Combative writer Fallaci dies at 77

Italian author-journalist famed for her fearless interviewing style

September 17, 2006|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,Los Angeles Times

ROME -- She cornered ayatollahs and challenged dictators. She was glamorous, fearless and always provocative.

Oriana Fallaci, Italian author and globe-trotting journalist whose interviews produced piercing portraits of world leaders for decades, but who in later years channeled her energies into bitter diatribes against Islam, died Friday, her publisher said.

Miss Fallaci, who never married and had no children, was 77 and had been suffering from cancer. She died at a private hospital in Florence, where she had arrived recently from New York, aware that her health was failing, the RCS publishing group said in a statement.

Raised in a family of anti-Fascist resistance fighters, Miss Fallaci went on to become one of the most renowned journalists of her time, conducting interviews of the world's most powerful people, including Deng Xiaopeng, Henry Kissinger, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Golda Meir.

One secret to her success was her ability to disarm her subjects with blunt candor and exotic good looks that masked (though not always) what she described as deep rage at the arrogance of power. And she was never afraid to take a position, nor to offend.

Her life was one of celebrity, self-involved theatrics and high drama. She got shot during student protests in Mexico, covered the Vietnam War (managing even there to maintain her mascara and eyeliner thick and dark), and insulted Federico Fellini. She shed her chador in front of the ayatollah, bickered with Yasser Arafat and got Mr. Kissinger to admit the futility of Vietnam.

Accolades poured in for the combative writer, some with caveats because of the vitriolic and often bigoted nature of her final essays on what she called the Muslim invasion of Europe and the Islamic assault on Western values. Even so, she won praise in some quarters for daring to articulate the visceral fears of Europeans and Americans confronted and confounded by Muslim immigrants who refuse to assimilate.

"We have lost a journalist of world fame, an author of great editorial success, a passionate protagonist of lively cultural battles," Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said.

Rage, and hefty ego, permeated Miss Fallaci's writings, as well as her flamboyant style and her approach to subjects. With a cigarette permanently dangling from her fingers (even after her first cancer surgery, she continued to smoke), she excoriated those who abused power, whether they were politicians or denizens of the cultural elite. She seemed to think that having power inevitably corrupts. And she believed journalism was the perfect weapon to fight back.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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