I am becoming obsessed with 1960s Italian movie star Daniela Bianchi. Her neat beauty. The early 60s styling of her dyed blonde hair. Her proud Roman nose. Especially her nose. I have always been attracted to noses. And Daniela’s nose is perfection. But even Google seems to consider that her life ended in the final reel of From Russia with love. Kissing Sean Connery on the back lot at Shepperton studios outside London while some stagehands rocked a gondola, a projected stock film of the Grande Canal in Venice playing out behind them. A life burned and fixed in celluloid. One film. Even though there were a handful of others. Even with these it came to an abrupt end in 1968. Gone. And that one film is all that truly remains.
But surely there must be more. Her beauty demands it. Those eyes. That nose. The black collared neck. The definitive hair.
I have sought for her in the corners of Europe. A shot from a film premiere in Berlin in 1963 smiling to the side at some camera. A magazine image with John Lennon and Harry H. Corbett in swinging London in 1965. Looking uncomfortable between Pete and Dud. Not only but also Her cut scenes with Tony Hancock from Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. In Paris during the riots of 1968, looking afraid but excited. An Italian film magazine interview vacuous information. Favourite colours. She loves animals. Especially dogs. She likes Lake Como in the summer. Her favourite sweets are Rolos. Easy facts. Beauty tips and some cod politics. The Americans should leave Vietnam. Supporting Mohammed Ali. A trail. Vague and cold. But Europe is the place. Not Los Angeles. Not New York. Not Hollywood. Europe. And so I find myself in Rome. A tip. A hint. A whisper picked up from an autograph hunter in Stockholm. Sleazy Sven and his Bergmann celluloid stills.
Diary. Wednesday 13th July 2005
Rome. Thirty-three degrees heat. Ice cold Peroni in green bottles. Long views over domes and shattered columns. The dusty streets. Scooters buzzing their way through the traffic. Past cars, around pedestrians. A side street. Via del dimenticato. A grand house. Three storeys high. It looked as if it had seen better times. Perhaps a hundred years ago or in the black-shirted days of Mussolini. From here Count Monte Cristo watched the mascherata. Hitler called in for a Chianti. Now it was crumbling. Dirty windows and cracked stucco. Like plaque on an old womans unwashed dentures. A bright red graffiti tag stencilled just below the house number. Some kind of stylized rose.
It is eleven in the morning.
I rap my knuckles on a huge, shabby door and step back from the shade that covers the threshold into the sunshine. Nervously. Pessimistically.
After some echoing, the door opens a fraction. ‘Yes?’ an old woman queries in Italian. She peers beyond me, nervously, the door edging closed.
I explain the nature of my call in mono-syllabic English. To see Madame Bianchi.
The withered face looks at me suspiciously. Brown eyes hostile. ‘Il Madame Bianchi non è qui.‘
The old woman shakes her head. ‘No,’ she confirms. She is not here.
I sigh. ‘But she does live here?’
The old woman opens the door slightly wider and stares at me confrontationally. ‘What do you want with Madame Bianchi? Eh? Paparazzi?’
A fan, I explain. To pay my respects. Homage. I have travelled a long way – from England. Just to see Madame Bianchi
The old woman isn’t impressed. Her lips curl into a sneer. ‘Millionaires,’ she says, ‘have wept at this door for Madame Bianchi. Millionaires, I tell you. The gifts.’ Opening the door wider, she slaps the blistered paintwork with a claw before breaking off, pulling herself up. Her face cooling to a mask, she states: ‘I have already told you: il Madame Bianchi non è qui.’
I step forward cautiously before the door can be slammed on my hopes. A sudden fear grips me: that this is Daniela Bianchi. Her beauty withered to a prune. Skin the colour of cold coffee and etched like tooled leather by the closing decades of the twentieth Century. The appalling fear that the beautiful woman in the gondola with James Bond has turned into this old hag.
I mention a name. Not my own. French.
