She’s almost 82 and she’s been at the helm of one of Europe’s most significant publishing houses for over 40 years: INGE FELTRINELLI, widow of publisher cum-political activist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and heir to his fortune of billions. However, she was successful before her marriage, when she was called Inge Schoenthal, taking iconic images of Greta Garbo and Ernest Hemingway. Here is a conversation of her ultra-eventful life.
Milan 40 years ago: The Feltrinelli’s ostentatious family chapel in the Cimitero Monumentale is under siege. A carabinieri is on site for each of the 8,000 guests attending the funeral; helicopters are circling overhead and clenched fists are in the air from those chanting slogans like, “Comrade Feltrinelli, we will avenge you!” One of the leading European intellectuals of the 50s, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was killed by a dynamite explosion on March 15, 1972. At 17 he became a guerilla, fighting the German Wehrmacht. At 21 he inherited a fortune of billions and founded a publishing house, the ascent of which was faster than any other in Europe. At 43 he went underground and began financing radical leftist guerilla organizations. On this day the four women he married stand before his coffin. Wife number three grew up in Göttingen and took a few world-renowned pictures as a photo journalist under her maiden name, Inge Schoenthal.
SVEN MICHAELSEN: Mrs. Feltrinelli, how did you become a photojournalist in your early 20s?
INGE FELTRINELLI: I was one of these post-war German girls who were hungry to see the world. That’s why in 1950 I moved from Göttingen to Hamburg. I found accommodations in the photographer Rosemarie Pierer’s basement. My mattress was in the vestibule leading to her darkroom. I learned the ABC’s of photography; and because I was a saucy girl (I looked a little like Leslie Caron), I also earned a little money as a model. Once I was riding my bike through Pöseldorf in Hamburg and a chic, white car pulled up beside me. The man at the wheel pointed at my camera and asked if I was a photographer. It was Hans Huffzky, the founder of the women’s magazine Constanze. When he saw my photos, he said, “Dreadful! A catastrophe! Stop taking snapshots of ships in the harbor. You need to photograph people.” A few months later he sent me to Spain to photograph young, modern women. Huffzky became my Professor Higgins; he introduced me to the newspaper publisher Axel Springer and to Spiegel editor, Rudolf Augstein. Both were still on the up and up and were totally easy going. At that time it was easy to reach the stars and take over the world.
Back then Springer was totally apolitical, in favor of being quite elegant and charming. He was a dandy that would send violet bouquets to girls like me and would say, “Men like me are on the border; we have a strong feminine side. That’s why women like us.” One of his favorite sayings was, “Whenever people ask me if I was persecuted during the Third Reich, I say, only by women.” Augstein often drove big American convertibles around the Alster. He was already a small guy, so he looked tiny in these huge cars. But for him they were a way to hide how shy he was. He couldn’t dance at all. He hopped around like the Easter Bunny. In 1979 at a party in Milan, I heard that a German magazine publisher was sitting in a village jail in Sardinia because they caught him with 40 grams of hashish. Consequently I asked the German ambassador in Rome to intervene, because I thought, it could only be my friend Rudolf. I was right. Rudolf made a decisive mistake when getting arrested. Instead of saying that the hash was for personal consumption, he got fresh with the carabinieri and said, “You obviously don’t know who you’ve got here!” In saying that he bruised the honor of the carabinieri – and that doesn’t go over well in Italy at all.
At 22 you boarded a luxury ocean liner to travel to America for the first time. How did you finance the passage?
A friend from my network in Hamburg organized it so that the ocean carrier would take me along for free. Richard Tüngel, the editor in chief of Die Zeit, was also on board. He taught me how to eat oysters and caviar with style. Another friend arranged for me to stay with the great-grandson of J.P. Morgan in a luxury penthouse on Fifth Avenue. Everything was much easier than it is today for a young woman without money who wanted to make a career for herself.
But of course I was a well-raised girl from Göttingen
In New York you succeeded in photographing a phantom: Greta Garbo.
She stood, lost in her own thoughts, at a traffic light on Madison Avenue, cleaning her nose with a Kleenex. She seemed to have a cold. Nobody recognized her although she looked remarkable in her plum-colored hat. She didn’t notice when I took the snapshot. Life magazine paid me 50 dollars for the photo. I owe that to a Henri Cartier-Bresson saying that Huffzky hammered into my head: “A good photograph always captures a decisive moment.” Whether or not the image is razor sharp isn’t that important; it’s the shot you get that counts.
In 1953 the head of the Rowohlt publishing house, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, asked you to visit one of his writers, Ernest Hemingway, in Cuba. What was your mission?
