MILAN – When Inge Feltrinelli passed away on September 20, the Italian media was quick to celebrate her as “the queen of Italian publishing.” Yet the 87-year-old was much more than that.
A world-renowned photographer, she shot iconic portraits of artist Pablo Picasso and novelist Ernest Hemingway (and was also good friends with the latter). She was married to one of Italy’s most fascinating and controversial historical figures, the communist-sympathizing tycoon Giangiacomo Feltrinelli for 12 years, until his death in 1972.
And, yes, for nearly five decades she led one of the country’s leading publishing houses, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, redefining what it meant to be a left-wing intellectual in Italy.
Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother in Göttingen in 1930, Inge Schönthal endured a difficult childhood growing up in Nazi Germany. She was expelled from high school due to the racist Nuremberg Laws. But when her parents divorced and her mother then married a non-Jew, her stepfather protected her by pretending she was his own daughter. Going by the Aryan name of Inge Heberling, she avoided persecution and was readmitted to school.
After the war, at age 20, she moved to Hamburg, where she started working as an assistant to renowned German photographer Rosemarie Pierer. But thanks her artistic talent and charm, Schönthal soon became a respected photographer in her own right. During the 1950s, before she had even turned 25, magazines such as Life and Die Zeit were flying Schönthal across the globe for high-profile assignments. Her subjects included legendary actors Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper, Picasso, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and John F. Kennedy.
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Schönthal’s most iconic picture is a self-portrait in the company of a slightly intoxicated Hemingway. In 1952, the German publishing house Rowohlt sent her to pre-Castro Cuba to shoot the famous writer. He initially refused to pose for her. However, after they met in Havana, they became friends and Schönthal ended up spending two weeks as a guest of Hemingway and his wife, Mary, the photographer recalled in a 2013 interview to culture magazine 032c.
The photographer’s life changed forever in 1958, when she met Giangiacomo Feltrinelli at a publisher’s party in Germany. It was apparently love at first sight and she moved to Italy to be with him.
The heir of one of Italy’s wealthiest families, Feltrinelli was – despite his bourgeois upbringing – a communist sympathizer. In 1954, he had used part of the family fortune to open a left-leaning publishing house, and in 1957 Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore became the first company to publish “Doctor Zhivago” – Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, which had been banned in Russia. The original manuscript was smuggled to Italy by an aide of Feltrinelli’s, and afterward became a literary sensation worldwide (and a hit film in 1965).
Schönthal and Feltrinelli married in 1960 and two years later she gave birth to their only child, Carlo. Normal family life didn’t last long. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli was no ordinary left-leaning dandy: He was “both richer and more radical than anyone else on the fashionable left,” as British historian Adrian Lyttelton once wrote.
In 1970, he founded GAP (Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana) – one of several far-left armed groups that shook Italy in the ’70s – and went into hiding. Two years later, his lifeless body was found at the foot of an electric mast in a Milan suburb, seemingly killing himself while attempting to disrupt the city’s power supply.
When her husband went underground, Inge Feltrinelli assumed control of the publishing house. It was under her leadership that the firm, which also operates a cultural foundation and chain of bookstores, became the epicenter of Italy’s left-wing intellectual scene.
A staunch leftist, she shared her husband’s taste for politicized, progressive authors. These included South African writer-political activist Nadine Gordimer, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, Palestinian “national poet” Mahmoud Darwish and Israeli author Amos Oz – not to mention household names in Italy such as Erri De Luca.
But unlike her more radical husband, Inge Feltrinelli was able to combine her firm’s political identity with a reassuring aura of mainstream commercialism. “She was a true entrepreneur who shepherded the Feltrinelli world toward normalization,” historian Adriano Prosperi told Haaretz in a telephone interview.
According to Prosperi, Inge Feltrinelli also had “a special talent for making authors feel comfortable and for bringing different kinds of people together.”
Her idea was that “scholars and workers should form a united [progressive] front,” added Prosperi. “Interestingly enough, it was something you could notice in the bookstores, where it wasn’t unusual to meet a sales assistant who used to be a factory worker.”
With her complex identity – she described herself as “half-Jewish,” but never commented on her Jewish roots; was German by birth and Italian by marriage – Inge Feltrinelli was also credited with helping turn her adoptive hometown into a globalized city. When in 1988 a Swiss interviewer asked her to choose a label, she described herself as a “citizen of Milan.”