The journalist Camilla Cederna was a high-society rebel. Born into a well-heeled Milanese family in 1911, she made her name writing a barbed gossip column in a weekly news magazine. It was only gradually that indulgent irony gave way to well-informed indignation. She is best remembered for her 1978 book Giovanni Leone - an expose of the Christian Democrat president's alleged involvement in the Lockheed scandal, which forced his resignation in June 1978. Imagine Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein writing for Tatler, and you come close to her inimitable approach.
The daughter of a textile baron, she grew up coddled by the securities of Milan's alta borghesia: first nights at La Scala, tea and panettone at Cova in Via Montenapoleone, summers in a family house in the Valtellina (in her autobiography of 1980, Il mondo di Camilla she recalls "the sound of the rain on a huge beech tree outside the window"). Her undergraduate thesis was symptomatic: a study of "Female luxury from the minor Greek philosophers to the early Church Fathers". In 1943, when Italy was on the brink of civil war, she wrote one of her first articles - a tongue- in-cheek piece on "Fascist Fashion" - which earned her a brief spell in prison for having "poked fun at the mothers of martyrs".
After the war, she joined the newly founded news weekly L'Europeo. In 1956 she moved over to Eugenio Scalfari's more politically committed L'Espresso, where she was to stay for 25 years. Here she wrote a weekly column, "Il lato debole" ("The Weak Side"), in which she registered the tics and frivolities of her fellow Milanese borghesi.
In the late Sixties, as Italy's gilded youth was discovering the joys of student rebellion, Cederna - by now almost 60 herself - discovered a latent vocation for investigative journalism. Indeed, many would say that she single-handedly dragged the investigative genre into the play-safe world of Italian journalism. Her first campaign - which in 1971 became a book - aimed to shed light on the death of the Milanese anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who "fell from a window" of the city's police HQ while being questioned about the Piazza Fontana bombing. (The Nobel laureate Dario Fo would later draw on the "accident" and the subsequent cover-up in his play Accidental Death of an Anarchist). When the Milanese police chief Luigi Calabresi was later shot by left-wing terrorists, Cederna was given a police escort for several months.
Later exposes pointed the finger at the way Italy's security forces were using the threat of terrorism to infringe civil liberties; but most explosive of all was her 1978 denunciation of the rise to power and financial speculations of the country's then president, Giovanni Leone, in a book which sold 800,000 copies - a record for a political title. Leone was forced to resign, but he later sued Cederna and her publisher, Inge Feltrinelli, and won huge damages. In order to pay, she had to sell the family jewels.
During the hearings, the prosecution lawyer marvelled that "she still dares to wear jeans at her age". By this time, Cederna was persona non grata at many Milanese dinner parties - but Federico Fellini and other close friends stood by her.
Camilla Cederna was amply vindicated when the Tangentopoli bribery scandal broke in 1992, revealing the corruption that lay just beneath the fur- coated facade of her beloved, berated native city. Never one to turn the other cheek, she said in a recent interview: "You can't imagine how smug I've been feeling recently, as I watch the downfall of people I've been alone in denouncing for years".
- Lee MarshallReuse content