Several years ago I interviewed my then 100-year-old grandfather (he died a few years at the age 103) who migrated to the United States from Italy back in 1913. We talked a lot of about the way he perceived, understood, and reacted to 20th-century American history. Part of our discussion focused on his experience as an Italian-American in the decades leading-up to World War II.
My grandfather was a staunch American patriot, but he told me that he knew many Italian-Americans living in New Jersey in the 1930s who supported Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime.
I thought about this interview again after I read Giorgio Bertellini‘s Washington Post piece on Mussolini’s positive reception in the United States. Here is a taste:
The Italian dictator came to be seen in the United States as a charming, masculine and romanticized anti-Bolshevik leader, just as Valentino had risen to fame a year earlier as an exemplar of forceful and romantic leadership. Valentino’s image, shaped by his ghostwriter and publicist Herbert Howe, combined ideas of traditional marriage and limits on women’s rights with antidemocratic theories that embraced forceful leadership. “There must be a leader for a nation, for a state, for a home. There is no such thing as equality,” Valentino claimed in an interview. “The woman is not the equal of the man, intellectually or any other way.”
Valentino and Mussolini gained seductive authority thanks to such antidemocratic and misogynistic pronouncements.
Once again, these images were diligently crafted. Valentino and Mussolini’s American reputations were built up by scores of individuals operating on both sides of the Atlantic. Often trained as operatives for the U.S. government’s World War I propaganda office, known as the Committee on Public Information, these promoters knew their publicity craft, or “ballyhoo,” was most effective when masquerading as news. This way they could sell or defend anything and serve a wide range of interests: Hollywood and Wall Street profits, newspaper circulations and the government’s geopolitical aims.
Celebrity culture in 20th-century America grew out of the tension between, on one hand, increased access to consumption, information and political rights, and on the other, the well-promoted personal appeal of (male) leadership figures. Seismic changes, including the successful campaign for women’s suffrage and the steady growth of popular culture, produced an array of anxieties, including democratic disenchantment. The masculine authority embodied by figures such as Mussolini and Valentino offered a salve. Even as they embraced civic and consumer opportunities, Americans, paradoxically, found celebrities’ antidemocratic and anti-egalitarian authority comforting — a way to provide order in chaotic times.
Read the entire piece here.
After writing this post I realized that I still need to reread the late Peter D’Agostino’s excellent Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism.