Who had arranged the seating? Never mind. Whoever it was should not get the job again. The short, plumpish American with the brash smirk had been isolated at the end of the table with an elegant middle-aged man who was the model of an Italian patrician, tall, fine-boned and fine-featured – a young and handsome version of Pius XII. He was, in fact, his country’s most distinguished journalist and commentator. Perhaps both men had been in Rome on other business and been included as an afterthought, in a function dominated by generals and men of state.
The dinner – a cultural bonding to flatter Americans and help maintain the flow of investment and Lend Lease monies into post-war Italy – had taken its awkward course successfully enough. The symbolic serving of spaghetti alla carbonara, invented during Occupation to satisfy the Anglo-Saxon craving for bacon and eggs, proved difficult for all. The hard pellets of lean bacon – replacing true guanciale, deemed too fatty for foreign taste – could scarcely satisfy the carnivore Americans, while the Italians were discreetly contemptuous of the overcooked noodles. In 1952, however, and after certain events of which the memory was still fresh, compromise had become the rule, infecting even the preparation of pasta.
The plumpish American, as he puzzled over the ways to eat the dish, did not look at all exasperated. A compulsive showman, he was using the predicament to draw some eyes, winding then dropping the noodles by various contrivances of spoon and fork. His mouth was warped in a coy sneer, a precocious child’s expression, and he peeped up and around to check if he had an audience. He played on with the slippery noodles – alternating curiosity, frustration and hope – an amateur Chaplin, groping for attention rather than art.
In fact, the little performance had caught the eye of that distinguished Italian opposite, who was also amused by the symbolic carbonara. The journalist’s amusement was the opposite of the American’s. Born near Florence, he was born to mock. Florentines like to despair constantly but with humour, in the faith that each bright new dawn will bring a new futility to endure, a new shambles to ridicule.
And so, Yankee Optimism was dining with Old World Pessimism. How would that go?
“Signore, I wouldn’t bother too much. You can always chop it with your knife then spoon it up, American style.”
“Say, how did you know I was American, friend?’
“Oh, we Italians have quick, greedy eyes. We can tell much from appearances. Of course, that is where our intelligence ends.”
The other laughed as he reached into his coat.
“Mister, I’m going to have to write that down. Would you mind repeating…Never mind, I think I’ve got it. Please excuse me, it’s a lifelong habit. I hear something good, I write it down straight away.”
“You flatter me, and we are supposed to be flattering you Americans tonight. But please don’t worry about how you eat the noodles. Europeans are always inventing dogma for such slight things, to intimidate you Americans. Really, pasta is just flour paste that’s been boiled. I’m sure the Frenchman responsible for blowing up the Parthenon had particular ideas about cooking eggs.”
Another gust of laughter from the brash American, and more scribbling.
“Friend, this is gold. And don’t worry about me. I’m Jewish. I wasn’t even going to eat stuff with bacon in it…I hope you won’t move to another table now.”
“Oh, not at all, signore. Some of my best enemies are Jews!”
The laughter again, the scribbling again.
“Mister, you have to be some kind of super-dooper writer. Have I guessed right? You might be surprised to hear that I’ve had a lot to do with famous writers. The classy sort, too, who win the big prizes. Pulitzers and that Danish thing, even. I dare say that surprises you.”
“Not at all. After a recent series of untidy events called World War Two I’m surprised by few things.”
“If it’s not rude to ask – and even if it is rude, since I can never tell – how come you speak such great English? I mean, you must be a humdinger in your own language, the way you speak mine.”
“I’ve worked in Canada and the US, mostly writing, but also farm work, cod fishing.”
“I’m very fond of America. I even got to meet Henry Ford.”
“Do you know, he didn’t have a driving licence?”
“No kidding. He was a very great man, old Henry. Of course, he wanted Jews like me dead…but you learn to take the good with the bad. So, you were some kind of writer in the States?”
“I was with United Press for a bit. It was where I learned to write so a milkman in Ohio can understand. Here in Italy, nobody writes so a cheese maker in the Abruzz’ can understand. To make solid profits from being plainly understood – that would be a disgrace. The challenge here is to be a simpleton without ever resorting to simplicity, and to lose money wilfully while complaining of poverty.”
