Eight Women in Love

Mussolini’s secret police overlooked a sheet of paper: a single edict from the city of Milan, asking Mussolini to pay spousal support to Ida Dalser. When this piece of paper was found, Ida had been dead almost seventy years.

She had it easy at first, because she wasn’t one of the wives.

Hyon Song-wol at the National Meeting of Artists in Pyongyang.

Eva Braun and her longtime boyfriend got married in a small civil ceremony in a bunker. They lived as husband and wife for just forty hours. She declined the bullet because she wanted to look pretty when she was found. Perhaps she didn’t know they’d burn her body after they recovered it. Her charred remains were buried in the backyard garden. She was exhumed and buried again in a compound in East Germany. And then she was exhumed again and burned. Thoroughly this time. Her ashes were scattered in the Elbe River. The letters she sent were burned and the letters she received were burned. Heat is cleansing, like soap.

But then there are photographs. Eva doing a backbend on the shore of Lake Konigssee, face to face with her own shadow. A canoe paddles behind her. Eva sunbathing on a rock. Eva staring out the window. She arches one leg up like a ballerina. Eva holding a teacup. Petting her Scottish terriers. Petting his German Shepherd named, predictably, Blondi.

When she signed her own name on the marriage certificate, she started to write B for Braun, but then she crossed it out. “Eva Hitler,” she wrote. She saw him for the last time in a bunker and told him she’d never leave his side. (She was known for histrionics.) They drank champagne and ate cake, and she told him she was happy.

Parisoula Lampsos says a friend made her go to the party. Yet she recalls the outfit she was wearing in exact detail. Pink dress, a matching band in her hair, silver shoes, golden anklets and bracelets. Before going out that night, she spritzed on Je Reviens, her favorite perfume. She says her friends used to call her “the Princess of Baghdad.”

When she met him, she was holding a bowl of tabbouleh. He wasn’t famous at the time. Just a promising upstart in the Ba’ath party. And she liked everything about him from the start. His blue silk suit. His golden eyes.

“He was a real man,” she said.

He was an adult man, 31, already married, already a father. She was 16. They danced that evening to Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.” That’s what they were. Strangers. The Princess of Baghdad and the soon-to-be Butcher of Baghdad.

She had it easy at first, because she wasn’t one of the wives. They met up two or three nights a week, on and off for thirty-three years. Even after he threw her husband in jail and seized his possessions. Even after his son raped her daughter. She stuck around. She watched him cry when he lost the Persian Gulf War. “His eyes were red, red, red.” She sat with him to watch videos of his torture victims. He liked to put on a cowboy hat and smoke cigars for the occasion.

She was a refugee in Sweden when she decided to talk. Her memories were met with doubt. Where was the proof of this three-decade-long relationship? No photos, no letters. She didn’t pack them with her when she fled Iraq? What an opportunist, this “alleged mistress.” She took umbrage. Not just at the term alleged. She didn’t like being called a mistress. She says it was more than that.

When US troops stormed Hussein’s safe houses, there was one they referred to as his “love shack.” They shouted “yeah, babyyyy” and “shagadelic” as they skipped through the compound. A labyrinth of mirrored walls, beanbag chairs, lamps shaped like women, bottles of cognac, and a Jacuzzi. Hussein had a mural of a blonde woman wearing only panties, a serpent shooting out of her finger to ensnarl a warrior. In the bedroom, American troops found photos of Saddam and Pari.

Ida Dalser’s husband was away when she gave birth to a baby boy. She wrote a letter informing him that she had named the baby Benito Albino. No response.

Those days, she lodged at the Hotel Milano. And because she was cash-poor, having already pawned her jewelry and sold her beauty salon to support her man (his politicking, his newspaper), she was about to be evicted. Whether it was panic or rage or even madness, does it matter? She set the lobby on fire and ran.

When hotel management sent police on the trail of Signora Mussolini, her rival Rachele was arrested instead. Rachele spent hours convincing the police that she had never been to the Hotel Milano, was not even in Milan at the time.

Two Signora Mussolinis met each other in the hospital ward. They pushed their way toward their husband, each claiming to be the true wife. A group of soldiers gathered around them, laughing as one Signora Mussolini pounced on the other and began choking her. A wounded Benito, bound in bandages, tried to break up his wives’ fight, even throwing himself from the bed in vain. At last, doctors and nurses broke the women up. One signora rushed off as the other stayed and cried.

“Not Even Nero or Caligula would have done what you have done,” Ida wrote to her ex.

She showed up: at the newspaper offices, at the speeches, baby in her arms, shouting about betrayal. She claimed to have proof of her legitimate marriage and evidence that her husband had committed treason. Mussolini dispatched his secret police to destroy records tying him to Ida.

She was kidnapped in public. Snatched away while walking down the street, beaten and straitjacketed. When she tried to escape the psychiatric hospital, she was transferred to San Clemente Island, the refuge of pilgrims, plague victims, monks, soldiers, the mentally ill, and stray cats. Ida died on this island in 1937.

