He Made the Refrains Run on Time

Romano Mussolini (1927–2006)

Back in the sixties, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Britain’s leading psychedelic novelty group, recorded a number called “The Intro and the Outro.” You know that moment when you see some act live onstage and midway through the set they do an extended if not interminable beginning to the song so the leader can introduce every member of the band individually? Well, that’s what the Bonzos did:

Hi there, nice to be with you, happy you could stick around. Like to introduce “Legs” Larry Smith, drums …

Only in this case the intro never stopped. After the real band members and some genuine special guests—“Eric Clapton on ukulele”—Viv Stanshall moved on to some even more unlikely soloists:

Princess Anne on sousaphone …
Looking very relaxed, Adolf Hitler on vibes …
Yeah! Digging General de Gaulle on accordion …
Really wild, General! Thank you, sir!

I would like to have seen Adolf Hitler on vibes. The closest I came was one night in the nineties, in London at a jazz boîte called Pizza on the Park: up onstage, looking very relaxed, Mussolini on piano … Not Il Duce himself, but the son of, Romano. Mussolini père wound up hanging with his mistress at that gas station; Mussolini fils preferred to hang with Chet Baker and Lionel Hampton at hot nightclubs.

Junior seemed in better shape than Pop did at that age, and not just because at that age Pop was getting strung up in the Piazzale Loreto. Romano was similarly bald but taller and thinner than Benito. Your initial reaction was that he’d make a much more photogenic dictator than Dad, but then you noticed that he was way too mellow. You can get away with being short and looking like you’re bustin’ your blackshirt if you’ve got the requisite 24/7 passionate intensity. It was just about possible to imagine Romano as an amused 007 villain—“I’m afraid you’re beginning to bore me, Mr. Bond”—but not conquering Ethiopia. The closest family resemblance was the pudgy fingers with which he plunked the ivories.

Romano played, to my ears, like a slightly melancholic Oscar Peterson. Occasionally inspired, he was always efficient: he made the refrains run on time. To be honest, I’d only gone to see him because I liked the whimsy in his moniker—“The Romano Mussolini All-Stars.” They weren’t all-stars, just solid Italian molto hip cats; the only star quality, as he recognized early on in his career, was the enduring potency, or at any rate curiosity value, of his pa’s name. But the designation hinted at least at the possibility of some A-list combo of second-generation dictatorial talent. There was a comic in London in those days called Bing Hitler, but I don’t believe he was a blood relative—and, come to think about it, he’s since dropped the Hitler handle and gone on to great success as CBS late-night host Craig Ferguson. The Führer and Eva Braun died without issue and, according to most experts, without much heavy petting. But if only the Mussolini All-Stars had lived up to their billing: Artie Hitler on clarinet, Miles Tse Tung on trumpet, Woody Stalin, Buddy Franco …

I was introduced to him after the show and, of course, everyone was way too cool to ask about Dad or the old days. So instead he made the kind of standard jazz small talk that non–jazz buffs find so tedious—all Dizzy this and Monk that—but with a beguiling accent that made me swear at one point he’d referenced a song called “Fascisnatin’ Rhythm.” The conversation had a surreal frisson, like running into Uday and Qusay at a pro-celeb golf tournament and chitchatting about Tiger as you play a couple of holes. If you want to escape the sins of the father, going into jazz is a smart move: unlike men bent on world domination, which by definition obliges one to keep an eye on the far horizon, not least when posing for official portraits, the jazz scene tends to the self-absorbed. Half these fellows are barely cognizant of what continent they’re on, never mind who’s oppressing it. During his sojourn in Italy forty-five years ago, Chet Baker played a stint with Romano at the Bussola in Viareggio. There’s a famous story that, after their first set together, it was pointed out to Chet whose son Romano was. The trumpeter went over to the piano and commiserated: “Gee, it’s a drag about your old man.” Romano always professed to have no memory of the exchange—“Chet and I never discussed politics”—but Caterina Valente, the Continental chanteuse with whom they toured, claims to have been present and insists it happened.

The prototype fascist’s youngest son was named for the glorious new imperium already under way by the time he was born in 1927. Romano had a happy childhood in a close-knit family: four siblings, one duce, one mom, two tortoises, two ponies, two parrots, two gazelles, two lions, a monkey, and a jaguar. The youngster had fond memories of his pa’s signature pose—fists on hips, jutting jaw, looking like either a visionary leader or a bitch waiter at Coconut Grove when you send back the curly endive. Apparently, Dad liked to adopt the stance not just to whip up the masses below the balcony but around the house as well, though more “playfully.”

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.”

Romano did.