Since the 30s Hemingway had had the same German translator. Ledig-Rowohlt found her language too frumpy and wanted to have the books translated again. He never got a response to his telegrams because Hemingway’s agent hated Germans. I arrived in Cuba with 100 dollars in my purse and called Hemingway. For two weeks I kept trying to call but could only get a maid who said nobody was home. On the 15th day I had Hemingway himself on the line. He said, “Come over for lunch; I’m sending my driver.” Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s house, was 20 kilometers outside of Havana in a village called San Francisco de Paula. When I told him I’d rather come by bus, he realized that I wasn’t an old hag and requested that I bring my bathing suit. I ended up staying at his house for two and a half weeks.
At that time Hemingway was 54. Did he fall in love with you?
Perhaps! I arrived there young and fresh; but of course I was a well-raised girl from Göttingen.
Mary also thought I was saucy and she was very nice to me. They were all about American hospitality and so I slept in the coolest room. Both were eager to experience a German post-war girl that wasn’t part of the Nazi generation. Hemingway became my second Professor Higgins. He wanted to teach me things and to show me Cuba.
What was Hemingway’s Finca like?
There were five servants, one chauffeur, a black butler, and 30 cats. Hemingway got up at 6am and worked until 11am. Then he would drink three martinis on the rocks. At 11 we would often go to the bar, El Floridita, to drink Papa Dobles. It’s a wonderfully refreshing cocktail made of rum, lime juice, and lots of sugar syrup. However, when we’d enter the sun after leaving El Floridita, it felt like someone smashed a hammer in the back of my head. For lunch there was wonderful Amarone from Verona. He loved this wine. After lunch he would take a cushion from the couch, lay it on the floor and take a nap on it. When I saw this huge bear lying on the ground, I took a photo. After I confessed this to him, I had to promise that I wouldn’t publish it during his lifetime. I kept my word.
His ramblings about Stalin won me back – and I stayed.
Hemingway was extremely sensitive – with you as well?
There was a bit of commotion once. He was in a bad mood because a two-day boat trip with department store billionaires from New York made him depressed. In a bar he started throwing coins onto the sidewalk, enjoying watching the little boys fight over them. To me he was acting like one of those old imperialists in Africa, throwing glass beads at African children’s feet. As a young lady I was brash and aggressive. I said, “Papa, I find what you’re doing really appalling.”
Everyone called him Papa. Then he attacked me quite harshly. He said he wouldn’t listen to a German when it came to how he behaved. There was something sadistic in him when he was drunk – and that was almost every day. I packed my bags and wanted to leave the next day. When I was slipping out the door the next morning at six, he saw me and said, “Stalin is dead!” It was March 5, 1953. He had been listening to Radio Moscow all night and was very deeply moved. He knew that a major shift on the world stage was imminent and for me (being the little, stupid German girl that I was in his eyes) he held a long pedagogical speech. “This man saved your Berlin,” he repeated over and over. His ramblings about Stalin won me back – and I stayed.
Your most famous photograph is also a self-portrait. It depicts you with a radiant grin, wearing a strapless bathing suit, with a visibly intoxicated Hemingway and his boatman.
It took a lot of maneuvering on my part in order to stage this photo. Gregorio Fuentes, his boatman, took us out almost every day off of Pilar Beach. The Old Man and the Sea was modeled after Gregorio. He was 104 when he died. One day when the mood on board was nice, I asked Gregorio to take out the 30-kilo marlin, which was frozen in the icebox. I set up my tripod, stood in the middle of Hemingway and Gregorio and took five or six pictures with the self-timer. That was my scoop. One of the images circled the globe. They cut Gregorio out of the photo, but as a newcomer I couldn’t do anything about that. I launched my career with that picture. Because of that, I was able to photograph notables like Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marc Chagall.
Some people resented you for often being in the photos yourself. In a letter to the editor of Constanze, a reader complained, “Dear Constanze, I’m almost always satisfied with you. The only thing that upsets me are contributions by your reporter Inge Schoenthal, like now in Issue 14, ‘Constanze as Hemingway’s Guest.’ The report in itself is fine, but does Inge Schoenthal have to be in every photo herself? Does she always bring along a photojournalist or does she do everything with the self-timer? In this case I can only congratulate her for how good she looks in each of the images.”
I was photogenic; and my stories sold better when I was the unifying element in the images. Oriana Fallaci always photographed herself too, so that her stories would sell well.
You photographed many men in your career, including Gary Cooper, Allen Ginsberg, and John F. Kennedy. Did you have affairs?
