Shaped by WWII and the Resistance
Oriana Fallaci was born in Florence on June 29, 1929 to working-class parents. Her father, Edoardo Fallaci, was a cabinet maker in Florence. He was also a political activist who struggled to put an end to the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. Her mother was intelligent but was not able to cultivate her ambitions since she was not given opportunities to develop her talents. She was forced to cook and clean for her husband’s extended family. (Fallaci often said she became a journalist, then largely a man’s profession, in part to vindicate her mother). Her upbringing was not unlike other girls of her age and family background. One difference, however, was her role in the anti-Fascist movement. As a pre-teenager and a teenager during World War II, under the guidance and encouragement of her father, she joined the Italian anti-fascist resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom), which was part of La Resistenza (The Resistance). She became a courier for the resistance, smuggling hand grenades inside heads of lettuce, among other tasks. She was later awarded a certificate for valor from the Italian army for her efforts. She learned English by helping downed Allied fliers escape back to their lines during the war, and she described this time of “bombing, terror, hunger” as a pivotal influence on the way she spoke to the world’s decision-makers.
The indistinguishable temper that characterized her may have been formed during her early years, growing up in a society oppressed by a dictatorship and fighting for freedom along with her family. (In a 1976 retrospective collection of her works, she remarked in The New Yorker magazine: “Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon … I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.”)
After she received her secondary school diploma, Fallaci briefly attended the University of Florence, where she studied medicine and chemistry. Discovering that science was not to her liking, she transferred to literature but soon dropped out of school and never finished her studies. At the suggestion and encouragement of her paternal uncle, the journalist Bruno Fallaci, young Oriana decided to pursue a career in journalism. Pressuring editors at Il Mattino dell Italia Centrale (The Morning of Central Italy) to give her a job, she began writing for the newspaper in 1946, at the age of 17, as a crime beat reporter, but she soon progressed to feature stories and interviews, which she enjoyed much more and did exceptionally well at. After 1951, her work also appeared regularly in a magazine called Epoca (Era) and later in another magazine, Europeo (European). In 1958 her first book, I Sette Peccati di Hollywood (The Seven Sins of Hollywood) was published in Italian with a preface by Orson Welles.
She Establishes Herself as a Unique Voice and Writer
During the early part of the 1960s, Fallaci traveled widely for Europeo as a special correspondent, and a collection of her articles appeared in 1964 as Il Sesso Inutile,Viaggio Intorno alla Donna (The Useless Sex: Voyage Around the Woman). She also wrote her first novel, Penelope alla Guerra (Penelope at War) in 1962, but she soon began to gain attention for her interviews. Her interviews were guerrilla achievements and global events. She was witty, well-prepared, and antagonistic; she often got people to say things they ordinarily would not. These have led some to describe her as the most famous – and feared – interviewer in the world during the 1970s and 1980s.
Her first interviews were with people in the world of literature and cinema. In 1968 several of her best were collected into the volume Gli Antipatici (The Unpleasant Ones), published in English under the title- The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, in which Norman Mailer, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Nguyen Cao Ky (1965-67 Prime Minister of South Vietnam; 1967- 71 Vice President of South Vietnam), H. Rap Brown, Geraldine Chaplin, Hugh Hefner, Frederico Fellini, Sammy Davis, Jr., Anna Magnani, Jeanne Moreau, Dean Martin, Duchess of Alba, Alfred Hitchcock, Mary Hemingway, and El Cordobes were the subjects profiled. Later, she followed these with interviews of world leaders and important political personalities. A collection of 16 of these interviews were published in her 1973 book Intervista con la Storia (Interview with History). The breadth of the interviews of the various personalities and the sharpness of her questions show how broadly her interviewing skills had developed.
