Oriana Fallaci is a towering figure of 20th century journalism. She was a bookish kid, born in Florence, Italy, in 1929. As a child she joined her father in the Resistance during World War II, an experience that profoundly impacted her life and worldview. She later elbowed her way to the top of the extremely macho field of Italian journalism, going from being an entertainment journalist who hung out with the great Hollywood stars of that time (Clark Gable, Orson Welles) to becoming one of the world’s most respected and feared political reporters. Her rigorous, incisive interviews with some of the most influential political figures of her time often ended up making news themselves, or even changing the course of history. Later in life she largely turned away from journalism to focus on her first passion, literature, and spent her final years as somewhat of a recluse in New York City, becoming one of the more controversial critics of Islam after 9/11.
Cristina De Stefano’s new book Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend takes a fresh look at the exceptional life and career of Fallaci, while also revealing a softer side of the notoriously hard-headed and private intellectual. “In her letters and papers, I discovered a very fragile and romantic woman, which is a side she did not show the public” De Stefano, who had unprecedented access to Fallaci’s personal files in writing this book, told Women in the World in an interview. “She wanted to be the most famous journalist in Italy, or even the world, so the main energy of her life was on the working side, but she also had many long and complicated love stories — including one with a man who was young enough to be her son. She was very passionate, feminine, romantic — a big personality like all great artists. It was a nice surprise to find all this artistic energy expressed in her personal life as well.”
Fallaci passed away in 2006, and since then slowly started slipping from our collective consciousness. But she broke many barriers in her life, leading the way for women journalists in Italy and around the world, establishing the “La Fallaci” style of interview — long-lasting, confrontational and deeply emotional conversations, sketching a shrewd psychological portrait of impenetrable world leaders.
“She was one of the first journalists to invent this very personal style, telling the reader ‘this is my own truth,’” De Stefano said. “The great Czech novelist Milan Kundera once wrote that the true pioneer of modern journalism is not Hemingway or whoever, but Oriana, because she was so good in creating a new way of talking to power and talking to the reader. Today, consumers of journalism are used to the personalization of journalism and aggressive questioning, but this was totally new when she started doing it in the 1940s and ’50s.
Those interviews earned her the reputation of being able to crack even the toughest politicians or dictators and get them to reveal things about themselves they wouldn’t anywhere else (like when she got then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to admit that he saw himself as “the cowboy riding all alone into the town.”)
She also had little patience for vanity or stupidity in her interview subjects, once calling Haitian dictator Baby Doc an “idiot” to this face, and addressing Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini as a “tyrant” during a famous interview, in which she threw off her headscarf in protest.
When asked how well Fallaci would have handled an interview with the current American president, De Stefano laughs. “Well, she was convinced that a politician was always an asshole — and often surprised when she appreciated them. She was very good in finding the weak points of a person, their vanity, so could’ve been interesting to see her with Trump. She would have been curious of the “phenomenon” of a showman with a large Twitter following becoming president of the U.S.,” De Stefano said. She added, “I don’t think she would have loved what’s happening in the U.S. right now. She was always suspicious towards political power, and critical of politicians, but had a very high idea of politics. Everything is politics, so it is something to be taken seriously.”
Fallaci took her role as a journalist very seriously as well, considering it her duty to actively defend the values of freedom and justice. De Stefano traces much of Fallaci’s tenacity back to her experience in World War II, when, at barely 10 years old, she joined her father in the Italian resistance.
“That war was the center of her life,” De Stefano said. “Everything that came after — even her love life, the idea of what a man should be — all of those ideas came from the war.” Oriana would go on to report from wars and conflict zones all over the world, including a notorious stint during the Vietnam War. “She was a woman used to the war. Her detractors often said she loved the war, but that’s not true. She believed the war was a time where you can see the best and worst of every man, during which you can discover the truth about yourself. She saw it as a kind of laboratory, but a very cruel one,” De Stefano explained.
Fallaci believed that courage was the single most important characteristic in a journalist — or a person, for that matter — and displayed her own true grit in several life-threatening situations. During the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in Mexico City, she was shot three times by Mexican soldiers, and left for dead — though that experience did not fundamentally change her, says De Stefano. “Physically, she was very courageous. She knew it was dangerous to do this job, but it was where she wanted to be until a certain point … when she decided to stop being a war journalist, and just become a writer, which is what she’d always dreamed of.”
During the 1970s, Fallaci started sidetracking most of her journalistic work and focused more on literary writing, resulting in several worldwide bestsellers. Her 1975 novel Letter to a Child Never Born is perhaps her most successful and most personal work, scandalizing both progressives and conservatives with its complicated views on motherhood and abortion.
While Fallaci broke many barriers for women in journalism and remained an outspoken voice for women’s rights her whole life, she always had a complicated relationship with the feminist movement. “Oriana was ahead of her time and a real feminist in in every aspect of her life: from the personal to the professional, to the way she handled maternity,” De Stefano said. “But she was critical of feminism as a movement, as she was critical of every movement or party.”
So would Fallaci consider herself a feminist in today’s climate? “On the one hand, I believe she would be very active in defending the struggle for better conditions of women around the world, but on the other hand she might be disturbed or taken aback by all of the gender discussions,” De Stefano speculated. “She was very open-minded, but also a woman from another time, which you see in how she talked about homosexuality, etc. I think she was not the person for our time of political correctness. I can’t image thinking of her in the age of social media, because she was so used to saying whatever she was thinking, and not having to weigh her words and be careful of offending this or that category.”
It was this penchant for saying what she thought that saw this prominent leftist thinker reclaimed as a voice of the right in the final years of her life. In the aftermath of 9/11, isolated and slowly dying of cancer in her Upper East Side townhouse, Fallaci regained the spotlight as one of Islam’s fiercest and most controversial critics, with the publication of The Rage and The Pride: An Exposé on Islam.
“It can be difficult for young readers to understand her rage and outrage, but she was raised in the trenches of World War II,” De Stefano explained. “Her whole life, she was so obsessed with fascism, so she could not stand any form of fascism, including religious fascism. For her everything was very dramatic. She was convinced that everything in life was war. Young readers don’t understand not having the freedom, but it’s important to understand, even if we don’t agree,” she argues.
In 2005, Fallaci was sued for “inciting racial hatred” for writing in one of her diatribes against Islam that Muslim immigrants in Europe were “breeding like rats.” De Stefano won’t justify those words, but asks readers to look at the larger context. “If she had been younger, she would have put it differently. But when you take away the words and violent expressions and engage with the main points of her book, she said something that is quite relevant today, in particular for Europe. The main message was that 9/11 changed the world as we knew it, and we had to ask ourselves if we are ready to stand up for our values and confront those people who have different values.”
Her support for the American invasion of Iraq, however, goes beyond comprehension for De Stefano. “That was a surprise for me, I felt she didn’t learn anything from history.” Nevertheless, De Stefano said she misses Fallaci’s voice in the public debate, and often finds herself wondering what Oriana would be thinking of the current state of the world. And, she observed, it’s difficult to tell who’s carrying Orania’s torch in modern journalism.
“You just can’t top her. Many were inspired by her and became journalists because of her, but she is unique. She didn’t create a school, she was herself, she was special. Love her or hate her, she was the last of the divas of our time, and how can you imitate a diva?”