The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (1929-2006) produced a wide array of writings: novels, critical essays, war dispatches and celebrity profiles. But she is best known for her acerbic interviews, primarily with political figures.
Interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979, Fallaci wore a chador. During the exchange she commented on the diminished status of women in Iran.
Khomeini responded, “If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is only for young and respectable women.” Fallaci ripped it off her head and said, “That’s very kind of you, imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”
She grilled Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about Vietnam in 1992, an interview he later regretted because he referred to himself as a “cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding it ahead alone on his horse.” This comment greatly displeased his boss, President Richard Nixon.
Fallaci called Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier an idiot to his face. A staunch atheist, Fallaci admired and befriended Pope Benedict. She was unconventional and confrontational with whomever she interviewed.
Fallaci was an ardent feminist who grew up during the Italian resistance and became a woman who judged people by the quality of their courage. Paradoxically, even though she was a feminist, she could become completely subservient to the men in her life, and there were many. Her personality, especially as expressed in her interview style, was a combination of vulnerability and turbulence. “She was fragile,” recalled one friend, “but she used aggressiveness as a shield. She attacked first. As a result, Americans were often terrified of her.”
Fallaci was born in Florence to commoners. Her cabinetmaker father, Edoardo, disappointed that his firstborn was not a boy, taught Oriana how to shoot, hunt and take physical pain without expressing feelings. This training served her well, shaping her personality and politics, especially after the 1943 fall of Mussolini and the occupation of North Italy by Germany.
Her father joined the resistance and she helped him by distributing leaflets, messages and supplies on her bicycle on behalf of the Partisans, the irregular military force resisting the German insurgency. These early dangers made an imprint on her that lasted her entire lifetime. She stated later that this experience marked her just as the “Pentecost left its mark upon the apostles.”
Fallacci left a large body of literature, both journalism and fiction. This short biography (273 pages) is an introduction to her life. A more definitive work about her long and productive career should be in the offing. This book was originally written in Italian by Christina De Stefano and has been translated into English by Marina Harss. The publisher is The Other Press.