And the baby? His fate mirrored his mother’s. He persisted in repeating—doggedly, stupidly, suicidally—that he was the son of Il Duce. Until he too was committed to a psychiatric hospital. There he was kept in an induced coma until he died at 26.

Mussolini’s secret police overlooked a sheet of paper: a single edict from the city of Milan, asking Mussolini to pay spousal support to Ida Dalser. When this piece of paper was found, Ida had been dead almost seventy years.

Lidia Pereprygina was an orphan. She lived among reindeer and snow foxes and dressed in their fur. She met Stalin when he came to her town in exile. He wasn’t prepared for the weather. The first thing she noticed was his thin coat.

He asked her to call him Soso.

It was the eve of World War I. He had dropped in on her at the home she shared with her siblings. The locals taught him to fish and hunt in the Siberian wilderness. They put up with the open affair between the revolutionary and the 13-year-old girl. Lidia’s seven brothers resented the older stranger. But they opened up their two-room shack to him when Lidia got pregnant. When Soso used the outhouse, he brought along a rifle to scare away wolves.

Though he promised marriage, she couldn’t reach him when she miscarried the first child. He was drafted into the Tsarist army when she gave birth to the second.

And then he was gone. Lidia heard rumors of seduced maids and landladies, a line of noblewomen and liberated revolutionary girls, one saucy 16-year-old runaway codenamed Glamourpuss by the secret police. None quite so young as her. The women all recalled his honey-colored eyes, his burning eyes, his incredible shock of hair and shining eyes.

Twenty years after the affair, Lidia recalled her lover’s white underwear, his sailor-striped vest. She went on to become a Siberian housewife. He went on to call for the executions of ten million Russians. But she thought back on their evenings drinking and dancing. He sang songs to her in his sweet, high voice.

Nguyen Thi Minh Khai was released from prison just in time to attend the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in Moscow. There, in front of the Comintern, she read an essay about the role of women in the struggle against imperialism. She was 24 years old. The crowd rushed around her after she spoke. There’s Lenin’s wife Krupskaya whispering in her ear, while Minh Khai grins wildly.

It’s the rare photo of her smiling. Her eyes are dark and serious. Her full lips pout by their very nature. Her face grew sharper and more severe as she got older, aging to 31 years old.

When she arrived in Moscow, she wrote that she was married to “Lin,” using Ho Chi Minh’s pseudonym. What was it like to be the lover of a celebrated virgin? Even now in Vietnamese textbooks, Uncle Ho is remembered as a celibate, singularly devoted, hard only for the cause. It was speculated that perhaps Minh Kai and Ho Chi Minh intended to get married, or were secretly married, or considered each other husband and wife.

The French police knew all too well. They tracked Minh Khai for more than a decade, meticulously documenting her whereabouts, secret meetings, the messages she delivered in three different languages. They knew her father was a railway clerk. When she was a girl, he let her use the upper floor of the station to hide banned books and hold study sessions at night. In a circle, she and her baby comrades read the poet Phan Boi Chau, who wrote in exile about a free Vietnam. His writing snatched away her soul, her classmates joked with one another.

Unwittingly, the Surete also documented a decade of her romantic relationships. They intercepted a breakup letter: “I am no longer haunted by the idea of marriage or motherhood . . . My only husband is the Communist Revolution.”

Supposedly she was tortured and beaten after her second arrest, but she gave up no information. Supposedly she wrote a poem in her own blood on the prison walls. The road ahead is strewn with thorns. Supposedly she died screaming.

Streets in Vietnam now bear her name.

News of Hyon Song-wol’s execution brought her global fame. She was allegedly arrested for shooting and distributing sex tapes, along with eleven other musicians from the Unhasu Orchestra. When their possessions were searched, the police found Bibles among their belongings. Their families were forced to watch their executions and were then promptly sent to prison camps.

Grainy stills of Hyon’s beaming, symmetrical face circulated through Western media in screenshots from her most famous music video, “Lady Riding a Fine Horse.” The title was widely mistranslated to “Excellent Horse-like Lady.”

Our factory comrades say in jest,
Why they tell me I am a virgin on a stallion
After a full day’s work I still have energy left
My skills are truly like lightning.

In the video, Hyon is an eager textile worker. She dashes around the factory, energetically replacing bobbins. She embraces the spools of thread with both arms, looks up at a pile of yarn in awe. The song ends: “Mounting a stallion my Dear Leader gave me, all my life I will live to uphold his name.”

A piece of North Korean propaganda was the only surviving reminder of a girl who had come to symbolize the regime’s barbarism. How could Kim Jong-un kill his own ex-girlfriend?

Questions splintered into more questions. Were Kim and Hyon star-crossed lovers? Was Kim’s wife jealous? Was Hyon executed to obscure Kim’s wife’s own sexual misconduct? Have we found the sex tape?

