New York Review of Books
September 16, 2013
In 1920, at the age of just twenty-seven, a young Italian named Dino Segre, writing under the pen name Pitigrilli, achieved notoriety with a book of short stories called Luxurious Breasts , followed the next year by the novel Cocaine and a second book of stories entitled The Chastity Belt .
Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power and greed, in which adultery, illegitimate children, and hypocrisy were the order of the day and husbands and wives were little more than respectable-seeming pimps and prostitutes. Born in Turin, Segre himself had been the illegitimate child of a Jewish father—also named Dino Segre—and a young Catholic mother. (His father did not marry his mother until their child was eight years old.) In his work he delighted in turning conventional morality on its head, along with most of the Ten Commandments:
In Cocaine , perhaps his most successful effort at a sustained narrative, Pitigrilli describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances. His main character Tito Arnaudi is a failed medical student who has just been hired as a journalist in Paris, where begins to investigate cocaine dens in order to write an article for a Paris newspaper appropriately named The Fleeting Moment . In the course of his research, he indulges in the white powder, which for a time acts as a kind of welcome balm, giving one “a sense not just of euphoria, but of boundless optimism and a special kind of receptivity to insults.”
The principal occupation of the characters of Cocaine is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. In searching for any kind of thrill or stimulation, they resort to “the fashionable poisons of the moment, the wild exaltation they produce, the craze for ether and chloroform and the white Bolivian powder that produces hallucinations.” As Tito’s lover (or one of his lovers), Kalantan, tells him:
Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power after the so-called March on Rome. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels. When the books were attacked for their immorality, Mussolini defended them: “Pitigrilli is right…. Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”
But as Mussolini’s fascism evolved from a transgressive, radical opposition movement into Italy’s new political order, Pitigrilli was bound to be regarded with increasing suspicion. Much of his withering sarcasm was directed at the patriotic and nationalistic nostrums that were the sacred gospel of fascism. In The Chastity Belt , Pitigrilli would write: “Fatherland is a word that serves to send sheep to slaughter in order to serve the interests of the shepherds who stay safely at home.” In 1926, Pitigrilli was put on trial for obscenity and narrowly acquitted. Two years later, he was arrested in Turin for alleged “antifascist activities.”
Dino Segre, 1930
But the case against Pitigrilli turned out like an episode in one of his novels, in which all the basest human instincts took on the mask of political principle and patriotism. What appears to have happened was this: some people eager to take over the editorship of Pitigrilli’s successful magazine, Le Grandi Firme (The Big Names), convinced one of his former lovers, the writer Amalia Guglieminetti, to destroy him. Guglieminetti was a society woman with literary ambitions, who dressed like a flapper and carried a long cigarette holder; she could have come straight out of the pages of Cocaine . Guglieminetti had taken up with Pietro Brandimarte, a powerful local fascist official, after her relationship with the writer ended, and she agreed to supply Pitigrilli’s enemies with personal letters written in his hand. These letters allegedly contained insults to Mussolini and fascism. But the forgeries were so crude that Pitigrilli was able to expose them at trial, forcing Guglieminetti to break down and confess on the witness stand.
Perhaps because of his sense of extreme vulnerability, Pitigrilli appears to have begun to work at ingratiating himself with the fascist regime. In 1931, he sent a new book to Mussolini with the following dedication: “To Benito Mussolini, the man above all adjectives.” And by the mid-1930s he became an extremely active and prolific spy of the OVRA, fascist Italy’s secret political police force. What makes his contributions especially intriguing is that he informed on a very rich and interesting circle of intellectuals and writers who would go on to become important parts of Italy’s anti-fascist cultural elite: the publisher Giulio Einaudi, Leone Ginzburg and his future wife Natalia, the painter and writer Carlo Levi, and the circle of Adriano and Paola Olivetti. Pitigrilli’s sudden usefulness to the secret police was sparked by a specific event: the arrest in March of 1934 of a young Turinese Jew, Sion Segre, who happened to be Pitigrilli’s first cousin. Sion Segre had been caught trying to smuggle into Italy from Switzerland a raft of newspapers and leaflets of an organization called Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), the main non-Communist left-of-centre anti-fascist group, whose leaders were living in exile in Paris. Following Sion Segre’s capture, fascist police arrested fourteen others suspected of ties to the organization. Nine of the alleged conspirators were from Jewish families and some of the Italian newspapers reported the story by referring to a Jewish anti-fascist conspiracy, the first ominous note of an anti-Semitic campaign in Italy.
Why did Pitigrilli—or rather, Dino Segre—lend himself to such a distasteful operation, spying on his own first cousin and his friends? The answer is purely speculative, but Pitigrilli’s own writings offer some obvious clues. In an autobiographical book published after World War II, entitled Pitigrilli Parla di Pitigrilli (Pitigrilli Speaks About Pitigrilli), he reveals that he loathed his first cousin and the Jewish half of his family. His father’s well-to-do Jewish family never fully accepted Pitigrilli’s mother as a daughter-in-law and did not treat the illegitimate product of their union—the younger Dino Segre—as a true grandson. Pitigrilli’s description of his father’s family is laced with deep, anti-Semitic hatred.
This is almost certainly how the anti-fascists of Giustizia e Libertà would have appeared to Pitigrilli: young, idealistic people who were ready to face prison for their ideas and who also tended to look down on a popular writer like Pitigrilli as not altogether serious. In fact, Vittorio Foa, one of the young men whom Pitigrilli spied on, noted that one of the older members of their group did object to Pitigrilli because of the immorality of his books. “We thought that was very funny at the time, but maybe he was right,” Foa told me fifty years after the fact. Pitigrilli’s cynical epigrams may have served as a kind of justification for his spying activities: “What could be more relative than an idea? A man is a traitor or a martyr depending on whether you look at it on one side of the border or another.” In retrospect, Foa surmised that Pitigrilli may have been motivated by a kind of perverse instinct, “the pleasure of doing harm to others.”
Pitigrilli’s career as a spy peaked in 1935, the year in which his secret reports led to the arrest of Foa and some fifty other suspected anti-fascists, many of whom, like Foa, spent the next several years in prison. Pitigrilli suspected that his great triumph might diminish his power as a spy. He actually suggested to the fascist police that he too be arrested with the others to deflect suspicion from himself and retain his utility as an informant. The police did not follow up on this suggestion and word trickled out from those in prison that Pitigrilli had been the traitor.
In 1936, the fascist regime stopped the reprinting of most of his books and in 1938 Pitigrilli himself fell victim to Mussolini’s racial laws. A note from the fascist secret police in 1939 states: “We thank you for all you’ve done up until now for us, but given the present situation we are compelled to renounce your further collaboration.” For the purposes of the fascist bureaucracy, he was thenceforth known as “the well-known Jewish writer Dino Segre, alias Pitigrilli.”
During the war, he continued to write self-pitying letters to Mussolini pleading for recognition as an Aryan so that he could work freely:
Adapted from Alexander Stille’s afterword to Cocaine by Pitigrilli, translated by Eric Mosbacher, which has just been published by New Vessel Press .