“No kidding! Mister, I can’t write fast enough to get all this down…I don’t suppose you’re looking for a writing job in movies? I mean, if you’re an author you must be involved in this Italian film industry they’re all talking about.”
“Ah, I am a terrible fake, it’s true – but not not a big enough fake to make an Italian neo-realist film.”
The American laughed loudly enough to draw stares from further up the table.
“Now that is something I am going to have to write down, word for word. Excuse me while I get that down…so, you’re not interested in movie work?”
“Not at the moment, signore. I had a busy war, now everyone wants my opinion.”
“No kidding. You were some kind of resistance fighter? Like, a partisan or something? Those guys were great.”
“I managed to cover all the bases, as you say in America. I managed to be on the right side fifty-one percent of the time, which is the true art of war for an Italian.”
“No kidding. So you were for or against Il Duce?”
“Both. In the beginning, like many educated people, I thought Mussolini was going to bring civilisation to Abyssinia and order to Italy. Rather makes you wonder what education is for, doesn’t it?”
“I figure educated people are okay, especially if they think you’re stupid. It makes ’em play soft, like they’ll win the game without trying. If you can make ’em angry, that’s even better.”
“Ah, signore, it is I who should be taking notes!”
“But go on, tell me about the war. I’m always sniffing around for a damn good story.”
“The war? For Italians? Try to imagine an Alan Ladd movie where Alan is, by turns, a cowboy, an Indian, a cavalryman, a sheriff and a Mexican bandit. As you know, Italy followed Germany into a pact with the Soviet Union. Why not? Every truly great war needs to be truly mad. But in amongst it all, signore, I ended up taking the side of small countries caught in the cross-fire and cross-alliances. Norway, Estonia, Poland, Finland, Greece, Albania – I got round to them all, ended up writing in defense of them all. I’m from Tuscany, you see: I have a City-State mentality, resulting from centuries of Tuscan snobbery and suspicion. Left to my own devices, I will always defend the smaller unit against the greater. I did try to be a good fascista, it was not to be.”
“So long as you try, I guess. I tried having business partners. I tried having refined manners. For a Jew kid who walked alone and penniless out of Warsaw, the instincts just weren’t there. I’m a man who needs enemies. Start the day right by making an enemy, then have coffee!”
“We have much in common, I see. Though I’m a man who tends to like and be liked – which saved my life – I am nonetheless planning to make enemies of most of the clever people in this room. My career needs it, and they deserve it. Their way of unwinding from fascism is to develop a new admiration for Stalin.”
The Italian paused, perhaps to think, perhaps to be theatrical.
“On the subject of how my life was saved, I have one story which may serve to sharpen the perspective for you – and maybe give you a better impression of us. I know you Yankees like a spark of optimism. It’s your great strength, which we ignorantly take to be your ignorance. We are so smug in our pessimismo.
“Yes, yes, I should tell you about General Della Rovere…It’s quite a story.”
“While Italy was an ally of Germany, within Italy it was still possible to question the alliance, or aspects of it, in print. I did. In 1940 the Germans grabbed me in Norway, but I escaped with the help of a man called Quisling – yes that Quisling. Complicated business, war.
“By 1944 I was a partisan. The Germans got hold of Italy, then got hold of me, and I was soon imprisoned in Milan, awaiting execution.
“I was to be delivered from my fate by several friends, especially Mannerheim, the hero of Finnish resistance to the Soviet Union, one of the few people whom Hitler always had to accommodate – to the point of letting him smoke in his presence! I believe my articles on behalf of Finland saved me from execution by the SS in ’44.
“I shared my prison life with a variety of characters, including – though I did not know it – a vile swindler called Giovanni Bertone, who had been extorting money from families in exchange for arranging their relatives’ release by the Gestapo – an entirely fraudulent promise. When the Germans got hold of him, they became aware of his role-playing ability and utter lack of morals.
“So it was that none of us knew, till after the war, that the Resistance hero who shared our lot, General Fortebraccio della Rovere, was a spy planted by the Germans to gain information that could not be tortured out of the inmates. The general was none other than the swindler Bertone.
“Like all the others, I was not only fooled by the fake hero, but quite under his spell. He was supposed to have by arrived by allied submarine to direct the entire Resistance in the North.
