Henry Kissinger found himself in the doghouse after talking to her, famously describing his interview as “the most disastrous conversation I ever had with any member of the press.” Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni walked out of the room when she ripped off her chador. Golda Meir, the legendary Israeli prime minister, was struck dumb when she bluntly asked, “Seriously, will there ever be peace in this place?”
Sultry-eyed, sharp-tongued and glamorous as Liz Taylor in the 50s, Italian news correspondent Oriana Fallaci routinely got access others in her profession only dreamed of. She used it to ask the burning questions of her age: Would the U.S. Army recognize the magnitude of its mistake in Vietnam? Would the turbaned clerics that had taken over Iran push their brand of Islam on their neighbors? Would Israel ever agree to partition Jerusalem? Would India ever reach out to Pakistan?
Rolling Stone called her “the greatest political interviewer of modern times.” Now, a play opening in Portland on Thursday takes a look at the legendary reporter’s less glamorous side through the eyes of Sandro Sechi, an Italian author who worked as Fallaci’s personal assistant in her final year of life in New York.
Fallaci, he discovered on his first day on the job, was a nightmare.
Quick to anger, quicker to judgment, a chain smoker without the slightest consideration of those around her, the aging celebrity proved a study in bigotry, racism and, after the attacks of Sept. 11, Islamophobia, he found. She referred to gay men as “pea-brained imbeciles prone to gossip,” forcing Sechi to hide his own sexual orientation from her.
He took it in stride. But the second he left her employment, he sat down to write a book.
“Oriana’s Eyes” was an instant sensation in Italy. It gave the public an unvarnished look at the celebrity journalist. But it was also compassionate. Fallaci was dying of cancer at the time, and had also gone almost completely blind. Sechi moved audiences nationwide by capturing her vulnerability and isolation in her hour of greatest need.
Playwright Jennifer Eaton-Slack, who moved to Portland from New York roughly around the time Sechi and his husband Erik Mercer did, adapted the book into a play starring local actors Jacki Oliveri and Seth Rigoletti.
In scene after scene, the old woman rages as the young man cowers and obeys — until the day she places a demand so inhuman on him that he finally finds the courage to leave.
“Oriana’s Eyes” runs from June 1 to June 11 at St. Lawrence Arts in Portland. Tickets are available here.