I was an independent lady and of course I flirted a lot. But to actually be with a man was always my decision alone. When I no longer fancied a man, I would leave him. I never let anything having to do with men distract me from my career. But they were all light things anyway; true love wasn’t there.
That changed in 1958, when you were a guest at a Rowohlt party in Reinbek.
On July 14 Ledig-Rowohlt invited me to a party, which he was giving in honor of his Italian colleague Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Giangiacomo was 32 at the time and was known as a miracle man: a Communist billionaire, who in his second year as a publisher was able to get the global rights to Doctor Zhivago. The book wasn’t allowed to come out in Russia, and Italy’s Communist Party pressured Giangiacomo to get his finger off the book. He resisted the pressure and that’s how Pasternak became the first dissident you could actually read something by. Doctor Zhivago today remains our publishing house’s number one global bestseller.
Were you introduced to Feltrinelli?
No. I was late because I had just gotten back from a photo-reportage in Ghana. When I arrived, I noticed the guest of honor standing bashfully in the corner. He was poorly dressed, smoking one cigarette after another, and biting his nails in between. I went over to him and told him that I had photographed his mother at the Duke of Windsor’s ball in New York. She was one of the most beautiful and eccentric women in Europe, arrogant, power-hungry, and very indulgent. She wore a monocle to camouflage the glass eye she had as a replacement for the real one she lost in a hunting accident. Obviously the ball was very hip. I wasn’t invited so I crashed it. I hid my Rolleiflex and four kilos of photo equipment under my dress. Back then cameras didn’t have a built-in flash, so you always had to bring a battery around with you. We started talking about all the stuff I had hidden under my dress.
He was haggard and was acting like a hounded animal. He said there were plans to assassinate him.
After the party you drove Feltrinelli to Hamburg.
We were the last guests, and I offered to drive him to his hotel. We ended up sitting on a bench in front of The Four Seasons and talked till sunrise. The bench is still there today. Whenever I’m in Hamburg, I visit it.
What was your impression of Feltrinelli?
He seemed introverted, shy, soulful, highly complicated, and full of self-doubt – a true Italian intellectual. Our flaming curiosity for ideas and people is what brought us together.
Was it love at first sight?
Well, you know, those are clichés. There was definitely an immense fascination and attraction there, but he had just gotten divorced from his second wife and he was going to go camping the next day in Nordkapp. A week later he wrote me a postcard and invited me to Copenhagen. Then it really sparked. I moved in with him in Milan by the end of the year. We married in Mexico a few months later. Since divorce was illegal in Italy, and he had already been married twice, we had to marry abroad.
The publisher Klaus Wagenbach once described you as an “endless birthday party,” joyous, high-spirited, unabashedly vital, difficult, loud. Did that fit together well with Feltrinelli’s contemplative spirit?
My frivolous impertinence was totally complimentary to him – so I was the perfect woman for him. Our common denominator was that we both lived life in the last lane. It would take us about five minutes to pack our bags and go visit writers like Henry Miller or Karen Blixen. Life with him was so intense and strenuous in the best way that I gave up photography. It became unimportant to me. From then on I was interested in authors and books.
In 1964 you and your husband spent a month with Fidel Castro in Cuba. What was the reason?
Castro invited us because he was looking for a publisher for his autobiography that sympathized with his ideas. We lived in the villa of an exiled sugar baron, which had been reappropriated as a guesthouse by the government. Heavily armed revolutionary guards patrolled the garden. A butler brought us the finest French Bordeaux from the cellar, but Giangiacomo waved him away, “Keep these bottles for other guests; we’d rather drink rum.” We only saw Castro once during the first two weeks. They kept putting off a meeting with new excuses. Later he invited us to his house. He lived in a simple, modern bungalow. On the roof there was a chicken coop and a basketball hoop. During breaks his men would play one-on-one. Castro never took off his olive-green uniform – even when playing.
At the time Castro was 38. What did you think of him?
He talked like a waterfall and was not a good listener. He lived in his own world and, according to Giangiacomo, seemed to have read little Marx. He was very charming and entertaining to me. What impressed me most were his unbelievably beautiful hands. But there were also hardcore disputes. Giangiacomo had absolutely no reservations about fiercely attacking Castro for persecuting Cuban homosexuals. He said, “It is absurd that you want to have a revolution without revolutionizing your conservative Catholic conventions.” For Castro that was an immense lese-majesty. You could tell that there was nobody around him who contradicted him. Castro was impressed that Giangiacomo didn’t act servile around him. Castro didn’t know anyone like him – a mega-wealthy, independent intellectual that wanted to change the world. We received all the writers that Castro harassed. Every day was an open house. We were guests of the Cuban state, and we acted like we were in Milan.