A year later, Hyon Song-wol appeared on live television. Dressed in an olive green military uniform, she spoke at a rally in Pyongyang, praising “the heavenly trust and warm care of the Dear Marshal.”

A fistful of questions scatter in the air.

A reporter approached Hyon Song-wol about rumors of her execution.

She deflected with a smile and a question: “Where do you come from?”

Sarah Kyolaba went into the marriage knowing more than most girlfriends. She heard the news reports about the fourth wife. The trunk of her body was wrapped in a burlap. Arms and legs packed into boxes. The incisions at the shoulder and hip joints were so clean only a doctor could have made them.

Onstage, she was called Suicide Sarah. A go-go dancer for the Revolutionary Suicide Mechanised Regiment Band of the Ugandan Army. Nineteen, black skin glistening under the stage lights, so early into her pregnancy that no one could tell. From the audience at the New Masaka Town Hall, Idi Amin marveled at her moves. He whispered his intentions to the lieutenant colonel sitting beside him.

Perhaps, climbing into the military helicopter headed to Kampala, Suicide Sarah tested her nickname’s underlying truth. As she got ready to board, a young, light-skinned man tried to block her, claiming to be her husband. A soldier chased the man away, and some months later he vanished altogether.

The wedding was held at the Nile Hotel, a site so dear to Amin that he often claimed he was born there. Amin slept in Room 202. He set up offices for Military Intelligence and National Security Services in Rooms 211 and 233. The basement of the conference room was a torture chamber. More than once, diplomats were entertained in one room while dissidents were tortured in another.

Outside the hotel, Idi Amin paced anxiously, military medals swinging at his breast with each step. Sarah grasped an attendant’s hand to steady herself as she climbed out of the car. Her lavish dress, layer upon layer of sheer fabric, was purchased on a shopping trip to Frankurt and Bonn, flown in on a jet on loan from Colonel Qaddafi. Inside, the best man, Yasser Arafat, reclined on a floral couch.

Flash bulbs go off in her face. A photographer shouts in English, “Don’t be shy!” Under the glare of artificial light, she puts on a smile. The bride and groom stand side by side, wearing matching grins. Another photographer announces, “That’s enough.”

The most famous photo from the wedding is an image of the groom cutting the wedding cake with a sword.

How many names did she go by?

There was the name prepared by a father who had anticipated a son: Lǐ Jìnhái.

The backup when she revealed herself as a baby girl: Lǐ Shūméng.

When she enrolled in elementary school, she went by a name that evoked a crane flying through clouds: Lǐ Yúnhè. She often modified it to the simpler, less poetic Lǐ Hè.

At the start of her acting career, she chose a stage name that translated literally to Blue Apple: Lán Píng.

When she moved to Yan’an to join the revolution, she needed a new name to sever herself from her bourgeois life as an actress. She chose Jiang Qing, a name that still suggested the color blue.

She was Jiang Qing when she served as Mao Zedong’s secretary. Jiang Qing became his wife. Jiang Qing was pressured by party leaders to stay out of politics for thirty years, as part of her marriage agreement to the Chairman.

Jiang Qing waited out her time.

Lǐ Yúnhè was mocked in school for her poverty and her illegitimate birth. She was a child laborer in a cigarette factory, while her mother worked as a domestic servant, and by some accounts, a prostitute.

Lǐ Yúnhè entered an experimental theater school as a teenager. She fell in love and lived with a physics student, who convinced her to join a band of artists who supported the revolution, the Communist Cultural Front. She was incarcerated for her political activities, kept apart from her lover.

Jiang Qing created a new model for plays. A reformed theater that told simple, moralistic stories in which virtuous farmers and laborers defeated evil landlords and antirevolutionaries.

It was Jiang who directed the Red Guards to torture and murder the son and daughter of her rival, Zhou Enlai, for whom her dislike was personal. Jiang Qing asked that his daughter be cremated and her body disposed of. Jiang Qing then forced Zhou to sign an arrest warrant for his own brother. And when Zhou died, she started the “Five Nos” campaign to discourage public mourning.

One may have accidentally killed her husband by turning him onto his right side in his sleep, ignoring the doctor’s warning that he could only breathe on his left side. Flipped him over and watched him turn blue.

One was arrested in a bloodless coup after an afternoon of apple picking.

One defended herself in court: “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.”

One was sentenced to death.

In prison, one begged to visit her husband’s embalmed body. Request denied.

One was diagnosed for throat cancer and refused treatment.

One checked out of the prison on medical leave.

One chose her last pseudonym to preserve her anonymity at the public hospital. Lǐ Rùnqīng was an affectionate gesture to her marriage—an amalgam of her real surname, her late husband’s childhood nickname, and her communist name.

Lǐ Rùnqīng hanged herself in the bathroom of her hospital room.

Lǐ Yúnhè was the name printed on her tombstone.

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