (or perhaps Kurtzian) self. Official dinners were cut short so that he could visit the local brothels. Fourteen-year-old virgins were allegedly procured for him. Tributes required from local chiefs included ocelot gloves, leopard skin hats, gold amulets and elephant tusks. Among his troupe at various times were the vaudeville performer Totò, the actress Anna Magnani and the three murderers of Matteotti – Dumini, Volpi and Putato – now out of prison and scenting fresh opportunity in this latest sinkhole for lavishly funded imperial delusion.
Italy entered the war in June 1940. Teruzzi spent that summer entertaining celebrities at his castle (German nobility, Greek money, Luchino Visconti in his white Bugatti) and upholstering his forty-room Rome apartment in zebra fur and lacquered leather. A military eminence now, he was invited to Berlin, where he strutted around with Heydrich and advised on colonisation. His own colonial fiefdoms were lost to the British by November 1942, but by then he was preoccupied with new complications on the domestic front. Lilliana’s continued intransigence had made it impossible for him to marry Yvette, which meant he had no rights over their daughter. And now, with Nazi-style race laws coming into effect in Italy, he was in danger of losing the child altogether. He tried to pressure Yvette into granting him custody, but she refused, afraid he’d ditch her the moment she gave in. Though clearly not a committed antisemite, Teruzzi did what a Teruzzi does: he had her sent to an internment camp.
He himself was imprisoned two days after Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, arrested in flagrante with three women (according to one report), but was released a few weeks later when the German army occupied Rome. On discovering that his African loot had been confiscated by Pietro Badoglio’s new government, he stormed the office of Gabriele Viola, the chief prosecutor in the Palace of Justice, and threatened to blow him up with a hand grenade if the stuff wasn’t immediately returned. Viola caved, whereupon Teruzzi commandeered three fire trucks and fled north to the new Fascist republic of Salò. Yvette, freed from internment, rejoined him with their daughter (he seems to have had a gift for inspiring undeserved devotion). This put the three of them in the bizarre position of being simultaneously in danger from the advancing Allies and the Salò Fascists, who were hunting down Jews with unprecedented ferocity. They holed up in a secluded villa expropriated from a Jewish businessman. Teruzzi pawned off his treasure, bought a Lancia, and in April 1945 drove the family to Milan, where Mussolini was preparing to make his last stand. Teruzzi’s plan, in the midst of Götterdämmerung, was to do something about securing his pension.
It was a little late for that, but his greatest feat of survival was yet to come. When Mussolini’s body was strung upside down from the Esso station in the Piazzale Loreto on 29 April, a bearded corpse was among those hoisted beside him. The crowd shouted ‘Teruzzi, Teruzzi!’ and his name was painted on the body. But it wasn’t him, nor were any of the other innocent but bearded Teruzzis – possibly as many as seven of them – said to have been lynched during the chaos of liberation. It turned out that, rather than risk capture as part of Mussolini’s convoy out of Milan, the wily quartermaster had decided to muster a convoy of his own. He managed not to be caught until the directive to shoot senior Fascists on the spot was rescinded. A few months later, aged 63, he arrived in shackles on the fortress island of Procida, sentenced to thirty years for his crimes. He was amnestied after only five years, though he died a few weeks after his release.
Appraisals of Teruzzi by both peers and historians seem to be almost unanimously derisive: even his professed friend Italo Balbo, who took over from him in Libya, privately considered him ‘a clown as well as a lush and a pervert’. Among detractors and admirers alike, there is a tendency to look to the animal kingdom when evoking him, and this has a peculiar mitigating effect. In the poet and journalist Guelfo Civinini’s fond recollection, he was ‘agile as a deer, strong as a leopard’. To the military historian Giorgio Rochat, he was ‘the Rutting Bull of the Empire’. A prisoner witnessing his arrival on Procida lamented the decline of the leonine ruff into the ‘wispy beard of a pensioned-off billy goat’. The instinct seems to be to locate the origin of his violence and priapism in an archaic, pre-moral order, perhaps to distinguish it from the more sophisticatedly vicious pathologies on display elsewhere in the Axis ranks. In that light he takes on the character of a creature from antiquity, thriving again under the special conditions of Fascism (an actress friend of Magnani’s nicknamed him Triton, but he seems too terrestrial for that). The last of many remarkable photos in de Grazia’s book shows him leaving prison, impeccably groomed, whiskers combed and raffishly curled, his handsome old face lit up with joy as he comes forward to embrace his daughter. It is irresistibly moving, as such scenes are – late Shakespeare again. You have to make a conscious effort to remember that in addition to being deer, leopard, bull, lion and goat (not to mention peacock), he was also a swine.