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Oriana Fallaci, 77; Renowned Journalist Confronted Power

September 16, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — She cornered ayatollahs and challenged dictators. She was glamorous, fearless and always provocative.

Oriana Fallaci, Italian author and globe-trotting journalist whose interviews produced piercing portraits of world leaders for decades, but who in later years channeled her energies into bitter diatribes against Islam, died Friday, her publisher said.

Fallaci was 77 and had been suffering from cancer. She died at a private hospital in Florence, where she had arrived about 10 days ago from New York, aware that her health was failing, the publishing arm of RCS MediaGroup said in a statement.

"She wanted to die in [her native] Florence, and that is what happened," Riccardo Nencini, head of the Tuscan regional government, told reporters.

Raised in a family of rebels and anti-Fascist resistance fighters, Fallaci went on to become one of the most renowned journalists of her generation, conducting remarkable interviews with the world's most powerful people, from Deng Xiaoping to Henry Kissinger, the Ayatollah Khomeini to Golda Meir.

One secret to her success was her ability to disarm her subjects with blunt candor and exotic good looks that masked, though not always, what she described as deep rage at the arrogance of power. And she was never afraid to take a position, nor to offend.

Her life was one of celebrity, self-involved theatrics and high drama. She got shot during student protests in Mexico, covered the Vietnam War -- managing even there to maintain her mascara and eyeliner thick and dark -- and insulted Federico Fellini. She shed her chador in front of Khomeini, bickered with Yasser Arafat and got Kissinger to admit the futility of Vietnam.

In the last few years, as she battled cancer, she had been living mainly in New York, in what she called a self-imposed exile from "an Italy more ill than I am," and making only rare public appearances.

Accolades poured in Friday for the combative writer, some with caveats because of the vitriolic and often bigoted nature of her final essays on what she called the Muslim invasion of Europe and Islamic assault on Western values.

Even so, she won praise in some quarters for daring to articulate the visceral fears of Europeans and Americans confronted and confounded by Muslim immigrants who refuse to assimilate, and those who advocate violence.

"We have lost a journalist of world fame, an author of great publishing success, a passionate protagonist of lively cultural battles," Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said.

"Oriana Fallaci was the greatest Italian journalist of the last century," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, former speaker of the Italian Parliament. "She was an extraordinary woman, an unsettling witness of the West and its values."

Rage and hefty ego permeated Fallaci's writings as well as her flamboyant style and her approach to subjects. With a cigarette permanently dangling from her fingers -- even after her first cancer surgery, she continued to smoke -- she excoriated those who abused power, whether they were politicians or denizens of the cultural elite. She believed that having power inevitably corrupts. And she believed journalism was the perfect weapon to fight back.

"Today's history is written the very moment it happens," she wrote in the preface to the 1976 "Interview with History." "For this reason I like journalism. For this reason I fear journalism."

"Journalism is an extraordinary and terrible privilege," she said. "Not by chance, if you are aware of it, does it consume you with a hundred feelings of inadequacy. Not by chance, when I find myself going through an event or an important encounter, does it seize me like anguish, a fear of not having enough eyes and enough ears and enough brains to look and listen and understand like a worm hidden in the wood of history."

She added that "those who determine our destiny" are "not really better than ourselves," and that more often than not, those in power do not deserve to be there.

"Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon," she wrote. "To the same degree that I do not understand power, I do understand those who oppose power, who criticize power, who contest power, especially those who rebel against power imposed by brutality."

Fallaci was born June 29, 1929, in Florence. Her father, Edoardo, was a member of Justice and Liberty, an anti-Fascist resistance movement, daring work that landed him in prison. As a teenager, Oriana, the eldest of three daughters, joined the underground resistance as well, helping to guide escaping Allied soldiers to safety.

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