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).
Clara Zetkin was, during the late 19th and early 20th century, a prominent German communist. With a strong sympathy for the proletariat causes, Zetkin argued that only through a class revolution, one that would overthrow capitalism, could women finally be considered and treated equally. Most of her work was as a prominent supporter, but not member, as women were not permitted to join, of the German Social Democratic Party and, later, as a founder of the German Communist Party. With an ally in Vladimir Lenin, Zetkin was a feminist who advocated the liberation of women using Marxist reform.
Clara Zetkin was born Clara Eissner on 5 July 1857, the eldest of three to a schoolteacher and church organist father. She was raised in Wiederau, near Leipzig, in Germany. Her stepmother, previously the widow of the local doctor, influenced her from an early age. She learned of women’s education societies and became an activist for economic power and equal rights for women.
At the age of 15, Clara’s family moved to Leipzig and there, in 1875, she began formal studies at Schmidt and Otto’s Van Steyber Institute. She was influenced by the German Women’s Association and continued her studies while reading local periodicals and publications, and attending Association meetings.
The date for the Queen’s coronation, 2 June 1953, had been set 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 new 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, to cite one of several examples, 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 it is from here that Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless … 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.
Isabella of Portugal was born into an illustrious Portuguese family. Her parents were renowned rulers and they were to raise several celebrated children. Her older brothers were King Edward of Portugal, Peter, Duke of Coimbra and the famous Henry the Navigator, patron of Portuguese navigation. Isabella was to make a brilliant match to the Duke of Burgundy but not until she was into her thirties, very late for a Renaissance princess.
Isabella was born on February 21, 1397 in Evora. Her father was King John I of Portugal of the house of Aviz. Her mother was Philippa of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and granddaughter of King Edward III of England. Isabella’s father had become king with the help of John of Gaunt and cemented his alliance and friendship with Gaunt and England by marrying Philippa. Isabella was to value friendship with England all her life.
Isabella was the only surviving daughter in her family with five full-bodied brothers. She was allowed to play with the older boys, Edward, Peter and Henry and helped look after her younger brothers, John and Fernando. All the children in the family were supported in developing their minds and bodies. They were taught several languages such as Latin, French, English and Italian. They were urged to do scientific experiments and tutored in mathematics. Isabella was to excel in accounting. She was allowed to accompany her brothers when they were instructed in affairs of state with their father. She joined them in riding and hunting. She observed the many visitors to her father’s court.
In her book Women Heroes of World War II, author Kathryn Atwood looks at the lives and courageous feats of twenty-six women during the Second World War. Here, Kathryn pays special tribute to Nancy Wake, a leading figure in the French Resistance.
All of the women in my book had impressive reserves of moral courage and most had specific epiphanies in which they decided to fight the Germans. So what differentiates Nancy Wake from the others? I believe it was Nancy’s dramatic and fascinating masculine/feminine duality, something that made this highly decorated Second World War hero perfect for the one job in which she would ultimately come to feel the most pride: her incredible 500 km, 72-hour bike ride that kept her enormous band of French fighters connected with London at a crucial moment in their battle against the Germans
Moment of epiphany
Many of the women featured in my book, Women Heroes of World War II, had epiphanies during which they decided to take their stand against the Nazis. For one, it was when she saw her father weeping at the onset of Belgium’s second German occupation. For another, it was the sight of women and children being chased down and shot in a Jewish ghetto.
Nancy Wake’s moment came in 1934 during a trip to Vienna where she and her fellow journalists were seeking the truth behind the Nazi-induced horror stories pouring out of Austria and Germany. There in Vienna’s very public main square, she saw a gang of Hitler’s Brown Shirts whipping Jewish men who were chained to enormous moving wheels. She documented her reaction to this scene in her memoir: “I resolved there and then that if I ever had the chance I would do anything, however big or small, stupid or dangerous, to try and make things more difficult for their rotten party. When war came to France, followed by the occupation, I found it quite natural to take the stand I did.”
Late in the evening of the 30 August 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, emerged from a meeting at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow when he was approached by an unknown woman who called out his name. Detained momentarily by a colleague, who was remonstrating about bread shortages, Lenin was about to get into his car, his foot on the running board, when the woman produced a revolver and fired three shots. One shot missed him, ripping through his coat and hitting his colleague in her elbow, but the other two struck him down – one bullet went through his neck, the other into his left shoulder. Lenin survived – just. It had been the second attempt on Lenin’s life in just seven months.
Vladimir Lenin’s would-be assassin was 28-year-old Fanny Kaplan. Born Feiga Chaimovna Roytblat in the Ukraine on 10 February 1890, Kaplan, one of seven children, was drawn to revolutionary politics from a young age.
Dora Kaplan / Fanny Kaplan
At the age of sixteen, she joined an anarchist group based in Kiev, was given the name Fanny Kaplan, sometimes Dora Kaplan, and charged with assassinating the city’s governor. But the bomb she was preparing detonated in her room, almost blinding her. She was arrested and, had she not been so young (she was still under twenty-one), she would have faced the death penalty. Instead, she was sentenced to ‘eternal penal servitude’ in Siberia. During her time of forced labour, her eyesight deteriorated to the point of near blindness.
Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, Kaplan was released as part of a post-revolutionary political amnesty. She suffered from severe headaches and bouts of blindness but, following an intensive course of treatment, she regained partial sight.