Fallaci’s writings and lengthy preambles to her interviews were always tinged with her own left-of-center social and political commentary, but in the latter half of the 1960s she was pulled further into world events and crises by her reporting. Beginning in 1967, she was the only Italian journalist in the field during the Vietnam War, often traveling there and back to Italy from 1967 until the end of the war in 1975. She also reported from the field during the Indo-Pakistani War, in the Middle East, and in Latin America. In 1968 she went to Mexico City to report on student unrest there. In the notorious Tlatelolco Massacre, she was shot three times when government forces fired on the student demonstrators; after which she was dragged downstairs by her hair, and left for dead. (Her eyewitness account became important evidence disproving the Mexican government’s denials that a massacre had taken place). She wrote about the experience in her 1969 book Niente, e Cosí Sia, (Nothing, And So Be It: A Personal Search for Meaning in War). It appeared in English translation in 1972). Her dispatches from Vietnam made up the bulk of the book, but the account of the Mexico City incident was more harrowing. Before she was shot, she and the other demonstrators were corralled by authorities. As she vividly described the experience of terror in the book: “In war, you’ve really got a chance sometimes, but here we had none. The wall they’d put us up against was a place of execution; if you moved the police would execute you, if you didn’t move the soldiers would kill you, and for many nights afterward I was to have this nightmare, the nightmare of a scorpion surrounded by fire, unable even to try to jump through the fire because if it did so it would be pierced through.”
During the 1960s, Fallaci also had the opportunity to report historic American events to the Italian public, such as the Detroit Riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1967, as well as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.
Although Fallaci never married, in the early 1970s, she had a three-year love affair with the subject of one of her interviews, Alexandros Panagoulis, who had been a solitary figure in the Greek resistance against the 1967 military dictatorship. He had been captured, heavily tortured and imprisoned for his (unsuccessful) assassination attempt on the dictator and ex-Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos. Panagoulis died in 1976, under very suspicious circumstances, in a road accident. Fallaci maintained that he had been assassinated by remnants of the Greek military junta, and her novel Un Uomo (A Man), published in 1979, was inspired by his life and immortalized him. During the time of her love affair, she suffered a miscarriage—reportedly after Panagoulis kicked her in the stomach—and wrote of this in another work, Lettera a un bambino mai nato, 1975) (Letter to an Child Never Born).
In 1972, Fallaci had an important interview with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. During the interview, Kissinger stated that the Vietnam War was a useless war, and that he felt he was like “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse.” (Interview with History, pp. 40-41). Kissinger later said it was the most disastrous interview he had ever had with a member of the press.
Another memorable interview Fallaci had during the 1970s was her famous interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini published in Corriere della Sera (Evening Courier) on September 26, 1979. To do the interview, she was forced to wear a chador and this led to her memorable exchange with Khomeini. Constantly referring to him as “tyrant” in the interview, she pushed him on the treatment of women in Iran.
Fallaci: I still have to ask you a lot of things. About the “chador”, for example, which I was obliged to wear to come and interview you, and which you impose on Iranian women…. I am not only referring to the dress, but to what it represents, I mean the apartheid Iranian women have been forced into after the revolution. They cannot study at the university with men, they cannot work with men, and they cannot swim in the sea or in a swimming-pool with men. They have to do everything separately, wearing their “chador”. By the way, how can you swim wearing a “chador”?
Khomeini: None of this concerns you; our customs do not concern you. If you don’t like the Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it, since it is for young women and respectable ladies.
Fallaci: Very kind (of you). Since you tell me that, I’m going to immediately rid myself of this stupid medieval rag. There!
Interview quoted in Wikipedia
In the 1980s she spent time in Lebanon, which was then mired in civil war. She wrote a fictional account of the strife in a 1992 novel, Inshallah (If Allah Wills It), dealing with Italian troops stationed in Lebanon in 1983. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, she constantly pressed for an interview with Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, whenever he showed up at the Alexandre Hotel in Beirut, sometimes holding on to the door of his jeep to keep him from getting away from her. Reluctantly, Sharon eventually gave her an interview, telling her: “I know you’ve come to add another scalp to your necklace.”
After her interview with Khomeini, she continued to travel the world finding newsworthy people to interview, including among them the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. However, she began to see her interviews becoming less frequent. Although political figures had at one time sought her out to be the subject of an interview, they had become increasingly reticent to sit with her for interviews, knowing her reputation for cornering her prey into making unwise statements.
