Life after "La Fallaci"

The voluble, embattled journalist died last week at age 77.

Published September 18, 2006 7:06PM (EDT)

Inflammatory Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci died Sept. 15 after a long career of reporting on wars, skewering powerful people and tooting her own horn. "La Fallaci," as she was known, was both renowned and notorious; she famously goaded Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into calling himself a cowboy (an incident Kissinger recalled, equally famously, as "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press"). On the flip side, her frankly offensive condemnations of Islam earned her European lawsuits and comparisons to Ann Coulter.

Fallaci's many obituaries recall the dramatic confrontations that characterized her career. On Saturday, the Guardian listed a few: "In an interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, she ripped off her chador. She complained about Fidel Castro's body odor and threw her microphone at Muhammad Ali's face when he belched in answer to one of her questions." Events like these are remarkable not for what they show us about Fallaci (though her fearless irreverence was surely formidable), but for what they show us about the devolution of the press. These days, what journalist would dare?

The New Yorker published a profile of the provocateur earlier this year; in it, Margaret Talbot examined the combative writer as a woman of her era, opining that Fallaci's beguiling appearance helped her career: "It didn't hurt that she was petite and beautiful, with straight, smooth hair that she wore parted in the middle or in pigtails." But Talbot also noted that Fallaci's relationship to femininity was complex. In her controversial 2002 book, "The Rage and the Pride," Fallaci wrote that when the Allies bombed Florence in World War II, her father quieted her with a slap, saying, "A girl does not, must not, cry." Fallaci claimed never to have cried again. Talbot wrote, "Her essential toughness never stopped taking people -- men, especially -- by surprise."

Fallaci was a polarizing figure, and coverage of her death has run the gamut from fawning to hateful. We enjoyed her respectful obituary in the New York Times, the chatty 2003 interview with George Gurley from the New York Observer and the Houston Chronicle's critical but affectionate recollection of "what it was like to work for Oriana Fallaci."

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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