Mary Seacole – a brief biography

Mary SeacoleA keen traveller, the young Mary journeyed widely with her parents, including two trips to Britain, expanding her medical knowledge.

In 1836, she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, a former guest at her mother’s boarding house. Edwin Seacole was believed, without substance, to have been either an illegitimate offspring of Lord Nelson and his mistress, Lady Hamilton, or Nelson’s godson (hence his middle name). A sickly man, he died eight years later in 1844. Despite several offers, Mary never married again. As a couple, the Seacoleshad maintained the boarding house established by Mary’s mother and, as a widow, Mary Seacole’s work intensified in 1850 when a cholera epidemic struck Jamaica, killing over 30,000 inhabitants.

In 1851, Mary Seacole journeyed to Panama to visit her half-brother and while there, witnessed another cholera outbreak. Again she went to work and took a leading role in treating the sick. Among her patients were 350 American soldiers commanded by the future Union general and US president, Ulysses S. Grant. The following year she returned to Jamaica but had to wait for a British ship to take her home as the American ship she’d planned to sail on refused to take her – Seacole believed it was on account of her race.

Crimean War

In October 1853, war had broken out on the Russian peninsula of the Crimea, between the British, French and Turkish on one side and the Russians on the other. In 1854, Seacole travelled to England where she asked various institutions, including the War Office, permission to work as a nurse in the Crimea. But her request was refused by all. Again, race may have played its part.

Mary Seacole ChallenHowever, the resourceful Seacole raised the necessary funds for herself and made her way independently to the Crimea, where, near the front line, she set up the ‘British Hotel’, improvised with scrap wood and discarded building materials. Opening in 1855, the ‘hotel’sold food, medicaments and supplies to soldiers (anything, to use Seacole’s words, ‘from a needle to an anchor’); and provided meals,warmth and somewhere to sleep. Florence Nightingale, although she later praised Mary Seacole’s work, initially thought the British Hotel as little more than a brothel.

Dressed in brightly-coloured outfits, Seacole became a familiar figure as she visited the military hospitals and the battle front, assisting the wounded and dying, including Russians, moving about with two mules, one carrying medical supplies, the other food and wine.

The Crimean War ended in 1856 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 March. Within four months the peninsula had been completely evacuated of Allied troops. Mary Seacole was left with a fully supplied hotel without customers and was forced into selling her stocks and provisions at artificially low prices to pay off her debts.

Wonderful Adventures

She returned to England in a poor state, both physically and financially. While being applauded and awarded, she was declared bankrupt. Living in London, she fell ill and became destitute. A press-led campaign organised a festival in Seacole’s benefit, the Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival, which attracted 40,000 people. The same month, July 1857, Seacole published her memoirs, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, which sold well enough to help, along with the proceeds from the festival, to alleviate her financial woes.

Seacole returned to Jamaica in 1860 but came back to London a decade later where she kept the company of esteemed military men and members of the royal family.

Mary Seacole died 14 May 1881, of ‘apoplexy’, at her home, 3 Cambridge Street, Paddington, aged 76. An obituary, published in The Times a week later, wrote, ‘strange to say, she has bequeathed all her property to persons of title’.

A disgrace to the serious study of history?

Mary Seacole’s place in history had been largely forgotten until the last fifteen years. Now, all UK schoolchildren know her name and she has become lionized as a positive black role model. In 2004, she was voted the greatest Black Briton of all time. Seacole herself did not necessarily view herself as black but ‘only a little brown… a few shades duskier then the brunettes you all admire so much’.

St Thomas’ Hospital, near London’s Houses of Parliament, is planning an 8-foot (3 metrebronze statue of Mary Seacole due to be unveiled this year, costing £500,000. The idea of the statue is, in the words of St Thomas’, to ‘reflect the scale, stature and achievements of Mary Seacole, encapsulating the sentiment of Mary as a Crimean War nursing heroine.’ (It was at St Thomas’ that in 1860, Florence Nightingale established her nursing school.) Seacole herself had no association with the hospital and indeed never stepped foot in the place.