During the 1980s and ‘90s as she continued pursuing stories around the world, she constantly saw the social disadvantages caused by gender inequality in all societies. She especially noticed that in the Islamic culture, extending from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, women were restricted and unhappy compared to men, and not comfortably allowed to achieve their desires. She expressed her disagreement on women’s status in Islamic culture writing: “These veiled women are the unhappiest women in the world. The wearer gazes out at the sky and her fellow man, like a prisoner peering through the bars of her prison.”
She retreated from public view somewhat, producing the occasional novel. She had been diagnosed with cancer in the 1990s, and she divided her time between New York, where she was receiving various treatments, and Florence, her home town. The attacks of 9/11, 2001 in the US roused her ire; and once again she railed against Islam in two new nonfiction books, La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, (The Rage and the Pride, 2001), and La Forza della Ragione (The Force of Reason, 2004). Both became bestsellers in Italy.
In La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio, she wrote of Islam’s centuries-long desire to conquer Europe, and asserted that the growing Muslim communities in major European cities were becoming a danger to the continent. The democratic, liberal ideals which granted such communities the freedom to practice their religion were, she argued, threatening the stability of the West. Muslims in Europe, Fallaci fumed, “demand, and obtain, the construction of new mosques. They, who in their countries don’t even let the Christians build a tiny chapel, so often slaughter the nuns or the missionaries.” Elsewhere in the book she wrote that “the sons of Allah breed like rats,” and she imagined a Europe of the future that was an Islamic colony she dubbed Eurabia. The book caused such a stir that she was even charged under an obscure Italian law that prohibited hate speech against a religion that was recognized by the state.
The controversy continued in La Forza della Ragione in which she penned a lengthy response to her public critics. In it, she defended her ideas against accusations of racism, and the lawsuits and death-threats that were launched against her after La Rabbia e l’Orgoglio was published. In La Forza, Fallaci states that Islam “presents a threat to the very existence of Western civilization, of conscience, of toleration, of liberalism” –a message which is summed up in an epigram she quotes from the 18th century philosophe Diderot: “Islam is the enemy of Reason.”
Fallaci is not most concerned about Islamic terrorism, but about “the cultural war, the demographic war, the religious war waged by stealing a country from its citizens…the war waged through immigration, fertility, presumed pluri-culturalism,” as well as “the refusal of European leaders to recognize what is at stake in this war, and their complicity in exempting Muslim immigrants from the first duty any immigrant has to his new homeland, namely, the duty to fit into his new culture, and to play by its rules.”
Final Year and Death
On August 27, 2005, Fallaci had one of the first private audiences outside of the Church hierarchy with the newly-elected Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo. Although a life-long atheist (in La Forza della Ragione she claimed that she was also a “Christian atheist”), she reportedly had great respect for the Pope and expressed admiration for his outspokenness against Islamic militancy, expressed in his 2004 essay If Europe Hates Itself.
As shown by her books and interviews, Fallaci was a vocal critic of Islam, especially after the Iranian Revolution and the 9/11 attacks. When rumors of the construction of an Islamic center in the city of Siena intensified, she told The New Yorker magazine: “If the Muslims build this Islamic center, she will blow it up with the help of her friends.”
Oriana Fallaci died on September 15, 2006, in her native Florence, after a long battle with cancer. (She notoriously smoked up to 3 packs per day during most of her life until the very end). She was buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori (Evangelical Cemetery of Laurels) in Galluzzo, a southern suburb of Florence, alongside her family members and a stone memorial to Alexandros Panagoulis, her former lover.
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Alderisio, Alessandro. “Oriana Fallaci, the Most Influential and Controversial Italian Female Journalist.” Wanted in Rome website, May 17, 2021
Bernstein, Adam. “Reporter-Provocateur Oriana Fallaci, 77.” Obituary, Washington Post website, September 16, 2006
Fallaci, Oriana. “Intervista a Khomeini, Corriere della Sera, September 26, 1979
Fallaci, Oriana. Interview with History (English translation by John Shepley). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977
Garner, Dwight. “The Life of Oriana Fallaci, Guerrilla Journalist.” Book Review of Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend by Cristina de Stefano. New York Times website, October 16, 2017