“Contrary to his instructions from the Germans, he made no attempt to engage us on matters of secrecy, but merely allowed his dignity and bearing to give us much needed courage. Imagine, if you will, his aristocratic bearing, his monocle, his legs which he was actually able to bend to the shape of those of an old cavalry officer. Even the communists were respectful, and, finally, inspired.
“Perhaps, for some months, he thought this the kind of softening preparation needed to gain our confidence. A man will not likely give secrets away to a stranger when he would not surrender them under torture. But here is the strange part of our story.
“Bertone had been promised money and freedom by the Germans – and execution if he refused to collaborate. He was their prisoner, utterly, and lacked any moral code or background that might make him hesitate to take on such a loathsome role. Yet Bertone became a prisoner of his role. Even after many months, he extracted no secrets, gave nothing to the Germans. On the other hand, he became still more of a beacon and symbol to the prisoners. He stretched out the counter-deception for as long as possible, till the Germans subjected him to interrogation, then tortured him. He resisted!
“He actually resisted!
“Yes, Bertone could not step out his role. The truffatore, the fake, had changed into the General della Rovere. The Germans, on the other hand, could not afford to alert the prisoners to the deception, since it was an important intelligence ploy being used elsewhere. They allowed the farce to continue, perhaps persuaded that Bertone had gone a little mad, but that he would eventually betray his fellow inmates.
“By the time I was evacuated to safety, the man had become my mentor and father. He, of course, was not evacuated.
“When the prisoners who were left in that prison were finally shot, it was not Bertone, but the noble and resolute General della Rovere, who puffed out his chest to the firing squad and cried ‘Viva l’Italia!’
“At war’s end, we discovered that Fortebraccio della Rovere, our greatest support and comfort, had never existed.”
“Great story. Great, great story, Mr…I don’t have your name.”
“Montanelli. Indro Montanelli.”
“And do I call you Doctor, or Professor or…?”
“Indro. Call me, Indro, please. Honorifics have been worn out in Italy. Nothing you can call me will flatter or distinguish. Just call me Indro.”
“If you’ll call me Sam.”
“I’ll bet some of that story actually happened.”
“Sam, I couldn’t give you an exact percentage…but, yes.”
“Now, Indro, what would you say is the hook of that little story? Where are we heading with it?”
“Well, Sam, the German officer who had Bertone shot said something interesting over the dead body. He said the Germans had been judging Italy by its real generals, while they should have been judging it by its fakes. Do you see? We are fakes…and yet…”
“You are fakes…and yet! The fake can make the reality, the fiction can shape the truth. The fraud can feel responsible for the suckers who believed him. Give ’em a chance to act good and the worst people might just enjoy it so much they stay that way. Like in that movie about Caesar Borgia, where Ty Power and that little weasel character turn into good guys. Am I getting the point?”
“Mr. Sam Goldwyn, you have just confirmed what I have long suspected. That the most powerful intellect in this room, or just about any room you enter, is yours. ”
“So, you know who I am, eh?”
“Of course. I am Montanelli, after all. There’s more of the gossiping gutter journalist in me than you can imagine. But, in Italy, if I play hard enough at being a serious social commentator and historian…”
“You’ll become one!”
After both had their laugh, Montanelli resumed:
“Mr. Sam Goldwyn, I have given you my story, my insight into Italy. Now you must give me something equally precious.”
“A Danny Kaye movie to script?”
“No, Sam, a fresh Goldwynism! You know, one like: Include me out! or A verbal contract ain’t worth the paper it’s written on! or When I want your opinion, I’ll ask me!.”
“You’re expecting a lot, Indro. I have to save those gems up for when I really need to look stupid in front of the Pulitzer winners.”
“I’ll make sure it gets great prominence, Sam.”
“Well, I’ve got one I’ve been saving. You know I’m here to push my new Danny Kaye movie about Hans Christian Andersen. Tomorrow I’ll be in France to push my new Danny Kaye movie about Hans Christian Andersen. Call me pushy – everybody does – but you have to push, push, push. Now, in order to have something to push, these days you have to cram everything into a movie that they can’t do in a television show. Television is the enemy…at least until I can buy into it. I have to say everything bad I can about television, I have to pay doctors to say it will make children go blind or miss out on college. Me! Who walked out of Warsaw with nothing and never had a lesson in my life. I have to plant hatred of television in the public’s mind – which is tough for me, since I happen to like the ball games and Lux Theatre.
