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.


Alexander Stille

Misha, right, as a child in Naples

Alexander Stille remembers yearly visits to the Bogerts’ summer home in Michigan, where he and the other grandchildren were consigned to a guest house on the property, the purpose of which was to keep their shrieks of laughter from reaching the great man, busy at his desk. More to the point, Bogert may or may not have abused Elizabeth when she was an adolescent. (The story she told her son changed with each retelling.) In any case, she longed for a different life. She left Cornell, where her father had once taught, to study art in Chicago at the New Bauhaus (known, by then, as the School of Design) with, among others, its founder, László Moholy-Nagy. She broke an engagement to the well-connected (and soon-to-be well-known) young Cornell historian Clinton Rossiter, who was trying to set her on a course of self-improvement that involved learning shorthand and typing his manuscripts. As he put it in a letter that Alexander Stille unearthed, these skills “would be a tremendous help to me in my career.”

She married her painting teacher instead, and moved to New York in the expectation of a job for him at Brooklyn College. His name was Robert Wolff and his only similarity to Misha Stille, whom he met once, at that fateful book party, was that they were both Jews. You could say that, in this, he opened the way for Misha with Elizabeth’s parents—if not, entirely, with Elizabeth herself. Misha didn’t tell Elizabeth that he was Jewish until he had no choice but to take her across the park and introduce her to the Kamenetzkis—and even then, he claimed that Sara Kamenetzki, née Altschuler, was Christian. He sprung them on her gradually. First came lunch at the Russian Tea Room with his mother and sister, both of whom she actually found delightful, perhaps because they treated her like a princess and called her beautiful, “like Greta Garbo.”

He saved his father until the day he and Elizabeth were safely married: fifteen minutes at City Hall followed by a subway uptown for his bride’s decidedly uncelebratory first encounter with Ilya Kamenetzki, who did not rise to greet her from the chair where he sat sprawled, his belt unbuckled over a potbelly, making lewd, winking references to his own seductive powers. Decades later, when Elizabeth was dying of cancer, she agreed to a series of “interviews” with her journalist son and, in one, confessed that his grandfather was “the most repulsive man I’d ever met”—though possibly less because of who he was than because of the unsettling foreignness of the experience.

Ilya was unconditionally unassimilated, a man who had lied and lived by his wits and adjusted identities so often that he had lost the will and even the talent to button his clothes, comb his hair, and begin again. Elizabeth viewed him with the cold eye of mid-century middle-American innocence—which is to say with a breezy, almost “reflexive” (Alexander Stille’s word) anti-Semitism. “I thought to myself, Hitler killed six million Jews and he had to spare this guy!?” she told him. Breezy prejudices went with the territory in those intoxicated postwar days, along with the optimism, the entitlement, the incaution, the belief in romance, belief in shopping, belief in happy endings.

Misha and Elizabeth fought, almost from the beginning—or, as their son nicely puts it, Misha started fights “at full volume like a tenor singing his way through an opera,” and Elizabeth, who hated arguments, “never raised her voice.” So it is worth remembering that it was Elizabeth who had had the courage to flee the stifling conventions of her old life, and it was Misha who now railed against the America he had seen, and sought so avidly, in her.

Alexander Stille has a particularly adroit eye for the conflicting images of their lives together, perhaps because the images of childhood are always vivid, but also because those are the images that illuminate the ferocity both of their fights and of their attachment. Those images produce a far more penetrating portrait, especially in the case of Misha, who kept no diary and whose correspondence was at best sporadic, than the litany of (always) prominent names that their son tends to repeat, by way of evoking his parents’ world in the years before he and his sister, Lucy, were around to see it. Fair enough. Many of those people are long dead—which is to say, unavailable for reminiscence—whereas the family he actually observed is brilliantly, if often brutally, described, an object lesson in William Carlos Williams’s cautionary dictum: “No ideas but in things.”

Elizabeth was tidy. She threw things away. She liked to live in beautiful, clean, uncluttered houses and to set the kind of dinner table her mother had set for parties—with the right silver and china and, always, candles—and to wear the good clothes of a well-born hostess. For a time, she worked. She was an editorial assistant for the publisher Dodd, Mead when she met Misha; spent years condensing books for the Reader’s Digest; and, briefly, copyedited at the young New York Review of Books. But she had little experience of a world without abundance; her first, short marriage, as she described it in letters to her mother (who was helping the couple out), sounds more like an adventure in playing house with a struggling artist than in keeping house with one.

Misha, marked by the reality of loss, erupted at her spending anything, down to a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers for dinner at a friend’s house. She resorted to keeping lists of her household costs, which she presented to him as demonstrations of frugality. Lists, as her son discovered, were a Bogert specialty. Her father, as a young professor with an ur-Protestant horror of wasting time on pleasure, had kept lists to account for every hour of his day, including the number of minutes spent on the morning paper or on a salutary noon walk or, once he moved to Chicago, on White Sox games. And so perhaps they were also a WASP specialty. One of the old lists that Alexander Stille found had been sent to Elizabeth by her then beau Clinton Rossiter, ranking her assets and defects. It was the sort of list that Elizabeth herself had sent her mother, about her college boyfriends.

