Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Woman Who Shot Musollini by Frances Stonor Saunders

Honorable Violet Gibson ( 1876-1956), daughter of the Anglo-Irish Lord Chancellor of Ireland, as a young woman, the consort of Royalty. Never-the-less, her education was circumscribed by domestic intent, to be passive helpmate of her prospective husband and bearer of many children; her upbringing conducted in the blaring light of Victorian social convention in which she was presumed to have no legitimate, private thoughts or ambitions of her own. Her thoughts on the matter in diaries and letters reflected the feelings of many women of the era, most notably Virginia Woolf. Rebelling from the Christian Science orientation of her immediate family, Violet turned to Theosophy, Anthroposophy, associated with various international women's suffrage alliances but eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and the veneration of self-mortifying female saints. This did not deter her from a keen and personal interest in public affairs and the progress of political and social reform in Ireland, England and Europe in general. In 1926 God told her to assassinate the dictator Benito Mussolini , who at that time was the toast of her own government - “just the person to set Italy right”- and The New York Times as well.

Her first shot glanced off the bridge of Mussolini's nose, her second shot misfired. Her ammunition was old. Acquitted on the grounds of insanity she was eventually deported and confined to St. Andrew's Hospital for Mental Diseases for the rest of her life, not an uncommon fate for 'disturbed' and 'difficult' individuals in those times including the daughter of James Joyce and, incredibly, several members of the Royal Family itself, some of who lived for decades after having been officially declared dead.

By midafternoon, just as the first interview with Violet was being concluded, Mussolini was back in his Lancia, still wearing the big plaster across his nose, heading for Palazzo Littorio, her designated assassination site. As scheduled, he appeared at the presentation of the provincial secretaries to the new directorate of the National Fascist Party, where he told them, “The Party must fascistize the nation from top to bottom and from bottom to top.”

Facistizzare- the clunking awfulness of the verb, the hissing sibilants pitched to a menace. What exactly does it mean? Does meaning matter, when Mussolini's every word is set to detonate euphoria, when a mere flick of his hand is enough to redesign the whole composition of the crowd? Wooing and winning. The applause tumbles like falling masonry. Il Duce lives, God save Il Duce! God preserve Italy's glittering destiny.

“The crowd loves strong men”, Mussolini once said. “The crowd is like a woman... Everything turns upon one's ability to control it.” Much of his crowd theory derived from the French writer Gustave Le Bon's Pychologie des foules (1865), which argued that crowds do not like kindly masters, but tyrants who oppress them; they trample down despots only when those despots have lost their strength and no longer inspire fear. Crowds, according to Le Bon, have conservative instincts, a fetish-like respect for traditions, and an unconscious horror of novelties that could change their way of life. They are not influenced by reason and their arguments are always of an inferior order.

Le Bon's theory has not survived the scorn of sociologists, but in 1921 Freud devoted several pages to it and called it a “brilliant” description of the collective mind (Group Psychology and the Analysis of Ego). “Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act,” explains Umberto Eco, 'they are only called upon to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

When later that evening a crowd assembles outside Mussolini office at Palazzo Chigi, he emerges onto a balcony to address them. He wishes to show them, he says, that the ring of his voice has not changed one atom, and that the beat of his heart has not quickened. He thanks them for their spontaneous displays of enthusiasm and calls them to maintain discipline in the true fascist style. “No danger threatens the regime,” he bellows. Cries of “The foreigner! The foreigner!” rise up from below. “This danger, too, we shall face,” he replies. “I am one of your generation. That means that I am the newest sort of Italian, one who is never thrown by events, but rather always proceeds straight down the road assigned by destiny.” In a dramatic peroration, soon adopted as one of the slogans of the regime, he urges the need for all to “live dangerously. Indeed, I say to you like an old soldier: 'If I advance, follow me.” There was a second part to this lapidary sentence - “If I retreat, kill me”- which would come to pass in due time. Then, “If I die, avenge me.” “La forca, la forca!” ( the gallows, the gallows!) comes the answer.... For those involved- Il Duce and the people- the experience was not one of stand-up comedy but of sacramental Union.

Back at the Mantellate prison, Violet is taken to a cell, consisting of an iron bedstead, clothes stand, chamber pot, table, aluminum plate, a cup, wooden cutlery, a jug of drinking water, and a washbasin. “It is better not to lay up possessions,” she had written in her notebook, and her only request is for a crucifix, before which she prays on her knees for several hours. She then eats a meal and falls into a deep sleep, according to the nuns who have been instructed to watch her all night.

All over Italy, God is thanked. In the churches Te Deum ceremonies are held to celebrate Mussolini's miraculous escape. In Venice, the bells of St. Mark's are rung in sign of thanksgiving. The fact that he has shed his blood on the most ancient of Roman sites does not interfere with an interpretation of the event as a contemporary Calvary. From the Vatican, Pius XI has dispatched Cardinal Merry del Val to tell Mussolini in person that he is “clearly protected by God.” A strange God, this, who tells Violet Gibson to shoot Mussolini and then instructs the bullet not to kill him.

In Rome, expressions of worshipful adoration pour forth. A letter from Clara Petacci, aged fourteen, 8 April, 1926:

“Duce, my most beloved Duce, our life, our hope, our glory- how can there be a soul so wicked to try to deprive our beautiful Italy of her glittering destiny? Oh Duce, why wasn't I there? Why wasn't
I able to strangle that woman assassin who wounded our Divine being... Duce, I would so love to rest my head on your chest, so that I might hear the living beats of Your great heart ...When I heard the news, I thought I would die because I love you deeply, like a little Fascist of the first, a small but ardent Fascist, with my favorite motto which sums up the love that my young feels for you: Duce, I offer my life to you!”

