When Will Rogers met Benito Mussolini in 1926, the cowboy comic knew what he hoped to discuss with the Fascist dictator—Il Duce’s creative use of castor oil to humiliate political enemies.
Rogers, 46, was a star of stage, screen, and radio. He had a syndicated newspaper column in which he poked gentle fun at politicians and other newsmakers in the droll voice of the Oklahoma cowboy he’d once been. He was beloved as a folksy American everyman.
In 1926, Rogers traveled Europe for The Saturday Evening Post, writing humorous commentary. After London, Paris, and Geneva, he arrived in Rome and arranged to meet Mussolini. Rogers first toured Rome. He dismissed the city, whose main attractions, he found, were old churches and old paintings. “I don’t want to see a lot of old Pictures,” he wrote. “If I wanted to see old Pictures I would get D.W. Griffith to revive the Birth of a Nation. That’s the best old Picture.”
But Mussolini did impress Rogers. The Fascist, who had ruled Italy since 1922, received much praise in the international press for bringing order to his chaotic country. But he’d also imposed dictatorial rule. In 1924, Blackshirts—Mussolini’s pet thugs—kidnapped and murdered the leader of the Socialist party. As Rogers studied Mussolini, he learned about the dictator’s favorite disciplinary tool—castor oil. Blackshirts would seize a foe, rough him up, strap him to a chair, and pour the laxative down his throat. Once the fellow soiled himself, the Blackshirts would send him home sick, hurting, and humiliated.
Rogers found this stratagem hilarious. “I know of nothing that would lessen a man’s political aspirations more than this,” he wrote. “Just think of the possibilities not only in Italy but in our country.”
Rogers meant to bring up castor oil because it showed that “the man must have humor.” Entering Mussolini’s office with a translator, Rogers grinned. He wanted to see if the famously dour dictator would grin back. Mussolini did, with a stiff-armed Fascist salute.
“Interview?” Mussolini asked in English.
“No interview,” Rogers replied.
“Hurray. Bravo,” Mussolini replied. “No interview.”
Rogers said he’d come to see if his host was a regular guy. “You hold a lot of different jobs here,” he said. Mussolini, who tended to dismiss ministers and name himself to replace them, counted his current assignments on his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five, six. Me—six ministers.”
“How much do you get for being all these?” Rogers asked.
“Oh, not so much,” Mussolini replied. About $1,000 a year.
Rogers said he’d make more in America. Both laughed, so Rogers pressed: Had Mussolini invented the castor oil treatment?
Mussolini winked. “Very good, eh?”
“He seemed rather proud of the idea,” Rogers wrote later, “and I don’t blame him.”
Delighted that an American appreciated his torturous innovation, Mussolini elaborated. “One fellow, he not so bad, we give him half-liter,” he said, laughing. “Next fellow, he bad boy, we give him one liter.”
Rogers asked Mussolini to sell him the recipe so he could dose U.S. senators engaging in filibusters. Congressmen were “not so bad,” Rogers added, so he’d give them only half a liter. The two men laughed.
Rogers said he was going to Russia. “Oh, Russia,” Mussolini said. “You take recipe to Russia. Very good for Russia—castor oil. I give you free.” And they laughed again.
Rogers had covered an international disarmament conference in Geneva. What did Il Duce think about disarmament?
“No disarmament,” Mussolini said, laughing. “We disarm when England disarm at sea, when France disarm in air and land. So you see we never have to disarm.” He riffed on international conferences: “They appoint committee. Committee appoint committee. This committee appoint committee to appoint another committee, round and round, like a dog biting its own tail.”
After a half-hour, Mussolini called an aide, who scurried off, returning with a photo of Il Duce on horseback the dictator autographed for Rogers.
Taking his cue, Rogers said he had one final question: Did Mussolini have a message for Italian-Americans?
“Tell them Mussolini is a regular guy. Is that the right Anglais?” It was, so the dictator continued. “Mussolini laugh, gay, like good time, same as everybody else. You tell that about Mussolini.”
Rogers obeyed. Il Duce “keeps getting better all the time,” he wrote. ”He is the only idealist that ever could make it work…Dictator form of government is the greatest form of government there is, if you have the right Dictator. Well, these folks have certainly got him.”
Rogers had a man-crush on Mussolini for years. “He has done more things for his country since the war than any hundred men in any other country,” he wrote in 1929. Four years later, Rogers was at it again: “Mussolini could run this country with his eyes shut. In fact, that’s the way our Congress has been running it. Mussolini, with no money, no natural resources—no nothing—has kept his country going, while us, with a surplus of everything under the sun, are mangy with representatives and liberty. But we can’t digest either one of ’em.”
Rogers abhorred colonialism and war, so Il Duce’s October 1935 invasion of Ethiopia might have soured him on the Italian leader. We’ll never know; two months earlier, Rogers had died in a plane crash in Alaska.✯