Julia Cuniberti, Italy specialist who served in the OSS during World War II, dies at 90

When the intelligence cable arrived in Washington, Julia Cuniberti immediately understood that World War II had hit home — specifically, her family’s home in the Apennine mountains of Italy, a stately villa called La Palazzina.

It was late in the war, and Miss Cuniberti — who has died at 90 — was a fresh recruit to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. The daughter of an Italian immigrant, she spoke Italian, French and German and offered valuable services to the OSS secret intelligence division.

Miss Cuniberti’s job, former OSS agent Elizabeth P. McIntosh wrote in the book “Sisterhood of Spies,” was to review and distribute the intelligence materials pouring in from Europe — and then erase their contents from her memory.

Fighting in central and northern Italy had grown intensely fierce in late 1944 and early 1945. Anti-fascist Italian partisans helped apprise Allied intelligence of developments — including the Nazi occupation of the Cuniberti home near Bologna, in the town of Pavullo nel Frignano.

Miss Cuniberti’s father, an Italian-born lawyer, had purchased the villa before the war, and his daughter knew the estate in all its detail: the huge fireplaces and copper pots, its murals and music room. She also knew that her father had welcomed members of the extended family to the house after the war started. Its remote hilltop location, he hoped, would provide a haven from the fighting and bombs.


Julia Cuniberti, an Italy specialist who served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, died Feb. 8 at 90. (Family photo)

Back in Washington, Miss Cuniberti learned from a cable that Nazis had at some point taken control of the house, converted the villa into a headquarters and observation point and restricted her relatives to a small part of the property. Partisans seeking to inflict a setback on the Germans had called for an Allied attack on the site.

“You can imagine my reaction,” Miss Cuniberti told McIntosh. “I couldn’t notify my uncle and aunts and cousins. I could only pray!”

According to McIntosh’s account, Miss Cuniberti later received cables from partisans reporting the results of the strikes. The bombs had missed the target. Months later, Miss Cuniberti and her family received official word that their relatives had survived the war.

Miss Cuniberti was born Dec. 13, 1923, in Washington and spent a period of her childhood in Europe. She was a 1940 graduate of the private Madeira School in McLean, Va., and received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1944 from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

After her OSS assignment in Washington, Miss Cuniberti served with the agency in England, Germany and Switzerland. After the war, as soon as it was safe to travel to Italy, she surprised her relatives with a visit.

Miss Cuniberti later pursued a career as an illustrator and graphic designer, a field she studied at the Corcoran School of Art. Her drawings appeared over the years in The Washington Post, and she helped operate Cuniberti Art and Design in Arlington, Va.

She also received a teaching certificate from American University and taught art in public schools in the District. Her civic involvement included work with the YWCA, the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women, according to her family. She was a founding member of the Dupont Circle Village, a nonprofit group that assists older neighborhood residents.

Miss Cuniberti died Feb. 8 at a nursing home in Riverdale, N.Y., where she had recently moved. The cause was complications from a fall, said a niece, Marilyn Cuniberti Schwartz. Survivors include a brother.

Miss Cuniberti’s cousin Clelia Cuniberti, 87, is the only surviving relative of those who took refuge at La Palazzina during the war. Reached at her home in Bologna, she said she is convinced, despite the account in McIntosh’s book, that Julia was responsible for their survival.

La Palazzina would have been easy to see from a plane, she explained, expressing her incredulity that Allied bombers could have missed their target when the partisans called for a strike. 

“It was Julia, of course,” she said in Italian. “She made it as if the cable had never arrived.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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