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Il Duce’s Brain

In response to:

A Shrine to Mussolini from the February 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Both Sergio Luzzatto’s fine book, The Body of Il Duce, and Amos Elon’s wonderful review [NYR, February 23] left out a macabre but interesting final detail that perhaps deserves to be better known. In her memoirs Mussolini’s widow, Rachele, tells how in 1966, nine years after her husband’s burial in the crypt built for him at Predappio, several men with foreign accents visited her bearing what they said was a slice of Mussolini’s brain wrapped in cellophane. One of these men, and it was he who confirmed the story to me, was the late Merritt N. Cootes, a former American consul general in Florence. Cootes used to say that the strangest mission in a lifetime spent in the Foreign Service was his flight across the Atlantic with an attaché case handcuffed to his wrist that contained a piece of Il Duce’s brain.

One of the goals of the autopsy ordered by the American authorities in Milan in 1945 had been to obtain a piece of Il Duce’s brain to send to Washington. Presumably scientific motives were alleged, but this was also a trophy—a twentieth-century version of Pompey’s head sent to Caesar in a basket. By 1966, after all of the fuss over Mussolini’s burial, and after rapprochement between the Christian Democrats and the neo-Fascists, Washington realized that the obscure former trophy would become a liability should the neo-Fascists, with their new cult centered on Mussolini’s corpse, find out about it. And so the slice of brain was discreetly restored to a dumbfounded Rachele Mussolini.

Stories of superpower involvement in postwar Italy are often quite extravagant, but this one really happened.

William J. Connell

Professor of History and La Motta Chair

Seton Hall University

South Orange, New Jersey

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