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, Rachele, 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.
It was Petacci who recorded how Mussolini boasted of having, in his younger days, up to fourteen lovers at a time, and able to satisfy four women a night. This, from the man who, in his speeches, liked to emphasise the importance of family. Sex with Rachele, his wife, was dull and, worse still, she failed to appreciate just how great a man he was. Clara, on the other hand, never failed to stroke his ego – comparing him favourably to Napoleon and constantly reminding him of his genius.
In one entry, Petacci writes, ‘I hold him tightly. I kiss him and we make love with such fury that his screams seem like those of a wounded beast. Then, exhausted, he falls onto the bed’. In another, she relates ‘We made love with such force that he bit my shoulder so hard his teeth left a mark’.
I am a slave
Elsewhere, Petacci’s diary records Mussolini’s growing anti-Semitism, his meetings with Hitler, and his fears about the coming war. Much of it is expressed in terms of frustration. Mussolini may have been a dictator, but he often felt straitjacketed by events beyond even his control. ‘I am a slave,’ he bemoans; ‘I am not even master in my own house’.
Despite his love for Petacci, Mussolini still entertained women on a regular basis, usually on a sofa in his office.
Yet Petacci never lost her attachment to the Duce. She was with him when, towards the end of the war and knowing all was lost, Mussolini tried to flee to Spain via neutral Switzerland. Caught by Italian partisans near the border on 27 April 1945, they were detained overnight, the only night they spent together, and executed the following day. Petacci was 33.
Rupert Colley’s novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available.