“So I figure I need to draw attention to this scourge of television with a new Goldwynism. Here it is, then: I think TV is a headless corpse that needs a psychiatrist to check its brain…Stupid, huh?”
“As you say, Sam, a gem. You won’t be sorry. It will be all over Europe tomorrow, and I’ll make sure United Press get it fast. Let me get it all down…headless corpse…check its brain…I’m so pleased we met tonight, Sam.”
“Listen, Indro. Stop playing hard to get. You can’t kid me. You write lots of stuff, right? Not just journalism, right?”
“Look, Indro, I buy ’em all. All the big writers. I believe in the Film of the Book. Just because I don’t read every damn boring thing doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m the biggest independent that’s ever been or ever will be, for two reasons.
“Reason Number One: nobody can get on with me, for which I can’t blame ’em. My name was Gelbfisz till it was Goldfish, which was easier to say. When I partnered up with some brothers called Selwyn, we squashed our names together to call the new business Goldwyn Pictures. So then I changed my name legally to Goldwyn! I tell you, Indro, even I couldn’t stand being my partner – and I’m me!
“Reason Number Two I’m the all time greatest independent: I buy the rights to important books and I film them. Know why? People feel easier about going to the movies if the story is by some famous author who’s still current. They figure their minds are being improved, that they’re staying up-to-date with the culture – and there might even be some sex.
“So much for the public. From a producer’s point of view, half the publicity has already been provided, thanks to Pulitzer or that Danish dynamite guy. Know how much good, hard publicity costs? It’s a code I follow – and it works! Sometimes you hire the person, sometimes you just buy the rights to the book or play. You shouldn’t hire a drunk – like when Mayer hired Scott Fitzgerald – but you can buy a drunk’s book. Authors only need to be big names and respectable with the people who write reviews and give out awards. Some jerk said I do it to validate myself – whatever that means. Another jerk said I do it to humiliate my intellectual superiors. But, like you say, Indro, I haven’t got any intellectual superiors. Not even Ben Hecht or Willie Wyler. Not even you, to be frank. Hell, I respect all these people deeply. There’s a difference between being disrespectful and being impossible to get along with.
“Indro, it’s a crazy system, but it works! Of course, a lot of authors end up angry at me. Like, maybe a hundred percent of authors get angry at me – but no more than that. Okay, so sometimes you have to make a mess of the book, but sometimes you don’t have to. Me being some kind of natural born genius, sometimes the movie is better than the book…a lot better, even.”
“I know. I saw The Best Years of Our Lives and Dodsworth. There’s no doubt about you, Sam.”
“So come and work for me. Let’s do this story of the great General della Whatsy who started out a lying punk. Don’t write in a love interest, unless you really want to. We can work that out come scripting. I’ll yell at Ben Hecht, he’ll yell at me…and we’ll write in something for…Perfect! Dorothy McGuire!
“Indro, I’m not usually this frank with authors, but I think you’re a guy who gets things. You write the book first, then it gets an award, maybe some kind of Italian-American prize. Let’s see…Giannini’s dead, poor guy, but I’ll talk to his daughter. Remember, the Bank of America is really the Bank of Italy. They’re bound to have some foundation for this kind of thing.
“So, Indro, that’s the plan. I already love your book – which saves me having to read any of it. I’ll just wait for the movie. I can get you Danny Kaye…or Cornel Wilde, if you want to make it more serious. And it won’t be some black and white neo-realism stuff flickering on some dirty bedsheet. It’ll be in colour, the kind of colour you want to eat. The screen will stretch right across the theatre. We can do that these days. And don’t worry about money. I’ll let you know how much I won’t be paying you when it’s too late.”
“Sam you haven’t thought of the one thing that would be very different about this, maybe too different…”
“What’s different? I mangle famous books for a living, been doing it for thirty years.”
“Sam, how could you handle working with an author who knows you’re smarter than him – and who actually likes you?”