Unlike most schoolgirls, Clara Petacci will experience the realization of her heart-swelling fantasy. Six years after writing this letter, when she was just twenty, she will become Il Duce's lover. A decade later – after the premature deaths of one million Italians- on 28 April 1943, she offers up her life for him: slammed against a wall and shot. Her corpse is transported alongside her lover's to the Esso gas station at Paizzale Loreto in Milan- his head resting on her breast- before being strung up by the heels. Clara Petacci, the little Fascist, hanging like a prosciutto.

Violet Gibson died, 2 May, 1956, at 12:45 a.m. “She did not have much suffering and her passing was a peaceful one' Dr. Tennent wrote to the new Lord Ashbourne who had assumed the role of legal petitioner for her continued confinement at St. Andrews. There were, he added, “no matters outstanding with the accounting department.” When the National Health Service agreed to assume the financial burden of her care several years previously, she had lost the privilege of a private room and moved to a public ward. But even in death, her wishes- the disposal of her estate, her body, and her memory- were denied. Violet left money for a Requiem Mass at the Catholic cathedral of Northhampton but it was given in the far humbler surroundings of St. Gregory's, a local Catholic Church. She requested to be buried in the Catholic party of the Cemetery at St. Andrew's “with all the rights of the Catholic Mass." She was in fact interred at Kingsthorpe Cemetery, a dreary expanse of flatland butting up against a noisy through street of Northhampton.

There was no public announcement of Violet's death. There was no friend, no member of the family present at the burial. In her will, Violet set had set aside one hundred pounds for the erection of a gravestone. In this, as in everything else, she was short-changed. Above her grave, plot number 12411, is a bland cross in cheap gray quarry stone. It's inscription- “Violet Gibson, 1876-1956” is equally parsimonious: the punctuation is highly unusual, the result of the stonecutter following Ashbourne's text, which was communicated by telegram. Nothing follows the comma on Violet's gravestone, except the dates of her birth and death. Full Stop. Set in Stone. Her extraordinary story lies between the comma and the period.

The Honorable Violet Gibson deserved better.


  1. The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Francis Stonor Saunders; Metropolitan Books, 2010

  2. After the roaring guns of war, the Roaring Twenties. And how they roared. What a lot of parties. “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties...parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked turkish ciragetttes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that sucession and repetition and massed humanity.” These were Evelyn Waugh's “vile bodies,” publicity seeking, fun loving, anarchic, eager to overthrow the gloomy influence of the stiff-collared men who had presided over the war. “Being new at any cost” was Arnold Bennett's dim view of it.

    Antonia White whizzing across to Paris in her lover's airplane. “The dry glare and the intolerable noise of the “Boeuf sur le Toit” where one goes to look at the Jews and the Lesbians and the fairies.” At 20 Rue Jacob, Clifford Barney, the “Amazon of Paris-Lesos” honoring the Sapphic muse with Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas with her mustache and little black har=ts, baking her famous hashish brownies, Romaine Brooks, Janet Flanner, Colette with her curly, kinky hair like a wild dog. Radclyffe Hall, Sylvia Beach, Djuna Barnes. Ezra Pound dressed in “pearl-buttoned velvet coats, fawn or pearl gray trousers, a loose-flowing dark cape” topped with a sombrero- “a pinwheel of affectation. Man Ray punching a man on the nose in the front row of the composer George Antheil's debut, the surrealists punching everybody until the police arrived. The follies a deux of Scott and Zelda, Virginia and Leonard, the shipwreck of Vaslav Nijinsky.

    T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land", Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk", Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" and Joyce's Ulysses, anatomizing the body and glorifying in all its vilenesses- Bloom inhaling with satisfaction the odor of his own shit- literary modernism's extraordinary combination of spiritualism, political extremism, sexual passion. George Bernard Shaw rejected it as “a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilization”; Carl Jung hated it as a “delirious confusion of the subjective and the psychic with objective reality,” containing “nothing pleasing”, an analogy for “schizophrenia”.

    On the fringes of this raffish intellectual Paris-Lesbos scene was Eileen Gray, who, like Violet, had left Ireland in 1902. In Paris she shed her title and her beautiful ropes of hair, and this bobbed applied herself to the Japanese art of lacquer. By the 1920s she was working on the revolutionary new theories of design and the architecture of the modern movement. Intensely private, Gray only rarely broke with the self-imposed monasticism of her atelier existence. Even when present she managed to remain absent, locked in a life of extreme inwardness. “Of all the people I knew in the world, she gave the feeling of complete consecration,” an acquaintance recalled. “One must never look for happiness,” Gray once said. “It passes you on your way, but always look in the opposite direction. Sometimes I recognize it.”

  3. This is what Virginia Woolf described as the feeling of being “driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world,” where the “singing of the real world” becomes muted, distant, as the condition of pronounced withdrawal asserts itself. Such was Violet Gibson's experience. A studio photograph, taken some time before the war, shows her attired like a lay religious. Her pose- the distant gaze, an open book (presumably a spiritual text) resting in her hand- is studied, calculated to transmit the subdued aura of the contemplative life. According to a friend, she now “limited her acquaintance to her own sex except in the case of priests. At a time when the world was bursting open in carnival of adventure (Joyce's “extravagant excursions into forbidden territory”), Violet moved not towards it but in the opposite direction. And perhaps she was right to, for beneath the exuberance lurked the suggestion of madness.