Born Clementine Hozier on 1 April 1885, the woman who was to become Winston Churchill’s wife came from straightened circumstances. Her parents seperated when she was young, and she grew up in Britain and France, her mother unable to afford the university education recommended by her teachers. Like Winston, Clementine Churchill had aristocratic blood, though it seems possible that she was illegitimate.
They first met when she was nineteen, and Churchill a twenty-nine year old MP, noted for his radical views and wartime adventures. The occassion was a dance, at which the rather gauche Churchill failed to impress. Four years later they sat together at a dinner, and matters turned out very differently. Clementine had been engaged several times before, always to older men. The romance with Churchill might now be described as ‘whirlwind’: within a month he had proposed, while taking shelter from a rainstorm in a folly at Blenheim Palace.
Even so, the marriage might never have taken place. Clementine was furious when she learnt that Churchill had visited twenty-one year old Violet Asquith in Scotland, to tip her off about their engagement. It seemed that there had been some kind of romance between Churchill and Violet. After learning about Churchill’s engagement, Violet became depressed and unstable.
Clementine balanced a keen political intellect with a love of children and family life and a talent for offering her husband the support he needed. She was never frightened to speak (or write) her mind. When Winston was in the trenches during 1916, the politcal Clementine urged him to stay – it would reflect well on him, while the loving wife craved his return to safety. In 1936 they argued furiously about the abdication of Edward VIII, Clementine recognising that Churchill’s position was hopelessly out of touch with the mood of the nation. She was also totally opposed to another term of office in 1951 – a view which although ignored, was astute and prescient.
Claretta Petacci, born 28 February 1912, was perhaps the biggest love in Benito Mussolini’s life, a man 28 years her senior. Brought up in a wealthy family, Clara’s father was the pope’s personal physician.
Having been devoted to the Duce since childhood, she first met him, quite by accident, in 1932, when he drove pass 20-year-old Petacci in his car. Over the coming weeks, she pursued him relentlessly until, eventually, she secured an audience with him. Mussolini, never one to resist a woman’s advances, soon took her to bed.
Although Mussolini was married and had five children, he and Petacci were to remain lovers until their deaths in 1945. (Pictured: Mussolini with his wife and their first three children, c1923).
Petacci kept a detailed diary of their time together which, in 1949, was seized by the Italian authorities. The diary, under Italian law, was kept locked away for seventy years and only published in 2009. The detailed entries provide intimate details of her relationship with Mussolini, and a record of his inner thoughts. Mussolini, often bored, would ring her several times a day. As a lover, he is portrayed as a boastful and needy man, often fishing for compliments, and in need of constant reassurance about his looks, his virility and the love of both Clara and the Italian people.
Rutka Laskier was born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1929, the eldest of two children. Her exact date of birth is unknown, but is generally considered to be 12 June 1929, the same date as Anne Frank. Her father was a prosperous banker and Rutka enjoyed a relatively carefree childhood in the 1930s, learning to ski on family holidays and making many friends at her private school. Like millions of Jews in Europe, however, Rutka’s life was irrevocably altered with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939, when Nazi troops invaded Poland.
Rutka’s hometown of Bedzin was occupied within days of the invasion and the family would have been quick to realise the danger they now faced. On 8 September, members of Bedzin’s Jewish community were burned to death while praying in the local synagogue. Such anti-Semitic brutality was commonplace and the Nazis soon began forcing Jews throughout Poland into areas of towns and cities where they were segregated from non-Jewish society. The Laskiers were no exception: they were moved from their comfortable home into a house that the Nazis had repossessed from a Catholic family to be part of Bedzin’s new Jewish ghetto.
