They were a musical family. When he wasn’t dictating, Benito liked to play violin for hours on end. But, even at a young age, musically Romano disdained Il Duce in favor of Il Duke: his older brother Vittorio gave him a record of Ellington doing “Black Beauty,” the first jazz Romano ever heard, and he was hooked. Being decadent and Negro, it wasn’t the easiest music to come by in Fascist Italy, but Romano sought it out wherever he could. “I remember the first time I heard a Louis Armstrong record,” he said. “The sound was so beautiful I cried.” American 78s were available in Rome under Italianized names—Louis Armstrong was sold as “Luigi Fortebraccio.” His brother Vittorio would return from trips abroad with the latest Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Romano got more pleasure listening to King Oliver than his dad ever got from listening to King Victor Emmanuel.
In later life, Romano would protest that his father’s antipathy to jazz was much exaggerated and that he greatly enjoyed Fats Waller. Hard to imagine the dictator singing along to “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” or “Your Feet’s Too Big.” By 1943, it was Mussolini whose feats were too big: he’d projected Italian power far beyond its credible limits and, after military humiliations and the Anglo-American landings on Sicily, he was fired by the king only to be snatched by the Nazis and installed in Gargnano as head of the “Italian Social Republic.” A chippy teenager, young Romano was wont to offend their German benefactors by playing boogie-woogie in their presence. Despite being born to neo-imperial destiny, he was already running away from the Circus Maximus. After the lynching of his father and the close of the war, he ended up with his mother and sister in exile on the isle of Ischia, where the only jazz was at the local barber shop and he liked to sit in on guitar.
When he returned to the mainland in the 1950s, he performed as “Romano Full” until he discovered that his father’s name, far from repelling customers, was actually a commercial plus. While members of the House of Savoy were forbidden to set foot in the new Italian republic, members of the House of Mussolini were relatively untroubled. It was Romano’s musical associations that caused him problems, not his political ones. “At that time it was very dangerous to have contact with him because the police investigated everyone,” he recalled, but he was talking about the famously drugged-up Chet Baker rather than any old-time fascist.
If you were making a movie of his life, it’d be a cinch: the young man finds in wild improvisatory American jazz all the freedom he’s been denied by his oppressive Fascist background. In fact, if you asked him, Romano Mussolini would cheerfully concede he agreed with “90 percent” of his father’s policies, and, apropos the murkier 10 percent, there weren’t many other Fascist scions who could plead in mitigation that some of their best session players were Jewish. In the last couple of years, he began turning out coffee-table books about Daddy that proved big sellers. Alessandra Mussolini, his daughter by his first wife (Sophia Loren’s sister), went into politics in the nineties and, though dismissed as a pleasingly underdressed slice of neo-Fascist cheesecake, has become a player in Italian coalition-building. A couple of weeks ago, Colonel Qaddafi threatened attacks against Rome unless the government paid reparations to Libya for colonialism. Alessandra was having none of it. “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather, they would still be riding camels with turbans on their heads,” she said. “They are the ones who should be paying us compensation, because it was a positive colonization. Fascism exported democracy, as well as roads, houses, and schools.” It may yet be that Romano was only a musical interlude before the resumption of the family business.
He was proud of his daughter. When she founded her current party, Social Alternative, he chipped in by composing the official anthem, “The Pride of Being Italian.” The lyric’s somewhat generic, but Alessandra’s recording of it is spirited:
Together for the future
The pride of being Italian
The ideals that unite us are our truth.
Romano Mussolini’s funeral is surely one of the few to feature both “When the Saints Go Marching In” (inside the church) and Fascist salutes (outside the church, from Italians pining for a new duce). It was the first time the twin threads of his life had come together since the last time he saw his father, on the morning of April 17, 1945, at Lake Garda. “I was playing Franz Lehar’s Merry Widow on the piano,” he wrote. “The composer had given my father the original score, and he reacted with enthusiasm whenever it was played. I thought he would stand and listen to me for a few moments.” Instead, the dictator embraced his boy, said “Ciao, Romano,” and before going out to the waiting car, gave a final salute. Eleven days later, he was caught by Communist partisans, executed, and hanged at the Esso station.
His last words to his son: “Keep playing.”