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An Unlikely Family Romance

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Alexander Stille
Alexander Stille’s parents, Elizabeth and Misha, in Europe, 1950s

One night in the early 1980s, the protean and immensely learned Italian journalist known to readers as Ugo Stille arrived at my door in Paris, followed by a stream of Portuguese curses echoing down the courtyard from the window of the concierge’s lodge. Misha, as Stille’s friends called him (though, like me, not many of them knew why), had been the American correspondent of Corriere della Sera for more than thirty years and was arguably its most respected writer. He lived in New York with his American wife, Elizabeth, and had stopped in Paris on his way home to her from a “command performance,” as he described it, at the paper’s Milan headquarters, where he had just managed to resist the blandishments of a board of directors determined to name him editor-in-chief—a job he reluctantly took a few years later. He had asked me to choose a restaurant where the food was good, the tourists scarce, and the privacy sufficient for a few hours of collegial gossip about all the interesting things we knew but couldn’t print.

Misha, at least to his friends, was a captivating man, and I had no idea what he could have done to enrage my concierge. Her name was Mme Goncalves, and at the time I was so taken with her eccentric but extremely acute outsider’s views on her adopted country and its persistent crises that I had started writing about her. People were curious. A reporter from one of the news magazines had rung her bell a few weeks earlier to ask if she “existed.” She had picked up her broom, her weapon of choice in matters of self-assertion, and literally swept him out of the porte cochere and onto the sidewalk. Misha—I should have guessed this—had asked her the same thing.

My concierge existed, but it turns out that Ugo Stille wasn’t so sure that he did. A few pages into The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, Alexander Stille’s artful and formidably researched reconstruction of the two worlds that had produced his parents and their angry, improbably enduring marriage, the Stilles go to a party, perhaps in Rome or Florence, and meet the Italian novelist Antonio Tabucchi. Tabucchi is known not only for his fiction but for his masterly translations—most notably of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a literary trickster who wrote under a dozen names and in a dozen distinct and utterly persuasive styles. Tabucchi is, as Alexander Stille notes, particularly drawn to writers like Pessoa—Borges and Pirandello among them—“who played with multiple identities and the fragile, fictional, and provisional nature of identity.”

The Stille whom Tabucchi reads in Corriere is “Ugo,” the famous foreign correspondent with the peculiar byline (stille means “silent” in German), and now he is meeting “Misha,” who, while undeniably the same person, is neither Ugo nor Stille nor, by birth, Italian. “And so, Ugo Stille really exists!” he says, by way of a playful greeting to a man rarely, if ever, seen in Italy. Stille is not pleased. “Of course I exist,” he snaps—which, of course, is exactly what Mme Goncalves said to him, before she started shouting.

Who was Ugo Stille? And what was the “marriage in war and peace” he made with a well-born WASP beauty from Chicago named Elizabeth Bogert—an arty, impulsive girl from a world almost comically different from his own? To begin with, Ugo Stille was a Russian Jew, born in Moscow, in 1919, as Mikhail Kamenetzki. His father, Ilya, was a successful dentist and his mother, Sara, a wistful, cultivated, bourgeois housewife who escaped the tedium of a decorous life by filling their apartment with similarly wistful, cultivated, bourgeois people. The family fled Russia after the revolution, by way of Latvia, where his sister, Myra, known to the family as Lally, was born, and settled in Italy—first in Naples and Formia and, eventually, in Rome—where Mikhail became “Michele” and Kamenetzki went through an assortment of Italian transliterations, none, however, entirely clear to the native ear.

What was clear, early on, was that the newly minted Italian boy Michele was exceptional. He grew up—short, stocky, and spectacled—with a book always in his hand (philosophy, history, poetry, anything uncontaminated by Italy’s reigning ideology), and a passion for ideas. In 1937, entering the University of Rome, he was quickly welcomed into a circle of brainy, progressive students bound by a common contempt for fascism and an uncommon talent for milking Il Duce’s mock imperium for whatever privileges they could wrest from it—the most appealing being access to the university’s foreign-film club and to the banned library books that students less duplicitous were not allowed to read. For these salutary pleasures, they marched in uniform in the university’s paramilitary drills, turning long, goose-stepping, black-shirted mornings into ambulatory conversations on all things literary and philosophical.

Survival ran in the Kamenetzki family. By the late 1930s, Misha’s father, whose Russian dental degree was not recognized in Italy, had long since switched the name on his door and his license to that of an obliging (and paid to be) Italian colleague, and by the time that prestanome denounced him, had acquired so many powerful fascist patients that the police had no choice but to let him keep filling teeth. He was still practicing when the country’s anti-Jewish laws went into effect in the fall of 1938, and even a year later, when Mussolini made his infamous “pact of steel” with Hitler. Misha’s mother continued to fill her Rome salotto every Sunday, the difference being that now those evenings of talk and food were spiked with a heady amount of diasporic intrigue. The Kamenetzkis were officially stateless, gradually disappearing beyond the pale of any legitimate public life (something that wasn’t supposed to happen to secular, integrated, urban Jews with good connections and busy lives). For a while, like Berlin’s far less fortunate Jewish bourgeoisie, they clung to a waning certainty that the madness would pass before it got to them. But not for long. According to the documents that his grandson has unearthed, Ilya Kamenetzki was already negotiating ways to leave before war broke out.