Some historians are now beginning to question the legitimacy of Seacole’s recent status, especially when it directly mirrors the decline in the reputation of Nightingale. Guy Walters describes Seacole’s status as a role model ‘good politics, but poor history.’ Walters, in his article for the Daily Mail, quotes a spokesman for the Crimean War Research Society who states, ‘The hype that has built up surrounding this otherwise worthy woman (Seacole) is a disgrace to the serious study of history.’

Reality Check

Historian, Lynn McDonald, writing in History Today, states, ‘Keenness for a heroic black role model is understandable, but why the denigration of [Nightingale]?’ McDonald accuses St Thomas’ of perpetuating a ‘makeover myth [that does] not survive a reality check.’ McDonald has even written a 270-page book on the subject: Mary Seacole: The Making of the Myth.

Crimean MedalFor example, McDonald talks about the Crimean medals worn by Seacole. (In the images above of Seacole, taken around 1873, and Seacole’s comforting portrait painted in 1869 by Arthur Charles Challen, she can be seen wearing miniature versions of three medals, including, on the left, the Crimean Medal). Seacole never won the medal, nor, in her writings, did she ever claim to have done so, saying she was, by wearing the medals, merely displaying her solidarity with the veterans of the war.

Such is the concern over the misrepresentation of the Seacole story, that the Mary Seacole Information Website aims to redress the balance: So much misinformation about Seacole is now available in print, on websites (including those of highly reputable organizations) and in the social media that a source using reliable, carefully documented,material is badly needed.’ 

They go on to say, ‘Mary Seacole, we believe, deserves recognition for her work. A fine bronze statue [at St Thomas’] is a laudable means. However the campaign for Seacole should not be based on misrepresentation of her life and work, or a vilification campaign against any other person, certainly not Florence Nightingale. Our complaint is not with Seacole, however, but with the supporters who misrepresent her, and, so often, in the course denigrate Nightingale.’

But despite these caveats, Mary Seacole deserves her place in our history books and certainly deserves to maintain her place within the curriculum but within the proper context. As Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, told The Independent, Seacole was one of the only black people in British history whose life was not talked about ‘through the prism of racism It is fantastically important to have people such as Mary Seacole taught in our classes’.

MBtE - 3DRupert Colley

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Adolf Hitler and his women

Hitler was never truly comfortable in the company of women, but women found him strangely attractive. 

Hitler’s First Love

Adolf Hitler‘s first love, in Vienna, was a Jewish girl called Stefanie but, lacking the courage, he never spoke to her. Instead he wrote love poems about her which his youthful friend, the poor August Kubizek, had to endure.

Hitler extolled the virtues of men remaining celibate until the age of 25. He was both repulsed and fascinated by prostitutes and although he preached that only men of inferior races went to prostitutes he obliged Kubizek to accompany him on numerous trips into Vienna’s red light districts. Rumours persisted that Hitler caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute. In the early 1920s Hitler’s driver spoke of them cruising the Munich nightclubs.

Once he had become a national figure, Hitler’s relations with women were always marred by his belief that he was wedded to his mission. A wife would not only be a distraction; it could damage his popularity in the eyes of his female fans. Evidence of Hitler’s popularity amongst women first surfaced during his trial following the failed Munich Putsch in which daily the courtroom was jammed with female admirers. On the day of sentencing it was festooned with flowers.

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Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife – a summary

Joseph Stalin married twice. His first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, died in December 1907, aged 22, from typhus. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, died, having shot herself, on 9 November 1932, aged 31.

As a two-year-old, Nadezhda, or Nadya, Alliluyeva was reputedly saved from drowning by the visiting 25-year-old Stalin. When staying in St Petersburg (later Petrograd), Stalin often lodged with the Alliluyev family. He may have had an affair with Olga Alliluyeva, Nadya’s mother and his future mother-in-law.

In March 1917, Stalin returned to Petrograd from exile to join the unrest following the February Revolution and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. By then Nadya was 16 and she fell for the romantic revolutionary with his sweep of jet-black hair.