A look of uncertainty creeps into the old woman’s face. Leaning forwards, she glances down the street in both directions. She seems to be consulting some mental list. After a moments hesitation she opens the door.
I walk into the hallway, bracing myself for the faded glory of a Miss Haversham. Dust and the frozen moment. Maybe 1968. Giotto Stoppino and Kartel. The modular plastic dream tarnished yellow and fragile. Tainted steel and shabby glory. The smell of death and sadness.
But all I detect is the scent of wood polish and the aroma of lavender.
The old woman points to a chair. ‘You wait here,’ she instructs.
Nodding, I sit.
The old woman vanishes down a corridor, through a tall door.
Silence falls in the old house. The vague, deep-breasted ticking of a clock.
After fifteen minutes the old woman returns.
The old woman shuffles down a marble hall. I follow.
Im shown into a long, rectangular lounge with twin high windows facing onto a small sun bleached courtyard.
The furniture is obviously new and obviously expensive. Low white angular leather sofas and walnut cabinets. Brushed aluminium. A huge two-tier glass coffee table occupies the middle of the floor space. Magazines fill the bottom shelf. A copy of Prousts Swanns Way. A canvas dominates one wall. David Hockney. A blue sky and an even bluer swimming pool. A thin man with pale skin poised on the edge of a diving board. Across from the monochrome geometry of Victor Vasarely.
Two long nosed angular nudes of Modigliani with their secretly knowing smiles flank the fireplace.
Books in the chimney recess stacked on a white book case.
A door opens in a recess in a corner of the room.
As soon as she steps into the room I know its her. Even when she is a blur in the corner of my eye.
She smiles, a puzzled expression on her face. Bianchi regards me with mild amusement. She qualifies my introduction. A fan? she queries.
A big fan, I declare.
Prego, she acknowledges. I havent had one of them for some years.
She was still beautiful. Mellowed by years and the corners of her looks softened. But still beautiful. The eyes. The nose. The mouth.
I can smell her perfume.
Relief settled down and got comfortable in my chest.
I stutter something about her films. From Russia with love.
James Bond? Bianchi considered. Tatiana Romanova, she says, smiling. They dubbed my voice. She threw up her arms. My God, they even dubbed my legs! But still, I enjoyed it. The experience. I havent seen the film in years. Robert Shaw was very sexy. Very intelligent. I have always been attracted to intelligent men. They make good lovers but they are very difficult to live with. I should have liked to have seen Richard Burton in the role of Bond, she said.
Her early retirement? Life after?
I thought I might acquire a sort of Louise Brooks mystique when I retired from the films, she admitted. She shrugged. Instead I was simply forgotten.
Not by everyone, I stress. There are those who remember.
I was planning to make more films, she confesses. She leans back in the chair, her arms draped over the sides. She still had breasts. She rubs the knuckle of her index finger against her nose. But marriage, life she shrugs. I was due to play a role in Pasolinis next film following his completion of The Arabian Nights. It was to be my comeback. My marriage had floundered. I was looking for something to make me feel alive again. Work. And I had always admired Pasolini. Pier was such a beautiful person, she states. Have you read his books?
I confess my ignorance. Ive seen The Canterbury Tales, I say.
A masterpiece, Bianchi declares. But his books are the foundation of his genius.
I asked what type of film had been intended.
The Italian plays with her fringe, recalling. Long fingers with French polished nails. Cuticles shining like pebbles. Hed seen Where Eagles Dare and wanted to do something along those lines.
I frowned wonderingly. Pasolini doing a popular film? I queried, doubtful.
Bianchi nodded. Pasolini wanted his films to be enjoyed. Hed admired Sergio Leone. Leones success. An Italian who had achieved success outside Italy. And the way Leones films had entered easily into popular culture. He wanted a taste of that.
Youre saying he was going to do a Western?
Bianchi grins. No, no. She considers the point. Though that may have been interesting. He had planned a crime thriller. But based on real events. Set during the war and the years following.
What was the film about?