It was during this interregnum between hope and reality that Misha became Ugo Stille, or rather half of Ugo Stille—the other half being a brilliant Italian classmate by the name of Giaime Pintor, who was in some ways the love of his life, or, you could say, the Etienne de la Boétie to his Michel de Montaigne. It didn’t matter that both boys were enthusiastically heterosexual. In Alexander Stille’s telling, drawn in large part from Pintor’s diaries, they shared a quality of mind and a trust in each other’s counsel that ran so deep they were able to publish under the same name, in a student magazine called Oggi: “Ugo,” for a friend they liked, and “Stille,” which had to do with either the misreading of a German poem or, more likely, the silenced voices of writers in a fascist state. In the event, “Ugo Stille” began appearing weekly, sometimes courtesy of Giaime and, in time more frequently, of Misha—both of whom by some miracle stayed safely anonymous in the perilous world of fascist censorship. Giaime wasn’t Jewish. The two friends wrote in the knowledge that separation was inevitable: Misha would have to emigrate soon, or stay to be deported, or worse.

The Kamenetzkis got out just in time, thanks to the sponsorship of a Jewish businessman in New York whose patience saw them through an anguishing few years of wrangling exit permits and American visas, and also, apparently, to Ilya’s connections and his way with teeth, which had earned him a “personal testimony” from none other than Gabriele D’Annunzio: a letter of fulsome gratitude for putting his “dedication” and “dental art” at the service of the poet’s Fiume Legionnaires during their siege and occupation of that city—a year when he was in fact still practicing in Moscow and had almost certainly never seen Italy—much less the Croatian coast. (It seems that one of his patients had been D’Annunzio’s mistress.) Misha’s exit papers came through the good graces of a young priest named Giovanni Montini, who went on to become Pope Paul VI.

They were safe in New York, but exhausted, knowing no one, their connections gone, their émigré gloss fading in the refugee shtetl of 1940s Upper West Side Manhattan. As Alexander Stille describes his grandparents, even their appearance changed, or, more accurately, they had lost the energy and the appetite for keeping up appearances. Lally, having been forbidden by law to matriculate in Rome, escaped into an office job, and became seriously obese and even more seriously strange. (She never married.) Misha, on the other hand, was drafted. He was sent back to Italy, attached to the psychological warfare unit of the Army’s Sicilian landing, and, to no one’s surprise, immediately proved himself to be indispensible. At twenty-three, he was running Radio Palermo, the first free station in Italy. When the Allies moved north against the Wehrmacht, he moved with them, opening airways as the Germans fled.

He was twenty-five and back in New York when he wrote his first column for Corriere. He signed it Ugo Stille, in memory of his friend Giaime, who had been killed trying to cross the linea gotica and reach the Partisans still fighting in the north—and that, for all public purposes, was the end of Mikhail Kamenetzki. While the rest of the family faded into obscurity in New York, Misha became something of a hero. He seems to have met everyone who mattered in Manhattan, not to mention Washington. He had access everywhere. He was sought after, taken up, invited to the best parties—a witty, cultivated, highly informed, genuine European intellectual gracing the tables of New York literati who couldn’t speak, let alone read, a word of Italian themselves.

One night in New York, in the late 1940s, Elizabeth Bogert went to one of those parties: a very grand party for Truman Capote, who had just published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. She arrived with a husband in tow, and left with Ugo Stille. “This very intense, rather peculiar-looking guy came up to me and started talking to me in the most fascinating way” is how she once described the encounter to Alexander. By dawn she was in Misha’s arms. A few months and a Virgin Islands divorce later, they were engaged.

They had this in common: he was the Kamenetzki who got away and she was the Bogert who got away, given that she had defied the expectations of a prominent heartland family best described as deeply rooted in place, identity, conviction, and convention. Her father, George Gleason Bogert, was a University of Chicago law professor whose thirteen-volume Bogert on Trusts was for years considered the definitive text on trust and estate law in the United States. Her mother, Lolita, ran a large household, entertained the Chicago faculty with home dinner dances, had one chaste fling (conducted entirely by correspondence), and devoted herself to promoting politicians sympathetic to what in mid-century Illinois passed for progressive causes. Elizabeth was close to her mother and apparently wary of her father, by most accounts a domestic despot who couldn’t tolerate the sound of children playing.

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