In 1920, at the age of just twenty-seven, a young Italian named Dino Segre, writing under the pen name Pitigrilli, achieved notoriety with a book of short stories called Luxurious Breasts, followed the next year by the novel Cocaine and a second book of stories entitled The Chastity Belt.
Behind Italy’s official façade of bourgeois morality, traditional family life, and patriotism, Pitigrilli saw a world driven by sex, power and greed, in which adultery, illegitimate children, and hypocrisy were the order of the day and husbands and wives were little more than respectable-seeming pimps and prostitutes. Born in Turin, Segre himself had been the illegitimate child of a Jewish father—also named Dino Segre—and a young Catholic mother. (His father did not marry his mother until their child was eight years old.) In his work he delighted in turning conventional morality on its head, along with most of the Ten Commandments:
Never tell the truth. A lie is a weapon. I speak of useful, necessary lies. A useless lie is as unpleasant and odious as a useless homicide…
Do not covet thy neighbour’s wife, but if you do covet her, take her away freely. When in the theatre, on the tram or in a woman’s bed, if there is a free place, take it before someone else does…
Hate your neighbour as you love yourself: and don’t forget that revenge is a great safety valve for our pain…. Believe me: a good digestion is worth much more than all the ideas of humanity…
Honesty, duty, brotherhood and altruism are like supernatural phenomena: everyone describes them but nobody has seen them; when you get closer, either they don’t happen or there’s a trick behind it… (The Chastity Belt)
Pitigrilli’s cynical amorality captured something of the spirit of Italy in the early 1920s, a society that emerged from World War I with many of its traditional beliefs in pieces. The calls to glory and sacrifice and national renewal had proven cruel illusions, with the death and mutilation of millions having resulted in but a few minor territorial changes. Meanwhile, traditional pillars of society—such as the Catholic Church and the country’s economic and political elite—had lost much of their authority. In Paris and Turin, where he worked as a writer and journalist, Pitigrilli cavorted with society’s upper crust, which experimented with theosophy, occult séances, gambling, and narcotics as means of replacing the old certainties of church and fatherland.
In Cocaine, perhaps his most successful effort at a sustained narrative, Pitigrilli describes a world of cocaine dens, gambling parlors, orgies, lewd entertainment, and séances. His main character Tito Arnaudi is a failed medical student who has just been hired as a journalist in Paris, where begins to investigate cocaine dens in order to write an article for a Paris newspaper appropriately named The Fleeting Moment. In the course of his research, he indulges in the white powder, which for a time acts as a kind of welcome balm, giving one “a sense not just of euphoria, but of boundless optimism and a special kind of receptivity to insults.”
The principal occupation of the characters of Cocaine is distracting themselves from the horrors of real life. In searching for any kind of thrill or stimulation, they resort to “the fashionable poisons of the moment, the wild exaltation they produce, the craze for ether and chloroform and the white Bolivian powder that produces hallucinations.” As Tito’s lover (or one of his lovers), Kalantan, tells him:
“There’s still hope for you…. You haven’t yet got to the stage of tremendous depression, of insuperable melancholy. Now you smile when you have the powder in your blood. You’re at the early stage in which you go back to childhood.”
She spoke to him as to a child, though they were both of the same age. Cocaine achieves the cruel miracle of distorting time.
Kalantan is a wealthy Armenian woman whom Tito meets on the cusp of widowhood. A drug addict as well, she keeps a black coffin in her bedroom for making love. She explains her curious habit thus:
It’s comfortable and delightful. When I die they’ll shut me up in it forever, and all the happiest memories of my life will be in it…. It also offers another advantage. When it’s over I’m left alone, all alone; it’s the man who has to go away. Afterwards I find the man disgusting. Forgive me for saying so, but afterwards men are always disgusting. Either they follow the satisfied male’s impulse and get up as quickly as they do from a dentist’s chair, or they stay close to me out of politeness or delicacy of feeling; and that revolts me, because there’s something in them that is no longer male.