A look of excitement fills the film stars face. Gold, she says.
Bianchi folded her legs. Nazi gold. Some sets had been built at Cini Citta. Pier scouting locations. The Caracalla. Sardinia. Permission to film inside the Pantheon. Then the rumour got out that hed been looking for an actor to portray Ill Duce. He had visitors.
I angle my head inquisitively.
Bianchi bends forward. Mafiosi, she whispers.
I lean back, avoiding the word.
Bianchi nods, raising a dark eyebrow. The idea for the story came to him after a vacation in Sardinia. Local gossip. Rumours. The Nazis, Mussolini, a ship wrecked on purpose. Strange people who visited the island after the war. He spoke to a fisherman who told a story about being hired, sometime in the early 1950s, by some Germans who wanted to dive off the coast. Old Afrika Korps. Hed take them out, theyd pick the spot. Theyd dive and then theyd go back to Cagliari. Bianchi opened her palms. He didnt think anything much about it until one day one of them came to the surface with something.
I leant forward. What?
Bianchi grinned. The old fisherman only saw it for a moment. The German was careful to cover it up. But he was sure. It was a bar of gold. She pauses for a moment. The rime of the Ancient Mariner, yes? That was the premise. I saw the outline. A story. I think Pier had written it as a novella. Just for fun to begin with, an idea to play around with, impressions that he wanted to flesh out in prose. But as it progressed he had become more intrigued. It was all he talked about. The script was finished, Pasolini had even commissioned a soundtrack. Morrecone again. Theyd worked together often. He wanted something dramatic but with a tune.
Bianchi said: Pasolini started to believe his story was true.
I shrugged. What was wrong with that?
Bianchi leaned back comfortably on the sofa, her beautifully manicured hands touching the leather. It was dangerous. Bianchi rang a small glass bell that stood on the coffee table. Like I say, he was obsessed.
A few moments later, the old crone tottered through with a tray, the cups rattling.
I glanced at the old woman.
Isabella has been with me years, Bianchi said, intercepting my glance.
Isabella placed the tray down on the glass coffee table.
She is my bodyguard. Dont be fooled by the arthritic appearance. She masks her abilities.
The old woman blushed underneath her creased skin.
She backed out of the room.
‘So he became obsessed? I said, picking the story back up. I shrugged. I still couldnt see a problem.
One of the last times I saw Pier we lunched in Piazza della Rotonda. He was so enthusiastic about the idea. He read so many accounts, spoke to witnesses. He was obsessed. Truly. It was all that he spoke about. The story, the gold, the secrets involved and the people who had tried to find the treasure. And those who wanted to hide the secret. Like I say: he had come to believe that the fishermans story was true. That the gold existed. Bianchi smiled. The problem was that other people believed the story was true as well. Or knew it was true. And they believed that Pier knew more than he was saying.
Ah, I said, beginning to see the problem.
Bianchi shakes her head. You dont understand what Italy was then. Before politics became a joke. A prolonged TV advertisement for Senor Berlusconi. She looks at me, smiling. Do you think thats his natural hair colour?
I reflect the smile and ask her to explain.
Bianchi takes a deep breath, wearily. Finally she smiles at me. OK, she said. I will try. Anni di piombo, the years of lead. Death. Always killings. Communists and Fascists in one guise or another. And sometimes in both guises. Different names, splinter groups and factions. Red and black. A country of extremes. And so many people had survived the war. Survived it with many festering grudges. Private vengeance and a public struggle for the colour of the country. Despite the war, and the apparent defeat of fascism, the future of Italy had not been decided. Continental Europe was a mess. The permissive, colourful 1960s of Great Britain was a parody of the moral vacuum in the rest of Europe. Take what you want, you dont owe anyone anything. Pleasure for the sake of it. The terrorist groups in Germany. Bader Meinhoff. Anti-Imperialist movements active in France. Belgium. The uniformed masses clinging on to power. Seizing power. Fascists and Communists names now. For the moment, at least. And here in Italy we had the Brigate Rosse.’
