Do any of you remember the time when everything took place on terraces and outdoor cafés? Before everyone retreated into laptops and mobile telephones and Twitter? When possibilities flickered through the streets and the potential of new encounters was everywhere? Well, that’s all gone now, thanks to some pretty ugly-looking fellows with names like Dorsey and Zuckerberg, but we’re the ones who adopted their useless inventions and live by them as if they were the Sermon on the Mount. The social consequences have been devastating—the young make noises instead of articulating speech—and had Cassandra been around twenty or so years ago she would have warned us against tech companies that have the power to change our way of life.
Never mind. What’s done is done, and there are always books to remind us what the world was like before lookers like Bezos took over. My friend Leopold Bismarck is always slipping me books that make me want to shoot anyone, and everyone, from Silicon Valley. He even found one about Hemingway that I hadn’t read, which was like discovering the beautiful daughter of a farmer while looking for a needle in a haystack. Bolle’s latest gift is a book-diary written by his cousin, Hans-George von Studnitz, a diplomat who survived horrific bombings in Berlin—both his country seat and city house were totally destroyed—as he chronicles the key events of the war from 1943 to the end. What emerges in the diary is the terrible devastation and loss of life from the Allied bombings, but also the dignity of Berliners in the face of disaster. But what makes his opus sparkle is the portrait of the upper-class set he (Studnitz) as a nobleman frequented, and a particularly glamorous Polish evening of Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Italian foreign minister.
Galeazzo Ciano was an indefatigable seducer of women, whose perfect manners matched his skills with the fairer sex. Edda Mussolini, Benito’s favorite daughter and the best looker in the family, fell madly in love with him at first sight. Galeazzo was a bit greasy, in an Italian sort of way, but he was no perfumed popinjay, as his enemies referred to him. Executed by Mussolini for pursuing peace terms with the Allies, Ciano died like a man. He had been anti-Hitler from the start.
Just before war broke out, Ciano and his wife visited Warsaw, where a Polish colonel asked the couple if they would take supper with him in the regimental mess. After supper the colonel asked Countess Ciano whether she would care to dance. When she said yes, the curtains were drawn aside to reveal a jazz band and eighteen Polish officers in full dress uniform. As the band began to play, eighteen Polish officers bowed and simultaneously asked her to dance. Edda then got up and danced with each and every one of them. She called it the most romantic and dashing evening ever. Leave it to the Poles to have achieved it.