Reporter-Provocateur Oriana Fallaci, 77

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oriana Fallaci, 77, a journalist and relentless provocateur who gained international celebrity for the raging tone of her work and for goading world leaders into rare candor and emotional eruptions, died Sept. 15 in a hospital in her native Florence. She had cancer.

At her pinnacle in the 1970s and 1980s, Ms. Fallaci wrote for English-language newspapers and magazines in a style that was as powerful as it was deeply cynical. She stripped apart the world's most powerful people -- Henry A. Kissinger, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon -- bringing to the interviews a ferocious manner that belied her diminutive, often-pigtailed appearance.

Writer Francine du Plessix Gray once said Ms. Fallaci combined "the psychological insight of a great novelist and the irreverence of a bratty quiz kid."

The child of socialists, Ms. Fallaci wrote in her book "Interview With History": "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. I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born."

She was a daring voice on subjects often considered taboo, including women's rights and wartime atrocities (and absurdities). This made her a favorite of left-leaning readers, or at least those who, like her, had contempt for authority.

However, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she appalled many of her longtime admirers with her hostile assessment of Islam in articles and two best-selling books.

She denigrated Muslims who immigrated to Western nations for what she called their unwillingness to adapt to new cultural practices.

She saw a lack of political willpower in the West to resist the new immigrants, and she wrote that the result would be a continent called Eurabia, in which "instead of church bells, there will be the muezzins, instead of miniskirts, chadors, instead of cognac, camel's milk."

Her polemics led the Italian authorities to charge her with vilifying a religion recognized by the state, but she never stood trial.

She had long attacked Islam as cruel toward women. In a 1979 meeting with Khomeini, who had just led the Iranian revolution, she asked questions about the justice of summary executions but soon became focused on the dress code he enforced.

"How do you swim in a chador?" she wanted to know toward the end of a strained conversation.

"Our customs are none of your business," Khomeini said. "If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women."

"That's very kind of you, Imam," she said. "And since you said so, I'm going to take off this stupid medieval rag right now."

That concluded the interview, until she enticed him back a day or so later and picked up where she had left off. She said a disbelieving Khomeini could not help but laugh.

A few years earlier, her interview with Kissinger during Vietnam War peace negotiations in Paris led to another memorable encounter. "To what extent does power fascinate you?" she said. "Try to be sincere."

She got Kissinger, then the national security adviser, to say he felt like a "cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse, the cowboy who rides all alone into the town."

Kissinger later called the exchange "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press." He said that he had granted the interview to be part of Ms. Fallaci's "journalistic pantheon."

Neither subtlety nor reportorial invisibility was among her virtues. A hallmark of her style was to incorporate her opinions of her subjects. Kissinger was "an eel icier than ice," and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was "so small, so lost, so alone."

She took on people unused to being challenged and revealed insights into their arrogance and, some said, her own. Author Ted Morgan, reviewing one of her books, criticized Ms. Fallaci for seeing herself as an "avenging angel."

She told Rolling Stone magazine: "I am the judge. I am the one who decides. Listen, if I am a painter and I do your portrait, have I or haven't I the right to paint you as I want?"

Ms. Fallaci was born in Florence on June 29, 1929. Her father, a cabinetmaker, became a resistance fighter during World War II and was nearly executed for his activities.

Ms. Fallaci learned English by helping downed Allied fliers escape back to their lines during the war, and she described this time of "bombing, terror, hunger" as a pivotal influence on the way she spoke to the world's decision makers.

She started as a crime reporter and by the mid-1950s became a special correspondent for the magazine L'Europeo. She specialized in dressing down royalty, entertainers and other dolce vita pleasure seekers. She later went to Vietnam to cover the war and saw jungle combat between American and Communist forces, leading to her book "Nothing, and So Be It" (1969).

Ms. Fallaci continued to work for L'Europeo but also began contributing articles to The Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, Life and the New Republic. One of her crucial interviews was with Alexandros Panagoulis, a Greek political activist and poet. He had been arrested and tortured on suspicion of trying to kill members of the military junta.

Her interview with Panagoulis after his release from jail in 1973 led to a three-year affair until his death in a suspicious car accident. She said he was killed by supporters of the military, and this notion was central to her best-selling fictionalization of his life, "A Man" (1979).

Another of her notable books of fiction, "Letter to a Child Never Born" (1975), contains a dialogue with an aborted child and is based partly on her own short-lived pregnancy.

Ms. Fallaci went on to work as a war correspondent in the Middle East, covering conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq, and typically maintained her calm amid bombing by painting her long nails.

She had distinguished herself in dire conditions decades earlier, not just in Vietnam but also in Mexico City, where she was shot three times in 1968 while covering the army's massacre of student protesters. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, she constantly pressed for an interview with Sharon, Israel's defense minister, whenever he showed up at the Alexandre Hotel, sometimes holding on to the door of his jeep.

Ms. Fallaci eventually got her interview with Sharon, who said to her, "I know you've come to add another scalp to your necklace."

In the past few years, Ms. Fallaci, who lived in a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper East Side, became deeply concerned about the influence of the Muslim world after Sept. 11. She railed against Islam in two books, "The Rage and the Pride" and "The Force of Reason."

They sold millions of copies in Italy and tapped into a welling resentment toward Muslim immigration in Europe and sporadic acts of violence such as the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Muslim extremists in 2004.

In recent months, Ms. Fallaci found herself impressed with Pope Benedict XVI's outspokenness against Islamic militancy, and last year she had a private audience with him at his summer home near Rome. This might have been the final shock to Ms. Fallaci's fans, who knew her as a lifelong atheist. She took to calling herself a "Christian atheist."

Survivors include a sister.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company