updated 9/15/2006 6:56:07 PM ET 2006-09-15T22:56:07

Oriana Fallaci, a journalist whose merciless questioning succeeded in making some of the world’s most powerful and inaccessible people lower their guard, from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Henry Kissinger, has died. She was 76.

Fallaci, who wrote about her long battle with breast cancer, died overnight at a private clinic in her native Florence, Paolo Klun, an official with the RCS publishing group said Friday. Fallaci, who lived in New York, had returned to the Tuscan capital days ago as her condition worsened, he said.

Virtually all of the literary energy and passion of her final years were consumed in vehement attacks on a Muslim world she judged to be the enemy of Western civilization.

After a decade-long absence from the publishing scene, Fallaci burst into the spotlight after the Sept. 11 attacks with a series of blistering essays in which she argued that Muslims were carrying out a crusade against the Christian West.

At the time of her death, she was on trial in northern Italy, accused of defaming Islam in her 2004 book, “The Strength of Reason.” In it she argued that Europe had sold its soul to what she called an Islamic invasion.

A group in France unsuccessfully sought to stop distribution of another book, “The Rage and the Pride,” which Fallaci wrote as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, she maintained Muslims “multiply like rats” and said “the children of Allah spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day.”

An Islamic group expressed “relief” Friday at her death.

“It’s almost impossible to feel pity for somebody like Oriana Fallaci,” Dacia Valent, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Anti-Defamation League, told the Apcom news agency.

Even critics had compliments
So powerful was Fallaci’s writing, however, that even her critics had words of praise.

“I have to say that I didn’t agree with many of her analyses in her recent books,” center-left Premier Romano Prodi was quoted as telling reporters during a visit to China. “But they have always been insightful analyses which obliged us to think.”

Conservative Sen. Renato Schifani called Fallaci “a true protagonist of the West, of our values, of our civilization.”

The daughter of an anti-fascist Resistance fighter, she joined the movement herself as a teenager and started her career in journalism at 16. She spent eight years covering the Vietnam War, and at the age of 61, reported on the Persian Gulf War.

She “burst onto the scene and made a name for herself at a time when women were not very popular or tolerated in newspapers,” veteran Italian journalist Vittorio Feltri told Sky TG24 TV.

In 1954, she launched a 22-year-long relationship as a special correspondent for two of Italy’s biggest weeklies, Epoca and Europeo.

Two bullets pierced her body, one stopping just short of her spinal cord, in 1968, while she was covering the Mexican army’s killing of young protesters in Mexico City.

'Tigress of the typewriter'
The woman dubbed “the tigress of the typewriter” began interviewing Hollywood celebrities, but soon narrowed her subjects to those with the power to shape the world.

The New Yorker wrote in a recent profile that Fallaci disarmed her subjects with “bald questions about death, God and pity” and “displayed a sinuous, crafty intelligence.”

Among those who submitted to her grilling was Khomeini. “That’s enough. I’m tired. That’s enough,” the Iranian leader said at the end of the session. Fallaci’s interview with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a tent in the desert lasted five days.

Kissinger said of his interview with Fallaci: “Why I agreed to it, I’ll never know.”

Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace prize for his work with the Polish Solidarity labor movement, recalled cutting short her interview in the early 1980s. “She was a great writer, a great journalist, but she used some sort of shortcuts in thinking,” Walesa said.

Fallaci once described journalism as “a moral commitment. It’s courage, it’s culture.”

She also wrestled with existential questions like why women decide to have children and turned her musings into best sellers, including the 1975 “Letter to a Child Never Born.”

Opinionated on America
She expressed frustration about what she called Americans’ lack of knowledge about life outside their borders, but still professed preferring life in America to that in Italy. She divided her time between Tuscany and a book-filled apartment in Manhattan.

While many in Europe were questioning U.S. policy after the Sept. 11 attacks, Fallaci made a stinging indictment of Muslim immigrants and Italian ambivalence toward America.

In a front-page essay in Corriere della Sera, Fallaci wrote: “I don’t go around singing ‘Our Father’ and ‘Hail Mary’ in front of Muhammad’s tomb.”

“She interpreted the discomfort of Western modernity, perhaps at times with tones you couldn’t share, but certainly she interpreted it, and luckily there was someone to interpret it,” said Ferruccio De Bortoli, Corriere’s editor at the time.

Fallaci took the Catholic Church to task for being what she considered too weak before the Muslim world. But she praised Pope Benedict XVI for urging Europeans to value their Christian roots and had a private audience with him at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

“I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true,” Fallaci told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Fallaci never married and had no children. A nephew, Edoardo, told reporters in Florence that no wake or funeral service was planned.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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