At a certain point, Tito’s two principal drugs, cocaine and sex, fuse in the figure of Maud, the main female character; Pitigrilli begins to call her Cocaine, since he becomes equally addicted to both at the same time. Maud too is a kind of addict, distracting herself by having sex with a procession of men, in some cases for money and in others for pleasure. She makes no effort to hide her activities from Tito, who follows her to South America in hopes of having her entirely to himself. The affair with Maud follows the course that addiction to cocaine generally follows: leading from initial euphoria to increasing desperation and psychological collapse. When Tito finally does himself in, Maud and Tito’s best friend Pietro attend to him on his deathbed. Struck by Tito’s final despair, they vow to give up their lives of excess but soon fall into bed with one another, ending the novel on a note of Pitigrillian cynicism, in which despair is leavened by bitter laughter.
Cocaine appeared in 1921; the following year, Benito Mussolini and his fascist party came to power after the so-called March on Rome. Interestingly, Mussolini, himself a deep cynic and perhaps the shrewdest interpreter of the post-World War I mood, appears to have been a fan of Pitigrilli’s novels. When the books were attacked for their immorality, Mussolini defended them: “Pitigrilli is right…. Pitigrilli is not an immoral writer; he photographs the times. If our society is corrupt, it’s not his fault.”
But as Mussolini’s fascism evolved from a transgressive, radical opposition movement into Italy’s new political order, Pitigrilli was bound to be regarded with increasing suspicion. Much of his withering sarcasm was directed at the patriotic and nationalistic nostrums that were the sacred gospel of fascism. In The Chastity Belt, Pitigrilli would write: “Fatherland is a word that serves to send sheep to slaughter in order to serve the interests of the shepherds who stay safely at home.” In 1926, Pitigrilli was put on trial for obscenity and narrowly acquitted. Two years later, he was arrested in Turin for alleged “antifascist activities.”
But the case against Pitigrilli turned out like an episode in one of his novels, in which all the basest human instincts took on the mask of political principle and patriotism. What appears to have happened was this: some people eager to take over the editorship of Pitigrilli’s successful magazine, Le Grandi Firme (The Big Names), convinced one of his former lovers, the writer Amalia Guglieminetti, to destroy him. Guglieminetti was a society woman with literary ambitions, who dressed like a flapper and carried a long cigarette holder; she could have come straight out of the pages of Cocaine. Guglieminetti had taken up with Pietro Brandimarte, a powerful local fascist official, after her relationship with the writer ended, and she agreed to supply Pitigrilli’s enemies with personal letters written in his hand. These letters allegedly contained insults to Mussolini and fascism. But the forgeries were so crude that Pitigrilli was able to expose them at trial, forcing Guglieminetti to break down and confess on the witness stand.
Perhaps because of his sense of extreme vulnerability, Pitigrilli appears to have begun to work at ingratiating himself with the fascist regime. In 1931, he sent a new book to Mussolini with the following dedication: “To Benito Mussolini, the man above all adjectives.” And by the mid-1930s he became an extremely active and prolific spy of the OVRA, fascist Italy’s secret political police force. What makes his contributions especially intriguing is that he informed on a very rich and interesting circle of intellectuals and writers who would go on to become important parts of Italy’s anti-fascist cultural elite: the publisher Giulio Einaudi, Leone Ginzburg and his future wife Natalia, the painter and writer Carlo Levi, and the circle of Adriano and Paola Olivetti. Pitigrilli’s sudden usefulness to the secret police was sparked by a specific event: the arrest in March of 1934 of a young Turinese Jew, Sion Segre, who happened to be Pitigrilli’s first cousin. Sion Segre had been caught trying to smuggle into Italy from Switzerland a raft of newspapers and leaflets of an organization called Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), the main non-Communist left-of-centre anti-fascist group, whose leaders were living in exile in Paris. Following Sion Segre’s capture, fascist police arrested fourteen others suspected of ties to the organization. Nine of the alleged conspirators were from Jewish families and some of the Italian newspapers reported the story by referring to a Jewish anti-fascist conspiracy, the first ominous note of an anti-Semitic campaign in Italy.
Why did Pitigrilli—or rather, Dino Segre—lend himself to such a distasteful operation, spying on his own first cousin and his friends? The answer is purely speculative, but Pitigrilli’s own writings offer some obvious clues. In an autobiographical book published after World War II, entitled Pitigrilli Parla di Pitigrilli (Pitigrilli Speaks About Pitigrilli), he reveals that he loathed his first cousin and the Jewish half of his family. His father’s well-to-do Jewish family never fully accepted Pitigrilli’s mother as a daughter-in-law and did not treat the illegitimate product of their union—the younger Dino Segre—as a true grandson. Pitigrilli’s description of his father’s family is laced with deep, anti-Semitic hatred.