You founded a literary salon in your publishing house in Milan that was a sensation. The guest list included everyone from Max Frisch to James Baldwin.
I was a very close friend with Gottfried and Brigitte Bergmann Fischer, the heirs to S. Fischer Verlag. The couple had had an open house for artists and scientists of all types in Erdener Strasse in Berlin before the war. One night Thomas Mann would visit, the next Einstein would show up in sneakers. I copied this idea with relative success.
When Peter Handke showed up with long, greasy hair, you showed him where you kept the shampoo.
That was just German know-it-all-ness. How could I say something so impertinent? I still get embarrassed when I think about this brazenness today.
In the mid-60s you met Ulrike Meinhof and her husband Klaus Rainer Röhl on Sylt. What kind of impression did they give?
The house that I met them in was for sale. It was empty aside from a few beds and a gramophone. “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum played over and over. Röhl was malicious and brutal and oppressive towards his wife. She was a great utopian and had a gleaming analytic mind. Even the über-clever Augstein thought she was great. When the two had discussions, they were completely on par. If Augstein had given her a column in the Spiegel back then, she might have become the German Simone de Beauvoir instead of a terrorist – but he was surely afraid of her absoluteness.
In 1968 Rudi Dutschke was shot three times in the head and shoulder on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. He took shelter in your house in Milan.
The composer, Hans Werner Henze, called and said, “Dutschke lost half his memory. It’s too dangerous for him in Germany. Could you take him in and protect him?” Giangiacomo became a partisan of an armed group, which was assigned to the Fifth U.S. Army in Legnano in 1943, when he was 17. Some of these partisans set up a bodyguard firm after the war. They watched over Dutschke very well. He was very dismissive sometimes, but then he would get really happy – a broken man in a horrible state of shock. He complained of raging headaches. Aside from that, he was the most unobtrusive and beholden guest that you can imagine.
When did you begin having marital problems?
In 1968 your six-year-old son heard your husband say to you, “I have you to thank for what I’ve become, but in politics I need to go my own way.”
We grew apart in spite of our perfect alliance. I don’t want to get into the reasons.
You told the magazine, Emma, in 1984 that “the split was 50/50 yours/his fault.”
I know that I did a lot wrong. One reason for the estrangement was that I couldn’t understand his political radicalization. He distanced himself more and more from the publishing house. He wanted to change the world by force; I wanted to keep up the house, which had become my passion.
In 1969 he signed the publishing house over to you and went underground with forged papers. From then on, the Western intelligence agencies followed traces of him in Prague, Paris, Cuba, and Bolivia. He founded a resistance cell by the name of Gruppo d’Azione Partigiana and allegedly donated a portion of his assets to guerillas in Bolivia and Venezuela. When founding the group he wrote, “A frontal conflict is the only remaining way to defeat fascism and imperialism.”
He slammed doors behind him. Words weren’t enough for him anymore; he wanted action. That’s why he kept drifting further and further away.
After meeting him in Nice in 1970, you noted in your journal, “Nobody can understand him any longer, he’s lost.”
He was 100% convinced that a neo-fascist coup in Italy with NATO support was immanent. He lived in a different world and wasn’t reachable through my arguments. There was nothing else to do. At that point we only discussed our son and the publishing house.
When did you see your husband for the last time?
Two months before his death in Lago Maggiore. He was haggard and was acting like a hounded animal. He said there were plans to assassinate him. He said he would end up like the Moroccan opposition leader, Ben Barka, who was abducted and murdered by the French external intelligence agency SDECE. On the day of his death we were supposed to meet in Lugano to discuss a notarial matter. When he didn’t show up, I drove back to Milan with a bad feeling.
On that day, March 14, 1972, your husband’s mutilated corpse was found on a field outside of Milan. According to the police report, he clumsily blew himself up while attempting to destroy a transmission tower with 15 sticks of dynamite.
I was never able to believe this version. I always thought it was more likely that he was the victim of a disguised murder. He was never that ham-handed. He wasn’t a perfumed dandy; he was a mountain man. Ascending that electricity tower for him, the mountain-climber, would have been like drinking coffee.
There was an unordinary scene around your husband’s coffin. While the masses were screaming for retribution, your mother-in-law said, “Finally an end to my suffering!”
Giannalisa felt like the suffering victim of her renegade son, who had betrayed her family, her standing, her caste. Finally her trauma was over. The fact that her son was only 44 seemed to be secondary to her.
Sabilla Melega, a very young boutique salesgirl who Feltrinelli took as his fourth wife in 1969, was also in attendance. Whatever happened to her?
