Renata Clewes: Second World War Resistance fighter and wife of Howard Clewes

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The Independent Online

Renata Clewes played an indispensable role in the working life of her husband, the novelist, screenwriter and president of the Screenwriters’ Guild Howard Clewes: first, because she remained close at hand while he was writing; and second, because his manuscripts were not finished until they had been checked and approved by her.



This was less to do with her good command of English (she also spoke French, Spanish and flawless German, in addition to her native Italian) than to her being extremely exacting in everything she did. She had a draughtsman’s eye for detail, which his 20 action novels published between 1938 and 1979 demanded. When he wrote screenplays – for example, Mutiny on the Bounty, which starred Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando (although he took his name out of the credits) – she scrutinised them in the same way.

In assisting him, this self-effacing and conspicuously beautiful woman was getting exactly what she needed, namely thrills, adventure and a scintilla of glamour. It was a precedent she had set for herself as a spy and Resistance worker for the Allies in Italy throughout the Second World War.

Clewes saw nothing unusual in this achievement, and certainly no necessity to talk about it. She refused the offer of medals by the Americans once the war was over, and later rejected the approaches of a Swiss television station wanting her to recount some of her more dangerous exploits. These derived from inveigling her way into the Nazi headquarters in her native Milan, seizing every judicious moment to photograph whatever documents or plans she could and passing information to the Allies. She kept a printing press hidden behind curtains in her mother’s dressing room, meticulously creating false identity papers. She guided small units of Allied soldiers or civilians over the Alps, then skied them safely into Switzerland.

This was not as romantic as it sounded.

The downside of being tall, blonde and beautiful was highlighted when she was once kidnapped on her return journey by an over-watchful group of Resistance fighters, starved of the company of women. For two weeks she deflected their advances by talking to them about their families (but never about their wives) and of recipes (she was a very good cook), until one of them, a British army deserter, let her escape.

Clewes resumed her operations undaunted, but before the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943, she was woken at home in Milan’s Via Goldoni by secret police officers at the foot of her bed. She was taken to San Vittore prison, together with her mother, who had no knowledge of the printing press she herself was concealing – a fact which assisted in her mother’s early release.

Before that, however, while together in the exercise yard, Clewes informed her of what lay hidden in the dressing room in order that she burn all incriminating evidence on the terrace.

During the weeks that she remained in San Vittore, Clewes’ sole comforts were her toothbrush and a single volume by Voltaire – that enlightened revolutionary and defender of civil liberties – and she was scheduled to go to Auschwitz. A lesser personality might have been defeated, but she found a weak link in the chain that guarded her and bribed her way to escape, but not before giving the inspiring work by Voltaire to her cell mate. Thereafter, she continued her Resistance work, but evaded further capture.

She was born Renata Faccincani della Torre in April 1921 into a historically warlike Milanese aristocracy. Her ancestors were driven out by the Visconti and were confined to a tower outside Como, where their eyes were pecked out by birds. Her great-grandfather ran away from home at 16 to join Garibaldi in his unification of Italy. The family’s affluence in recent years was founded more sedately on her father being one of the first people in Italy to introduce frozen food. When all his farmlands were lost after the war, her formidable mother, Ida, garnered a German cosmetics concession, which she ran till the day she died.

Clewes and her brother, who was killed during the war, were brought up with a strong awareness of Fascism being an unacceptable ill; as it started to assert itself in Europe, her response was forthright. To her, something that was unacceptable was not only wrong, it required that you did not accept it.

Thus began her Resistance work.

She married Howard Clewes in 1946, and although they started off living in remote Italy, his work increasingly required them to be more at hand. They moved to London, settling comfortably into a historic, leafed-in farmhouse in the north-west corner of Hampstead Heath. In addition to playing hostess to her husband’s burgeoning film career, Renata worked as a model, and a teacher of Italian literature at London University and of language at the London Opera Centre. Always sartorially elegant, her interests were philosophy, history and politics, and she engaged in them passionately and enduringly, and it might gloriously be said of Renata Clewes that there was never anything “sweet old lady” about her.

Julian Machin

Renata Clewes, Resistance fighter and teacher: born Milan 3 April 1921; married 1946 Howard Clewes (one daughter); died 11 June 2009.

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