Conditions in the ghettos were overcrowded, unsanitary and demoralizing. Several generations often dwelled in one small room and indeed Rutka, her parents, her brother and her grandmother all shared the same cramped living space. Over three years after the start of the war, in January 1943, the teenage Rutka began writing a diary, chronicling her life in the Bedzin ghetto in sixty pages of a notebook. Among the horrors she witnessed under the Nazi occupation was the brutal murder of a Jewish baby by a German soldier. She also recounted an ‘action’ that had taken place in August 1942, when Bedzin’s Jews were herded into a local sports stadium and subjected to a selection. Rutka had been selected for hard labour on this occasion; however, she escaped by jumping from a first floor window and returned to her family.
In Milan during 1914, the future fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. Dalser sold her business to help her husband fund his new newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia, ‘The People of Italy’.
The marriage did not last and before the birth of Benito Jr, on 17 December 1915, Mussolini had married Rachele Guidi, his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.
Unsurprisingly, Ida, left penniless, was furious with the way Mussolini had treated her. Following the end of the First World War, she claimed she had proof that in early 1915 Mussolini had taken bribes from the French government to use his influence to commit neutral Italy to declare war against Austria-Hungary. (Italy did indeed declare war against the Central Powers in May 1915). Had this allegation come to light it would have ruined Mussolini’s fledging career.
Mussolini ordered the destruction of the marriage records and stopped paying his first wife maintenance as previously ordered by the courts.
Forced into drastic action, Mussolini had her abducted. Beaten and forced into a straitjacket, she was declared insane and interned against her will in an asylum. Benito Junior was placed in various boarding schools and, as he grew up, was told that his mother had died. He was ordered to stop referring to Mussolini as his father and had his surname changed to Bernardi.
In 1935, Benito, like his mother, was forcibly incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. Both remained incarcerated until their deaths – Dasler on 3 December 1937 of a ‘brain hemorrhage’, and Benito killed on 26 August 1942, aged 26, following a series of injections designed to induce coma.
Meanwhile, despite numerous affairs and dalliances, Mussolini remained with his second wife, Rachele, throughout his life. They were to have five children.
The story of Mussolini and Dalser was dramatized in the 2009 Italian film Vincere.
Mussolini: History In An Hour by Rupert Colley will be published on 24 April 2014.
See also article on Rachele Mussolini.
In 1914, in Milan, the future fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, married Ida Dalser, a 34-year-old beautician who soon bore him a child, Benito Albino Mussolini. The marriage lasted just a few months and on 17 December 1915, before the birth of Benito Jr., Mussolini, at the time at home on army sick leave, married Rachele Guidi in a civil ceremony. Guidi had been his long-term mistress and mother to his first child, Edda, who had been born in 1910.
Mussolini and Rachele Guidi shared the same place of birth – the town of Predappio in the area of Forlì in northern Italy. Guidi had been born 11 April 1890. She and Mussolini had first met when Mussolini appeared at her school as a stand-in teacher. Guidi’s father had warned her against marrying the penniless Mussolini: ‘That young man will starve you to death,’ he warned. After the death of her father, Guidi’s mother began a relationship with Mussolini’s widowed father.
In December 1925, ten years after their civil marriage, Rachele and Mussolini were married in a Catholic church. It was less a romantic gesture than an attempt by Mussolini to ingratiate himself with the pope, Pius XI. The Mussolinis were to have five children. As dictator, Mussolini preached about the importance of the family and liked to portray his own family as a model fascist household. But in truth, he had little time for his children and could number his lovers by the hundred. Rachele knew about her husband’s many indiscretions. In an interview with Life magazine in February 1966, Rachele said, ‘My husband had a fascination for women. They all wanted him. Sometimes he showed me their letters – from women who wanted to sleep with him or have a baby with him. It always made me laugh.’
A beautiful companion
In 1923, Rachele took on a lover of her own – according to Edda in an interview in 1995, shortly before her death, and only broadcast in 2001. Rachele, according to Edda, told Mussolini, ‘You have many women. There is a person who loves me a lot, a beautiful companion.’ Mussolini may have been shocked but he did nothing to stop the affair, which, apparently, lasted several years.