The Red Brigade. Joe Strummer and his naïve t-shirt stamping one out about pensions to the glued up faithless at the 100 Club.
Bianchi nods at the name. The singer? Another middleclass political dilettante. A poser. Like Geldof and Bono. A pretend accent of egalitarianism. As Pasolini said: poliziotti figli di proletari meridionali picchiati da figli di papà in vena di bravat.
Interpreting my confused expression, she said: Policemen, the sons of working class labourers, attacked by middleclass Daddys boys during a fit of spiteful tantrums. That was Piers comment on 1968. Bianchi shook her head. England is such a moderate country, she smiles. Stable. You can afford to adopt the posture of anarchy and then settle down to cosy the middle-class lifestyle. Here in Italy things were very real. Imagine your Harold Wilson, kidnapped in 1974. Held to ransom, the story in the newspapers, Wilson making appeals on the television. And then Wilsons body left with a bullet hole through his head in the middle of Trafalgar Square. A bloody mannequin of the man he was. What he represented. That is Italy of the 1970s. It is in this climate that Pier wrote his books and made his films. And died.
I gave my understanding of the death of Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini in the Autumn of 1975. Murdered in the coastal port of Ostia, just outside Rome, near Da Vinci airport. Beaten to death by a rent boy and then broken and crushed under the wheels of his own car. Signed off like that by the authorities thirty years ago. Case closed.
Bianchi is unhappy with the account. Pelosi was a stooge. Everyone knew it. A fall guy. His admission of the murder full of gaps and inconsistencies. Yes, Pier was homosexual. It was well-known. He was not ashamed of who he was. But he didnt make an issue of it. He would not wanted to have been called a Gay Writer. He would have despised the idea. He was a writer who happened to be gay. But his homosexuality was convenient to the circumstances. To certain people. Make his death sleazy and shameful enough and no one will want to look into it. Not even his family and friends. Cruising for gay sex and killed by a spiteful rent boy. Bianchi gestured with her hands. It is not beautiful, no? Not something to be aired in front of children, the priests. Its a death in bad taste. So gloss over it for the memory of Pier. For the sake of his family. It is cleaner. Bury it. Not too many unpleasant details. Nothing to cause too much scandal and upset. Case closed, as you say. Bianchi nodded. Clever, she conceded. Very clever.
I mention the other theories.
Bianchi scoffed: That he staged his own death? Like a work of art? Clues and fore-shadowings in his work? The film star dismissed the notion. You want to know who really killed Pier?
Mussolini, Bianchi declares.
Mussolini? I query skeptically.
Bianchi smiles at me. I feel warmth seep into my tired bones. Dont worry, I am not crazy. She tapped her temple. I dont mean that Mussolini drove the car over poor Piers body. No. Mussolini had been dead thirty years by then. Hung, buried, dug up, taken for a trip around Italy in the boot of a Fiat, and re-buried. But still Il Duce was behind the killing.
I dont understand.
Bianchi frowns. I was born during the war. To me those times are not so incredible. Not so distant. Like for you the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, she grins, or even your old James Bond films. Time itself is not so long its that human life is so short. And humans are so arrogant. It is only as we become older that we come to appreciate both the painful brevity and yet the reassuring continuity of it all. We are all not so far apart. And for my generation the war is yesterday.
I find that somehow comforting, yet at the same time it brings frustration.
Bianchi says: And so from the grave in Predappio to protect his loot, Mussolini stretches out his hand.
Leaning back into the leather sofa, I grin. Were back to Rommells Gold. Hidden treasure. Lost secrets. Dead mens loot.
Bianchi says: Youre unconvinced?
I confess to a certain amount of doubt.
Bianchi nods her head. I too was dubious to begin with. Until after Piers death. She looked at me speculatively for a few moments. Her long nose angled downwards. She seemed to come to a decision. Smiling she said: When Pier’s last present to me arrived. A bar of gold. A present from the Wehrmacht.