Luigi Barzini, the author, playwright, journalist, cook, vintner, politician, sailor and maker of olive oil, came to this country in 1928 to study journalism at Columbia University. Although he was born in Milan and lives in Rome, he has never been able to shake his connections with the United States.
"I've stopped trying to figure it out," says the author of "The Italians." At 75, Barzini looks closer to 60, with deep-set blue eyes and white hair: a Roman profile in a conservatively cut, blue, three-piece suit. "Something about me has always been attracted to this country, and Americans have always been interested in what I have to write."
Barzini was in town recently--ostensibly to promote his most recent book, "The Europeans," a plea for a united European community. "We don't really want to talk about it, do we?" he asks half facetiously, claiming that he is sick of the book, particularly since he has been in the midst of translating it into Italian, "which is a complete bore. The idea for the book came five or six years ago, when I was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel and ran into George Weidenfeld, a British publisher. In the seduction of Hollywood, I said yes. It's obvious to me that Europeans are acting more and more like Europeans. They learn different languages, they make love with foreigners, and pizza parlors are all over the Champs Elyse'es. But that's enough about the book."
Well, how about another paragraph or two? This new book is really an analysis of what makes each European country unique and different. And while Barzini dreams of some abolition of national boundaries, he is too smart to idly dismiss the cultural conflicts that stand in the way. "The French have been disputing for years," he writes, "the Germans' right to call a dubious synthetic dressing in jars, which contains not a trace of egg yolk, olive oil, and lemon juice, 'mayonnaise.' "
It is his ability to define national character so precisely that makes Barzini one of the greatest codifiers since Justinian I reorganized Roman law. This same attention to detail made "The Italians" such a revealing glimpse at the soul of a nation. "That book ruined a lot of marriages," Barzini says. "Women read it, realized what they were married to and ran away."
Right now, Barzini is wolfing down some fried squid at Fio's, a little, out-of-the-way Italian restaurant. He had specifically asked not to be taken to an Italian restaurant for dinner, claiming that "Italian food is never prepared properly in this country, except for some pasta e fagiole I had once at Salta in Bocca in New York." But informed that the place is a favorite among visiting Italian journalists, Barzini elects to try it and eventually declares that the squid is the best he's eaten in America: "small, tender, fresh, perfectly fried, light." (Hey, the guy likes to codify.) He says to the owner, Fiorenzo Vasaio, "My father used to say, the best things in America come out of the sea, because the Americans can't interfere with them."
Barzini's father was a famous Italian journalist who often came to the United States, occasionally with his son in tow. He interviewed the Wright brothers and covered the San Francisco earthquake and the trial of Harry K. Thaw. "Covering it is the wrong term," says Barzini. "He wrote a couple of pieces about it and sent them off by mail. I was almost born in New York, which may explain my fascination with America, but my mother got back to Milan before she had me. I was sent off to school in New York. A lot of Italians came here for their education. Pucci went to Reed College in Oregon. One summer I had a job with the old New York World, and I also worked on the evening journal in Flushing, Long Island. It was run by a Mr. Clemens, a nephew of Mark Twain, and Mr. Clemens asked me, 'Barzini? You Italian? Can you read and write?' I used to go around to the police precinct every day and say to the desk sergeant, 'Did you have any stiffs last night?' And he'd look down on me and say, 'You vulture.' Journalism will lead you anywhere, provided you get out.
"The last story I really covered as a journalist was Grace Kelly's wedding. I'm showing my age. Then one day I had a heart attack, about the same time as Clark Gable. He died and I didn't. I came so close to death that I wanted to leave something behind. So I wrote, 'The Italians.' Then I wrote more books.
"I've done a lot of things in my life. I spent three sessions in Parliament as a member of the Partito Liberale. I've been married and divorced twice and I had to give an argument in favor of divorce laws. I consulted with some Jesuit priests. I said, there is no salvation for the soul unless there is an act of the will. How can a person really continue to stay married unless there is the possibility of divorce? Andriotti was head of the Christian Democrats at the time and he kept nodding at me and smiling.
"In 1940 I was arrested for being an anti-fascist. I was exiled to a town, I'm embarrassed to say where: Amalfi, a beautiful place. I had a friend who looked after me, and they told Mussolini that I was down in the province of Salerno. He thought I was in Eboli, a hard place where they sent most of the anti-fascists. One day, a month after I'd been married, I was summoned to town by the chief of police in Salerno. I didn't know what was going to happen. It turned out he had received a letter for me, from an ex-girlfriend, an American, and he said, 'I didn't want your wife to know you got this letter.'
"Now I spend time with my five children. In the summers I sail around the Mediterranean on my sailboat. I cook a lot. I write plays. I grow olives and make olive oil. In Italy, the most important part of the process is making sure the presser doesn't take your good olives and give you oil from some inferior ones."
Dinner is over and Barzini must pay a call on Clare Booth Luce, who's being honored at a small party for her 80th birthday. Barzini first met her when he used to write articles for her husband, Henry, at Life magazine; later he renewed their acquaintance when she became ambassador to Italy. Barzini walks into the party and kisses the hand of each woman in the room. He sits beside Luce and engages her in animated conversation for about 30 minutes, all the while smoking Dunhill cigarettes. At 11:30 he announces he is tired and needs to depart for his hotel.
In the car, Barzini says, "Clare proposed marriage. There would be too many nuptial agreements. And at my age, I find I enjoy the comfort of sleep even more than the company of women."