Academic journal article Journalism History

Totalitarian Refugee or Fascist Mistress? Comparing Lisa Sergio's Autobiography to Her FBI File

Academic journal article Journalism History

Totalitarian Refugee or Fascist Mistress? Comparing Lisa Sergio's Autobiography to Her FBI File

Article excerpt

Did Italian propaganda broadcaster Lisa Sergio, who claimed to have been Europe's first female radio announcer, flee Italy in 1937 because she became an anti-fascist (as she claimed) or because she boasted too much about affairs with high fascist officials (as her FBI file asserted)? This article examines Sergio's writings and her 300-page FBI file to attempt to determine which story was true. But troubling aspects of her autobiography surfaced (such as dramatic narrative arcs and factual inconsistencies), suggesting that factual analysis alone cannot fully explain the discrepancies. This study borrowed a framework from autobiographical theorists and scholars to show that these writings were a performance for the U.S. audience: an act of identity, gender, and culture, concealing a hidden subtext of historical agency.

In speeches that she made and in U.S. newspaper articles, Lisa Sergio was called the world's first female radio announcer.1 She referred to herself similarly in the notes for her autobiography: "I became Europe's first woman commentator and il Duces interpreter for [England], the United States, and wherever else the English language was the official means of communication."2 She also noted that when she came to the United States, "I brought my unusual assets with me. Number one was the fact that I was [Benito] Mussolini's interpreter. None before had ever done this."3 Born in Italy, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1937 and was NBC's "woman announcer" for two years.4 Then, she became a news commentator on WQXR in New York City until 1946, which was a striking achievement because of the conventional wisdom of the era that women's voices were not suitable for serious radio news or commentary.5

This article examines Sergio's broadcasting career in Rome from 1932 to 1937. It is drawn from her accounts in the numerous manuscripts, outlines, and notes that she made for an unpublished autobiography as well as more than 300 pages of material obtained from the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act. These documents, and dozens of newspaper clippings from the era, tell a little-known story of Italy's pre-war invasion of the European airwaves using short wave propaganda broadcasts, a part of radio history that has not been told in English-language histories of Italian radio.6

These documents also tell two other stories-both inexplicably about the same woman. One set, penned by Sergio, paints her as an anti-fascist refugee from Mussolini and fascist Italy while the other set, compiled by FBI investigators, chronicles the exile of a woman too vocal about her affairs with high fascist officials. These stories point to a fundamental problem faced by historians: how to explain different accounts of the same events. This study integrates and attempts to explain the narratives. But, because a factual analysis cannot ultimately explain discrepancies between the narratives, this project borrowed a theoretical framework from autobiographical theorists and scholars to analyze Sergio's autobiography as a site where identity and historical agency were performed. This framework allowed for a search of hidden subtexts of the autobiography instead of focusing solely on an analysis based on historical fact. Thus, this study concludes that Sergio's version of her past was written with a public voice and intended for public consumption, which created a past that was acceptable to Americans and justified her position as a commentator on world news during World War II. What emerges is an understanding of the origins of a personal myth as a site of historical agency that enabled the survival of one woman's professional identity as a broadcaster and a mass communicator throughout her U.S. career.

Born in Florence in 1905, Sergio came of age at a time when fascism was a struggling political party and growing slowly. In 1922, with the encouragement of her grandfather, she took her first journalism job as an ciate editor of the only English-language weekly in Italy, the Italian Mail of Florence. …

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