How to Mock a Warmonger
[Note: I am currently working on a book about Guy Hickok, a New York newspaper writer in Paris in the 20s, who was friends with Ezra Pound, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Hemingway, among others, and was my great-grandfather. This is adapted from there.]
One of the stranger political figures that Guy Hickok interviewed during the early 1920s was Gabriele d’Annunzio, today a largely forgotten political anomaly, but for a time expected to be the transformative, nationalist, militant leader that much of Italy was clamoring for- before his pupil Mussolini stepped in to fill that role.
Italy had come out of the First World War with expectations that were all out of proportion to what the peace treaties wanted to accomplish or her actual role in the war. As a result, many Italians felt marginalized and treated like a small member of the Big Four, especially as they had hoped for territorial gains that would “make the Adriatic into an Italian sea,” as one historian puts it, and ran up against Wilsonian democracy and newly independent or created nations, such as Yugoslavia, that were unwilling to give up their land. Such was the case with the port city of Fiume, previously located in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and claimed at the time by Yugoslavia (now Rijeka, Croatia), but desired by Italy because its inner city had a large Italian population. The other member states were strongly opposed to Italy’s claims- Woodrow Wilson took to the newspapers with an editorial speaking against it- and the Italian delegation to the peace conferences got nowhere.
Which was when a group of Italian militants led by the eccentric poet and hyper-nationalist, Gabriele d’Annunzio stormed in and occupied the city. D’Annunzio had been a journalist, prince, and one of the leading poets of Italy’s Decadent movement before the war and remade himself during the war as a heroic member of the elite Arditi storm troops who had flown over Vienna to drop propaganda. His effusive writings were extremely popular and expressed a political viewpoint that turned increasingly hyper-nationalist and irredentist. He wrote much about the purifying force of violence and wanted Italy to engage in a life or death military struggle in order to define itself. Ernest Hemingway would describe him as a “buccaneer” and admired his writings greatly. Guy was less impressed.
D’Annunzio dressed in immaculate, black military uniforms, shaved his head bald, and had a seemingly endless stock of female lovers. Outraged by the Paris peace talks and what he saw as a “mutilated victory” being handed to Italy, d’Annunzio conquered the city with 2,000 irregular troops and established himself as “Il Duce” of the Independent State of Fiume. Italy didn’t want the trouble and demanded he surrender. Guy reported that the “Italian militarists” meanwhile hoped that “D’Annunzio’s presence in Fiume will force the Yugoslavs to commit like aggressive acts (and) the whole of Italy will support D’Annunzio.” Italy eventually tried blockading Fiume, demanding again that D’Annunzio surrender. In return, d’Annunzio attempted to declare war on Italy.
The question was what nationality were the residents of Fiume, a question being asked, if not shouted, about residents of many parts of Europe, not to mention America throughout the decade; the paper also reported on the crusade to shut the borders of the US to immigrants and even to remove all foreign language books from libraries in order to promote ‘Americanization.’ Guy noted the similarities and argued that average people were the losers who took it in the neck in these debates:
“America for Americans! Yugoslavia for Yugoslavians! To h—- with furriners! So the poor local Italian population (of Fiume) is in for it either way.” Throughout his newspaper writing, Guy took interest in how average people survived these sorts of upheavals when men with grandiose visions of nations, races, or political orders began to conceptualize with the aid of guns.
Traveling to Fiume
Naturally, as the occupation of Fiume wore on, Guy traveled to this “little comic opera court in the disputed city” to try to get an interview with d’Annunzio. After a brief wait, he interviewed the Duce and decided to respond d’Annunzio’s raptures about the ideal of Fiume with what he saw as the appropriate level of seriousness, writing: “One’s greatest shock on meeting Gabriele D’Annuncio for the first time is the sudden realization that the glossy egg-like baldness of his cranium is voluntary… A deep rim of potential hair, shaved close to the skin, shows through the poet’s translucent scalp…”
Throughout the interview, Guy was unable, or unwilling to get over the fact that d’Annunzio shaved his head. He noted his luck that D’Annunzio had allowed him in for an informal chat during a palace luncheon with his men, while “most of the other newspaper visitors had cooled their heels from ten days to three weeks in waiting” a tactic to demonstrate power that Mussolini was also fond of using. Guy described the strange scene: roast goose, spaghetti, fruit, coffee, and “the best white bread I have had in a year” served impeccably while a female pianist waited to play and amused herself by pelting the guests with bread balls. “One well-aimed shot hit the Secretary of State smack in the middle of his bald spot greatly to the lady’s delight. Another lodged in the beard of a young man wearing a Sam Browne belt. He was a poet, lending support, primarily of a moral nature, to ‘the cause'”.
D’Annunzio walked over to the window and started holding forth on his political ideas, “he began in French, sprinkling ‘ne c’est pas’ as thickly as a traveling man peppers his fried eggs, ‘You see here the crystallization of all the ideals of liberty in the world.’ Of course he was taking a deal for granted what I saw.”
D’Annunzio saw Fiume as the embodiment of an idea that would “annex the world” over time. Guy saw other things in the scene: “This is no ordinary poet; no, no. Ordinary poets love hair. Whenever they can, they raise a mane. And if they can’t raise a mane, they raise every last pellicle they can. The hair stimulator market was organized for and has been kept alive by poets… Yet here is a poet who goes to the unheard of extreme of not only refusing to raise long hair, but refusing to raise any hair at all. Clearly the poetry society ought to do something.”
Finally, after an article in which he quoted d’Annunzio’s ideas, but focused more on the military hero’s scalp, Guy made a few other concluding observations: “ D’Annunzio may be interesting as a natural, unnatural, or pathological phenomenon. What he says is the purest, most undiluted bunk of all the oceans of that product that have spoiled white paper since the end of the war.”
The Limits of Mockery
Guy’s flippant approach to covering d’Annunzio seems a bit unprofessional today when newspaper writing reads as dry, formulaic, and even somewhat robotic. It was certainly poorly received by those of d’Annunzio’s supporters who wrote into the paper to complain. Yet, it was his regular style- finding the odd detail to both mock the powerful and bring a story to life. Interestingly, he would next run afoul of Italian readers for pointing out one embarrassing but less amusing detail about the newly appointed Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, when he interviewed the leader at Rapallo: Guy insisted on referring to Mussolini as a dictator.
Mockery finally had its limits. In Spring, 1933, Guy was sent to Berlin to cover the anti-Jewish boycotts that came with Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor. He tried, and failed to milk some humor from the scene:
…absurd little motorcars crossed the street in front of us. They sagged on their feeble springs, one of them fantastically dragging its rear mudguard. The little cars were packed with incredible men in mustard-colored caps and shirts. Where could they have found such men? The German race is not noted for beauty, but these could have only been a selection produced by an ‘ugly contest’… Suddenly, in the center of the crossing they yelled, each glaring at a different point of the compass with admirable German discipline, they roared in voices obviously as ‘frightening’ as they could make them: ‘Kauf- nicht- bei- Juden! Kauf- nicht- bei- Juden!’ (Buy nothing of Jews) The four little cars loaded with Frankenstein monsters sagged their way out of sight. We looked at each other and laughed. This was too funny; yet I had a little feeling of goose-flesh down my spine…”
He returned reborn as a strident and passionate opponent of Naziism.