She lives in Austria and has a son. More than that, I don’t know.
The state attorney’s case files had been closed to the public until the beginning of this year. Italian journalists have now reevaluated the files – to spectacular results. According to them, the state attorney seriously doubted the accidental death theory due to an expert medical opinion. The reason: there were indications on the corpse that the hands had been bound; additionally, there had been at least two blows to the head by a blunt object.
I know a dozen theories of who could have killed Giangiacomo. Some say it was the Mossad, because Giangiacomo had financially supported Arafat. Others say the Italian government wanted to get rid of a financier of terrorism. Perhaps the truth will now finally come to light.
After your husband’s death you became the president of the publishing house, and his sole heir until your son was of legal age.
The following years were leaden. The brain of the house was no longer there, and the world had changed. Giangiacomo always said he wanted to publish necessary books instead of publishing those that paint the world bright colors in this clamorous universe. But the sales of our books had been declining for years, because few were interested in the topics. Our books simply didn’t fit the times anymore. In the years after Giangiacomo’s death we had to let go of a third of our staff. For a leftist publishing house, this was a catastrophe.
You have been a widow for 40 years. Why haven’t you ever remarried?
I have been together with Tomás Maldonado for 40 years. Tomás was the headmaster of the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School of Design) in Ulm and is a world-renowned design theorist. He is my son’s most intimate friend and the best stepfather you could imagine. The two of them are truly happy when I’m traveling. It means “the pain in the neck is gone. Finally we can talk.”
In 1999 your son, Carlo, published a 500-page book about his father. Therein he quotes a journal he kept when he was six. The entry on Rudi Dutschke is as follows: “Rudi is playing around with me and takes off his shirt to show me the scars from the bullets Josef Bachmann shot. Apparently I said, ‘Now you go back to Germany, get a machine gun and blow him away. Ta-ta-ta-ta.’” This sentence found its way into Stern in the format “Quote of the Week.” For a six-year-old that seems spookily precocious.
Carlo obviously had a hard life with this difficult family. He isn’t frivolous the way I am; he’s a serious man. He has the same personality as his father. He isn’t as politically ideological and wild, he’s cooler, more rational – the way people today are. He drives just as dangerously fast as his father and has the same minimal material needs.
My favorite sentence is from The Leopard: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
Your son is the owner of the publishing house and you are the president. Does that work?
When father and son want to run a publishing house together, it’s precarious enough. For Siegfried and Joachim Unseld at Suhrkamp it went horribly awry. The constellation of mother and son is even worse. Carlo and I were arguing for hours this morning, to the point where sparks started to fly. But we always grapple together out of necessity. I was lucky that he was already interested in the house in grade school. He could have gotten into drugs or become a playboy on a yacht.
Which one of you has the last word?
Hopefully I’ll still be president when I’m in a wheelchair, but my son is the big boss. We fight about thousands of banalities. When it comes to the really big decisions, we’re always d’accord. I take care of presenting authors, international congresses, and book fair openings. This external work often bored my son. That’s why we don’t get in each other’s way.
Do you fight about books?
Uninterruptedly. He wanted to publish the big autobiography by Keith Richards, for example. I was against it, because I wasn’t interested in the material and the rights were unbelievably expensive. He had the better instinct. The book was a huge sales success for us.
You have published books for 54 years. Do you have a favorite?
I always have a memory lapse when people ask me that, but I’d still like to name two books for you: Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry and The Leopard (1958) by Lampedusa. My favorite sentence is from The Leopard: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
Non-readers associate your name with the Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, which today is one of the most expensive luxury hotels in the world. Why did you sell the family villa?
I had wonderful times in that villa. Hundreds of guests would come to the publishing house’s anniversaries — from Ingeborg Bachmann to Umberto Eco. But after Giangiacomo’s death I wasn’t fluid enough to pay all the staff. It’s a giant building with 50 rooms. You can’t live there without help.
You have kept a journal since the 50s. Why doesn’t a publisher publish her own journal?
I had something to say, that’s true, but I have too much respect for truly good authors. When it comes to this I’m very self-critical. I don’t think I’m talented enough. My friend Ledig-Rowohlt always said, “Darling, we tell anecdotes. We should leave writing down great ideas to the authors.” On top of that, I couldn’t publish half of my over 50 diaries without being indiscreet or insulting. I write down who talks horrible nonsense and who wore an ugly tie.
What will happen with your diaries after your death?
It would be too pathetic to demand them to be burned in my will. I’m not Kafka. Maybe my two grandchildren will think it’s funny to read them in 30 years, thinking about what a crazy grandmother they had.