Mr and Mrs Stalin

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Nadya became Stalin’s personal assistant as he embarked on his job as the People’s Commissar for Nationalities and joined him in the city of Tsaritsyn during the Russian Civil War. They married in 1919 and had two children: Vasily, born 1921, and Svetlana, born 1926. (In 1967, Svetlana was to defect to the US, became known as Lana Peters and died in Wisconsin on 22 November 2011).

Nadya found life in the Kremlin suffocating. Her husband, whom she once saw as the archetypal Soviet ‘new man’, turned out to be a quarrelsome bore, often drunk and flirtatious with his colleague’s wives. A manic-depressive and prone to violent mood swings, Stalin’s colleagues thought her ‘mad’.

Chemistry student

In 1929, bored of being cooped up in the Kremlin, Nadya enrolled on a course in chemistry. She diligently went to university each morning by public transport, shunning the official limousine. Her new-found student friends, not realising who she was, told her horrific stories concerning Stalin’s collectivization policy. When she confronted her husband, accusing him of ‘butchering the people’, he reacted angrily and had her friends arrested.

Days before her death, according to her daughter, Nadya confided to a friend that ‘nothing made her happy’, least of all her children.

The Banquet

On the evening of 8 November 1932, Stalin and Nadya hosted a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. They often argued and this party was no different with Nadya accusing Stalin of being inconsiderate towards her. His response was to humiliate her in front of their guests by flicking cigarettes at her and addressing her ‘hey, you!’  Molotov’s wife chased after her and together they walked round the Kremlin grounds until Nadya calmed down and retired for bed.

The following morning, servants found Nadya dead – she had shot herself with a pistol given to her by her brother, Pavel Alliluyev, as a present from Berlin. (Pavel, who was there that morning and comforted his grieving brother-in-law, would die in suspicious circumstances six years later, aged 44. Most of the Alliluyev clan would suffer early deaths on the orders of Stalin. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, wondered whether Stalin would eventually have had her own mother arrested).

Reproach and accusations

Nadya had left a note for Stalin which, according to Svetlana, was both personal and ‘partly political’. Although she never saw it, Svetlana described it as being ‘full of reproach and accusations’. Stalin certainly took his Nadya’s death badly, believing that she had taken her own life to punish him. His anger and grief seemed genuine and he was unable to bring himself to attend her funeral or, later, visit her grave.

The public were told that Nadya Alliluyeva had died from appendicitis – as was her daughter, then aged 6. It wouldn’t have been good for Stalin’s image to have had a wife who had committed suicide. Svetlana found out the truth quite by accident a decade later.

On the day of her State funeral, Stalin muttered, ‘She went away as an enemy’.

The Savage YearsRupert Colley.

Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century is now available.







Mata Hari – a brief summary

She enticed audiences with her dancing, her exoticism and eroticism – and her bejewelled bra, but in 1917, Mata Hari, a Malayan term meaning ‘eye of the day’, was shot by firing squad.

Margaretha Zelle

Born 7 August 1876 to a wealthy Dutch family, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle responded to a newspaper advertisement from a Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch army officer of Scottish descent, seeking a wife. The pair married within three months of meeting each other and in 1895 and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where they had two children.

The marriage was doomed from the beginning – 22 years older, MacLeod was an abusive husband and Zelle was never going to play the part of the dutiful wife. Their son died aged 2 from syphilis, reputably inherited from his father (their daughter would die a similar death, aged 21) and in 1902, on their return to the Netherlands, they separated.

Unable to find work and uncertain about her future, Zelle moved to Paris and there changed her name to Mata Hari, claiming she originated from India and was the daughter of a temple dancer. She started to earn a living by modelling and dancing, and found work in a cabaret. Exotically dressed, she became a huge success and was feted by the powerful and rich of Paris, taking on a number of influential lovers. She travelled numerous times between France and the Netherlands. But by now war had broken out and Mata Hari’s movements and high-ranking liaisons caused suspicion.