Even in distress, Elizabeth made lists: “laundry lists, grocery lists, lists of errands, of Scrabble scores, of vices and virtues, New Year’s resolutions and household repairs.” Taken together, they are the journal she never kept; Fernand Braudel would have approved. One list that she made for Misha—Alexander came upon it in a box of his father’s old bank statements—was a catalog of her husband’s failings: “nagging, suspicious, pettiness, anxiety, cruelty, recrimination, selfishness, coldness, disorganization, stinginess, + other forms of ungenerousness”; and, by way of a coda, a “complete lack of” list that included “gentleness, humor, tolerance, consideration.” Turning over the paper, he discovered a third list, very faint, which in all likelihood was about herself. A sad list: “lack of confidence, easily influenced, easily confused, weak-minded, in other words.” It sounds like what other wives would write after a nasty spat, though today’s grievance lists generally go by e-mail, and the reply shoots back: “deleted unread.”

Misha fought with words—he was good at words—but praised her lavishly to their friends. Elizabeth blasted him to friends, contemplated divorce, started a love affair (unconsummated, she reported, though not for lack of trying) with Saul Steinberg, whom her son briefly suspected might have been his father, drank too much, escaped for long periods to the Berkshires, where she had interesting, sympathetic friends, and once, in exasperation, flung an ashtray at Misha with so much force that it opened a large gash in his head.

But they must have belonged together; they stuck it out for more than forty years. When Misha’s study in Greenwich Village, where they lived for many of those years, caught fire and Misha lost the other love of his life, his ten-thousand-book library, Elizabeth—knowing he couldn’t survive without it; he had been inconsolable if even a book went missing—salvaged thousands of charred volumes, recovered them herself in thick white paper, and painstakingly lettered each new jacket. And when Elizabeth was half-way through her sixth and final bout with cancer, and Misha had to resign as editor of Corriere and return to New York for heart surgery, both of them rallied and, as Alexander Stille says, “passed a rather nice period together…convalescing.” The convalescence, for Elizabeth, was brief. She died in 1993. Two years later, Misha’s heart gave out, and he died, too.

Misha thrived on clutter. He was as messy as Elizabeth was meticulous. He famously worked at home in his pajamas, creating the “Ugo Stille” who, as Alexander describes him, was

an idealized self, a figure of hard logic and crystalline mental clarity, of Olympian distance and dispassionate, clear-eyed perspective on the confused human drama below.

But the man in pajamas was Misha,

far from Mount Olympus, surrounded by his stacks of newspapers—highly irascible and highly irrational, storming and thundering about my mother’s latest spending spree or some magazine he suspected she had thrown out.

I still remember my first visit to the apartment in the East Sixties where the Stilles had moved almost immediately after their fire downtown—perhaps because it was so different from the house in the Berkshires that Elizabeth had bought for gardening, solitude, and calm, the house where I’d first met them, brought to lunch by mutual friends, and where, in hindsight, Ugo Stille and Misha Kamenetzki seemed almost to come together.

The apartment was a battlefield in the war between Elizabeth’s attempts at order and Misha’s chaos, and when I rang the bell that afternoon—I was leaving for Italy on a story, and Misha wanted to make sure I knew everybody’s secrets first—it looked as if chaos had already won. The place was just as Alexander Stille describes it: buried under towers of old magazines and papers, not to mention what must have been hundreds of open books covering the floor. Misha, in his pajamas, was wedged into the only available corner of an otherwise loaded couch, his phone nearby and a half-written column beside him. In other words, he was at home.

Ugo Stille never wrote a memoir. But reading his son’s scathingly candid one, I wondered if the answer to Antonio Tabucchi’s “So Ugo Stille really exists!” might lie with Lally, the Kamenetzki who tried to prove (if only to herself) that she “existed” in America, that she was someone real now, someone who couldn’t be obliterated, by never throwing anything away. At one point in the 1980s, horrified by what could only be called the pathological accumulation of detritus in Lally’s apartment—floor-to-ceiling laundry stubs, grocery receipts, duplicate playbills and museum programs, plastic forks, junk mail, unworn clothes, old knitting magazines—Alexander Stille initiated a mammoth clean-up project. It was actually more of an ultimatum, since by then there was no space left for the family to get through the front door to a living room that was almost entirely taken over by a mountain of yarn (fifteen feet across and never unwrapped) and made Misha’s study look as spare and minimalist as a Marfa installation.

The original clean-up crew consisted of Alexander and his girlfriend, who dispatched Lally to a hotel. After a back-breaking day spent hauling sixty garbage sacks to the sidewalk, they were joined by Elizabeth, and then by Elizabeth’s sister and sister-in-law, who flew in from the Midwest to help, and eventually by a full complement of professional heavy-duty haulers.

The fact is that the family loved Lally—which is to say that, in some way, they understood her terror. She had shored up her American life in garbage bags, and kept her door locked, the way Misha had shored up his in an overflowing library that held a whole world of culture, information, and identity—safe, if not from a Manhattan apartment fire then at least from the conflagration called modern European history. Reading his son, I learned that the reason Misha had resisted taking over Corriere for so many years had less to do with his pajama habit, as I had suspected, than with his own terror; he was convinced that, once settled in Milan, he would lose his citizenship in America and never be allowed back. In the end, it was Mikhail Kamenetzki who fought to protect Ugo Stille as much as Ugo Stille had fought to forget Mikhail Kamenetzki.