On 18 September 1931, a 23-year-old woman was found dead in a sumptuous nine-room Munich apartment, a single shot wound into her heart. Her name was Geli Raubal, the apartment was rented to Adolf Hitler, and the young woman happened to be Hitler’s niece. Cause of death – suicide. Naturally.
Geli Raubal was the daughter of Hitler’s half sister, Angela. Angela and Adolf grew up together; both products of the same father, Alois Hitler, and his second and third wives respectively.
In 1928, Hitler offered his sister the position of housekeeper in his Bavarian mountain retreat. Angela arrived with her two daughters, Elfriede and nineteen-year-old Angela, known as Geli. Hitler immediately took a shine to the carefree Geli and, in order to remove her from her mother’s watchful eye, installed her into his Munich apartment. Nineteen years Hitler’s junior, she was, according to one of Hitler’s aides, ‘of medium size, well developed, had dark, rather wavy hair, and lively brown eyes… it was simply astonishing to see a young girl at Hitler’s side.’
Geli, who called Hitler ‘Uncle Alf’, had been born in Linz; the town Hitler always considered his hometown, on 4 June 1908.
Hitler liked to be seen with his attractive niece, taking her to meetings, and to restaurants and theatres, but their relationship was a stormy one. Both were consumed by jealousy – Geli of Hitler’s relationship with a seventeen-year-old Eva Braun, a model for Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffman; and Hitler by Geli’s flirtatious conduct and numerous admirers. Indeed, Hitler once told Hoffman, ‘I love Geli and could marry her.’
Instead, Hitler controlled her life and dictated whom she was allowed to see and when. Geli found her uncle’s overbearing influence suffocating. He refused Geli permission to move to Vienna to study music (Vienna was where, as a young man, Hitler twice unsuccessfully applied to the art academy).
The date for the Queen’s coronation, 2 June 1953, had been sixteen months before. Elizabeth installed Prince Philip as Chairman of the Coronation Commission, a committee which oversaw the preparations in their entirety.
Given the complexity of an event like this, it is hardly surprising that problems and arguments abounded from the outset, not least of which was a protracted debate regarding the relative merits, or lack thereof, of allowing television cameras to broadcast the ceremony.
It had already been agreed that the ceremony would be transmitted to Britain’s eleven million radio sets, and to another several hundred thousand listeners internationally. In addition, various newsreel companies, such as British Pathé, were permitted to record the event, which would subsequently be shown to an estimated 350-million strong audience in cinemas across the globe.
But a live television broadcast was an altogether different story. Many, including Elizabeth herself, feared that without the benefit of editing, television cameras would shine a rather unforgiving light on the ceremony, picking up any slip or mistake the Queen might make during the long and difficult service. The extent of the opposition was such that, despite heavy lobbying from the BBC, the organisers decided not to permit a televisual broadcast of any kind.
Madame Nhu (Tran Le Xuan) was arguably the most controversial figure of South Vietnam’s brief history. An advocate of women’s rights, but an opponent of abortion and contraception, hailed as the saviour of South East Asia in the 1950s by the US media, then lambasted for her callous insensitivity towards the regime’s opponents, she was a deeply complicated character who appeared to intoxicate as much as revile even her political enemies.
Born Tran Le Xuan into a wealthy (Buddhist) Vietnamese family, she married Ngo Dinh Nhu at the age of 18, and quickly abandoned her Buddhism for her husband’s Roman Catholic faith. An early victim of the First Indochina War, Madam Nhu was taken prisoner by the VietMinh for four months along with her daughter and mother-in-law. (Pictured, Madame Nhu with Lyndon B Johnson, 1961. At the time Johnson was vice president).
After her brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Diem, assumed control of South Vietnam in 1955, she became the most powerful female in South East Asia. Whilst her only position was as a member of the South Vietnamese National Assembly, her husband’s control of the secret police, and her unofficial role as the hermit-like Diem’s “first lady” guaranteed her both headlines and influence.
One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.
Born Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).
With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And from here, Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless’ and, from another report, ‘ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in, was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.