Arrested by the British, Hari was interrogated. She admitted to passing German information on to the French. In turn, the French discovered evidence, albeit of doubtful authenticity, that she was spying for the Germans under the codename ‘H21’. Hari had indeed been recruited by the Germans, given the name H21 and received 20,000 francs as a down payment. Never one to turn down money, she accepted it but did no spying in return nor ever felt obliged to.

Returning to Paris, Hari was then arrested by the French and accused of being a double agent. The evidence against her virtually non-existent, and the prosecution found not a single item or piece of information passed from Mata Hari to the Germans. The trial itself of dubious nature as her defence was prohibited from cross-examining witnesses. Her defence lawyer was a 74-year-old man, a former lover, and his association with Hari diminished his authority and the six-man jury had little hesitation in finding Mata Hari guilty.

And shot

At dawn on 15 October 1917, Mata Hari, wearing a three-cornered hat, was led out from her cell to face her death. She told an attendant nun, ‘Do not be afraid, sister, I know how to die.’ She refused to be tied to the stake or blindfolded, and waved at onlookers and blew kisses at the priest and her lawyer. She was shot by a 12-man firing squad, each wearing a red fez. The officer in charge ensured she was dead by firing a bullet into her head. She was 41.

Thirty years later, one of the prosecutors admitted that ‘there wasn’t enough evidence [against Mata Hari] to flog a cat.’

Rupert Colley.

Vera Inber – Leningrad Siege Diarist

Born 10 July 1890, Vera Inber was a Soviet poet and writer whose greatest legacy, Leningrad Diary, described daily the sufferings and deprivations suffered by the city during the 900-day siege of 1941 – 1944.

Vera Inber’s father, owner of a publishing house, was an older cousin to the future Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. As a nine-year-old, Trotsky lived in the Inber’s Odessa household at the time Vera was still a baby.

Inber worked as a journalist and lived in Paris and Switzerland before returning to the Soviet Union, first to Odessa and eventually settling in Moscow.

In 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, Inber joined the Communist Party. Together with her husband, Inber lived in Leningrad and recorded what she witnessed in a diary, published in 1946. In it, she wrote of the daily suffering of herself and people she saw around her. She described the hunger, the cold, and the struggle to survive. Inber, herself, came close to dying from starvation.

Being a party member, Inber never criticised the regime or the city authorities and, as a result, the diary is sometimes regarded as overly propagandist. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating account of the siege which includes a memorable account of sharing her apartment with a starving mouse, the rodent struggling to find even a crumb. She describes people pulling their deceased loved ones on sledges to the cemetery, of a dead horse stripped within moments of whatever flesh it had left, of the frozen bodies piled on top of each other and left to fester in apartment block cellars. Her greatest fear, she wrote, was ‘not the bombing, not the shells, not the hunger – but a spiritual exhaustion.’

During the siege, she composed an 800-line poem, The Meridian of Pulkovo, and often broadcast her poems on the radio. Her wartime work was much hailed and in 1946, Inber was awarded the Stalin Prize for literature.

In June 1944, five months after the siege was finally lifted, Inber and her husband moved back to Moscow. The final words of Leningrad Diary reads,

‘Farewell Leningrad! Nothing in the world will ever erase you from the memory of those who lived here through this time.’

Vera Inber died in Moscow on 11 November 1972.

The Black MariaRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.







Code Name Pauline – book review

Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.

Code Name PaulinePearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.

The Fall of France

Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.

Vehemently opposed to the occupation of France, Pearl felt impelled to help the Allied cause and being a fluent French-speaker was able to join the newly-formed SOE (Special Operations Executive). Established specifically to cause disruption and sabotage within Nazi-occupied territories, Winston Churchill hoped that the SOE would “set Europe ablaze”.

Like many SOE agents, Pearl was given an honorary rank of second lieutenant in the “vain hope that, if captured, the enemy would treat these ‘officers’ as POWs according to the Geneva Convention”. Pearl’s SOE trainers were much impressed with her. Her weapons instructor referred to her as “probably the best shot (male or female) we have yet had”.

