Benito Mussolini had a favorite film star during his early years as a fascist dick-I mean dictator-of Italy. History is filled with bizarre little stories of connections between the famous that you never expect. Even when enough time has passed that the most famous half in a story has become eclipsed by the less famous half of that pairing, it is still interesting enough to become a story worth visiting. Because of that whole `those who fail to learn from history being condemned to repeat it thing’ if nothing else. This story is about Benito Mussolini and his favorite film star. Everyone has a favorite movie star. But few take their adoration to the lengths that Benito did. Perhaps it was an indication of some seriously compulsive behavior to come.
Anita Page at one time in the early history of Hollywood received an amount of fan letters coming to the studio second only to Greta Garbo. Garbo is a legend even today when knowledge of film history by most of those under the age of 40 is limited to movies made after 1990. Anita Page is on the verge of becoming merely a footnote at the bottom of the page. Get it…bottom of the page…Anita Page? Get it?
One of the reasons that an actress many of you may never have heard of received almost as many fan letters as a bona fide legend is that an extraordinary number of letters were sent to her on a regular basis by a mysterious and unknown Italian gentlemen. If you guess the future dictator of fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini, I can see you are way ahead of me.
That’s a joke, son.
According to Page, it was not uncommon for her to receive a letter just about every day of the week on some weeks during the height of her fame courtesy of the rising young fascist star. Keep in mind that the height of Page’s fame was just before and just after the arrival of sound in Hollywood. That means that Benito had a heckuva lot more time on his hands in which to pour out what Page would later term “gooey” expressions of love. A few years later, Page’s career would be in the toilet. Interestingly, that turn of events came about not because Anita Page failed to return the ardor addressed to her via the fascist dictator of Italy but rather because she failed to return the ardor addressed to her via what might be termed the dictator of MGM.
You only turned down an invitation to share the bed of MGM’s boy wonder producer Irving Thalberg if you didn’t really care all that much about maintaining your stardom. Even counting William “Citizen Kane” Hearst’s little rosebud of a lover, Marion Davies, as one of your closest friends did not protect you from the wrath of Thalberg. It is one of those odd quirks of playing the “what if” history game that we can imagine that Anita Page may actually have enjoyed a much fuller and more deserving career if she had slept with both Benito Mussolini and Irving Thalberg. Even a decade later, having bedded a fascist leader whose minions killed thousands of Americans might have done less to hurt her career than turning down the guy upon whom F. Scott Fitzgerald based the title character in his unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon.”