Long before there was Christiane Amanpour, Arwa Damon, Marie Colvin, Christopher Hitchens, and Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, there was the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. In the 1950s she had broken through the mysogynistic newsrooms in Italy by writing about whatever she was assigned, and with great determination worked her way into reporting serious subjects of her own choosing. Fearless, aggressive and assertive, unrelenting and incapable of being deflected, she fought for and got assignments not available to other female journalists. At the time, "She worked and smoked constantly," and that never changed for the rest of her life.
Fallaci was born into a Florentine family that had complex personal relationships and divergent politcal views, with some who supported Mussolini, and others who did not. As a small 14-year-old girl, who looked years younger, she was a courier who took messages and bombs for her father’s anti-fascist partisans during World War II. Smart, observant and daring, the young girl was exhilarated by those experiences, which left an indelible mark on her personality.
As a journalist she gained notoriety for her bold, probing interviews, and there was no one else who could challenge world leaders in the same way. She interviewed the stern, intimidating Ayatollah Khomeni in Qom, where he was leading the revolt to take over Iran, and Fallaci agreed to wear a chador. When she asked very direct questions about women's rights and freedom in Iran, he testily told her, "If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to follow it." Fallaci dramatically removed her chador and Khomeini left the room. She waited hours for him to return and was promised there would be a meeting the following day, and there was. Even though he must have known how treacherous it was to be interviewed by Fallaci, Henry Kissinger relented and later regretfully said that the interview was “The most disastrous conversation I ever had with the press.”
She challenged world leaders and they took the bait, hoping to win out over this combative journalist, whose interviews were like chess games. She always did her homework, thoroughly researched the leaders, their activities and actions, books and/or articles they had written. She made up her mind what she thought about them, and like a boxer knew their vulnerable spots, and sometimes after the interview modified or changed her opinion. Her methodology was not always admired, but Fallaci was committed to getting at the truth of a person's actions.
As for her personal life, she lived a very liberated life with numerous affairs, which she frequently ended; traveled alone, often to dangerous war zones; and muscled her way into places where a woman was not accepted. In other ways she was a very traditional Italian woman who had a home in the Italian countryside, where she retreated with her extended family. There were a few men whom she loved, but often they were married, or involved in their own professional pursuits. At times she faced the dilemma of modern women today, torn between being married to an all-consuming profession while also desiring some type of personal family.
In this new biography Cristina De Stefano had access to previously unavailable papers and letters of Oriana Fallaci, and interviewed many people who knew her. As a journalist she was often spot-on and ahead of others in her perceptions and opinions, and was a champion for justice and fairness. However, after 9/11 she lost her footing and took a professional nosedive by summarily condemning Islam in the most egregious manner, and from which she never rebounded.
To read some of the Oriana Fallaci interviews, check out: Interviews with history and conversations with power.