After months of training and preparation, Pearl was parachuted into France in September 1943 disguised as a cosmetics saleswoman. What follows is an account of her work in France, which includes, at one point, being shot at by the Germans. The tone is continually matter-of-fact and the descriptions of her adventures understated. But we know that here is a woman of immense courage, working under the most difficult of situations, fearful of arrest at every turn.

Nothing remotely civil

Following France’s liberation, Charles de Gaulle, “anxious to not credit the British for their help during the Resistance”, ordered Britain’s SOE agents to leave France within 48 hours. As French residents, Pearl and Henri did not fall into this bracket but nonetheless an even greater slight awaited them… Pearl was offered an MBE – the civilian version. Indignant, she refused it, stating that she hadn’t done “anything remotely ‘civil’ for England during the war”. Her obstinacy paid off and in 1946, Pearl was duly awarded the military MBE.

Code Name Pauline is an illuminating read. Atwood introduces each chapter with a summary or explanation written in such a way that, as the reader, you feel you are being gently guided. But at no point does Atwood’s commentary detract from the main narrative.

Atwood, who wrote an article especially for History In An Hour on editing Code Name Pauline, finishes with a number of useful appendices, including brief biographies of the key figures, figures from within Pearl’s story, and national figures such as de Gaulle and Philippe Petain. Following this are extracts from an interview with Henri Cornioley, who died in 1999, a man who obviously enjoyed telling a story. His story of begging to be allowed back into the POW camp he’d inadvertently escaped from is an amusing highlight. The book has a number of photographs, including Pearl in uniform, beside Henri and in her latter years, including a photo taken in 2004 of Pearl alongside the Queen.

In accidental tandem with Code Name Pauline, is a biography of Pearl called She Landed By Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the real Charlotte Gray by Carole Seymour-Jones. (Pearl has often been stated as the source of Sebastian Faulks’s eponymous heroine although Faulks denied the connection). Both titles, Atwood’s and Seymour-Jones’s, were published within a month of each other. She Landed By Moonlight has generally received favourable reviews and no doubt was intended to honour Pearl and her work during the war. But, rather strangely for a biography, it reads as a novel, using imaginary dialogue and imagined thoughts. For a woman who was so down-to-earth and fervently opposed to the romanticism of her story, one wonders what Pearl would have made of it.

Pearl Witherington Cornioley died, aged 93, on 24 February 2008. Kathryn Atwood’s finely edited book honours her memory in a manner I imagine Pearl would have thoroughly approved of.

Rupert Colley.

Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent edited by Kathryn Atwood is now available for purchase.

See also Kathryn’s History In An Hour article on editing Code Name Pauline and HIAH’s review of Women Heroes of World War II.

Anne Frank – a brief biography

“I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”

anne frankHer voice has come to symbolise the Holocaust, one victim among the six million who spoke for them all, a testament to all who perished with her.

Anne Frank died aged 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945, possibly the 7th.

Born 12 June 1929, Anne and her elder sister, Margot, lived their early years in Frankfurt. But in 1933, following Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, the Franks, as a Jewish family, became concerned for their safety as the Nazis introduced increasingly fanatical anti-Semitic legislation.

The Franks Move to Amsterdam

In late 1933 Anne’s father, Otto, was offered and accepted a business opportunity in Amsterdam. In February 1934 his wife and daughters joined him in the Netherlands. Of the half million Jews living in Germany in 1933, about 320,000 had emigrated by 1939.

In May 1940 Hitler launched his attack against France and the Low Countries. Rotterdam was heavily bombed and, on 15 May, the Dutch, fearing further losses, surrendered.

Occupied Netherlands

Life for the Jewish population in Nazi occupied Netherlands became increasingly intolerable and dangerous. In July 1942 Otto Frank received an order to report his eldest daughter for a work camp. The Franks, fearing for their lives, decided they had no option but to go into hiding. Continue reading

Geli Raubal – Hitler’s niece: a summary

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.

Uncle Alf

Geli RaubalIn 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.’

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Rachele Mussolini – a brief biography

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

Benito and Rachele MussoliniIn 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.

(Pictured are Benito and Rachele Mussolini in 1923 with their first three children. Edda, their eldest, is on the right).

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