I was eight years old when my father and mother married and all the Jewry descended on my house: my grandmother, aunt, the crazy uncle, my cousins. My mother opened her living room to a flock of petulant, know-it-all parrots related to my grandmother, my aunt and uncle, who tolerated my mother from a distance, and bent over me with their disdainful nostrils, asking me to name the capital of Sweden, in order to show that if one doesn’t have the benefit of circumcision one cannot know what their sons know.
Clearly, his early experience as an illegitimate child—with a deep desire to avenge himself on the supposedly more respectable world that snubbed him and his mother—was highly formative. Pitigrilli reserved his most withering cynicism for those high-minded people who actually imagined that they were acting out of principle. A character in the novel L’esperimento di Pott (published in English in 1932 as The Man Who Searched for Love) remarks, “I am afraid of incorruptible people. They are the easiest to corrupt. Corruptible people have their price: it’s only a question of the amount. Sometimes, luckily, the price is so high that no one reaches it. But incorruptible people are really dangerous, because they…are corrupted not by money but by words.”
This is almost certainly how the anti-fascists of Giustizia e Libertà would have appeared to Pitigrilli: young, idealistic people who were ready to face prison for their ideas and who also tended to look down on a popular writer like Pitigrilli as not altogether serious. In fact, Vittorio Foa, one of the young men whom Pitigrilli spied on, noted that one of the older members of their group did object to Pitigrilli because of the immorality of his books. “We thought that was very funny at the time, but maybe he was right,” Foa told me fifty years after the fact. Pitigrilli’s cynical epigrams may have served as a kind of justification for his spying activities: “What could be more relative than an idea? A man is a traitor or a martyr depending on whether you look at it on one side of the border or another.” In retrospect, Foa surmised that Pitigrilli may have been motivated by a kind of perverse instinct, “the pleasure of doing harm to others.”
Pitigrilli’s career as a spy peaked in 1935, the year in which his secret reports led to the arrest of Foa and some fifty other suspected anti-fascists, many of whom, like Foa, spent the next several years in prison. Pitigrilli suspected that his great triumph might diminish his power as a spy. He actually suggested to the fascist police that he too be arrested with the others to deflect suspicion from himself and retain his utility as an informant. The police did not follow up on this suggestion and word trickled out from those in prison that Pitigrilli had been the traitor.
In 1936, the fascist regime stopped the reprinting of most of his books and in 1938 Pitigrilli himself fell victim to Mussolini’s racial laws. A note from the fascist secret police in 1939 states: “We thank you for all you’ve done up until now for us, but given the present situation we are compelled to renounce your further collaboration.” For the purposes of the fascist bureaucracy, he was thenceforth known as “the well-known Jewish writer Dino Segre, alias Pitigrilli.”
During the war, he continued to write self-pitying letters to Mussolini pleading for recognition as an Aryan so that he could work freely:
Rome, 25 March 
I understand that my little personal troubles are irrelevant to the great historical drama of the moment. But since you, with a word, can resolve my situation…I ask you to consider it: you will see at first sight that my request for recognition of belonging to the Aryan race is legitimate, since I have all the requisites required by the law.
Remove me, Duce, from this unjust, degrading and paradoxical situation, in which I am forced to work in secret, to suffer the pettiness of rivals and to continue boring you with my tedious tale….
But the letters seem to have gone nowhere and Pitigrilli fled to Switzerland at the time of the German occupation. Paradoxically, while shunned by the fascists for being a Jew, his record as an informant also put him at risk of prosecution after the war, and he emigrated to Argentina, that refuge of many fascists and Nazis fleeing possible arrest and punishment. Later in life, he drifted back to Italy, but his reputation had diminished to the point that almost no one noticed. He died in 1975 in near total obscurity.
Adapted from Alexander Stille’s afterword to Cocaine by Pitigrilli, translated by Eric Mosbacher, which has just been published by New Vessel Press.