Hitler

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The Golf Club at Alberoni – Il Circolo Golf Venezia as it is properly known – is one of the most charming and tranquil backwaters on the Lido, a good place for afternoon tea. The club house is an entertaining and eccentric amalgam of English, American and Italian style: ancient and unimpeachably shabby sofas and armchairs, cases of tarnished trophies, Ivy League-style honours boards, photos of regulars such as the Duke of Windsor, Bing Crosby and Henry Ford, a bar with an agreeably informal junior common room feel, and an acceptable quota of irascibly serious golfers, chic socialites, retreating men of letters and fragile A-list filmstars. The club was the brainchild of the motor-car magnate, Henry Ford, who found it scarcely credible that Venice, an ancient and civilized city, should have survived for so long without a golf course. Ford approached the ever enthusiasticVolpi and the two men set about finding a suitable site. The 100 hectares of lush, well planted and irrigated land around the old fort of Alberoni seemed an ideal spot. The best golf architects in the world, then Cruikshank of Glasgow, were commissioned to lay out nine compact but agreeably challenging holes (there are eighteen today).

The most notorious of the club’s guests in its early days was Hitler, who visited the Lido in 1934 on a state visit to Mussolini. Though Hitler’s visit bore little resemblance to the grave pageant and elaborately staged ritual prepared for Henri III and other visiting heads of state it was, nevertheless, a piece of theatre and an embarrassing one at that.

The two most illuminating accounts are those by H. R. Knickerbocker[1], the American foreign correspondent and Elisabetta Cerruti[2], wife of the Italian Ambassador to Germany. Knickerbocker and his journalist colleagues stood in an orderly line at the airfield, awaiting the arrival of Hitler’s Junkers. Mussolini was well prepared, dressed in a general’s uniform, a potent confection comprising mirror-polished jackboots, crisp black shirt and imperially glistening gold braid. There was a spring to his step and a detachment of beautifully dressed infantry lined up beside him as a guard of honour. As Knickerbocker reports, “Mussolini proved a great stage manager. He arranged the meeting to take place in Venice, and had his guest land on the airfield of Lido. The fact that it was an island made it easy for the authorities to exclude the public, and when Hitler arrived he stepped directly into a perfectly appointed theater.” When Hitler stepped out of the plane the contrast between the two men was dramatic, unnerving. Hitler’s aide-de-camp, Konstantin von Neurath, had advised the Fuhrer to wear civilian clothes, a correct and old-school prescription but scarcely a very astute one in view of Mussolini’s formidable and by now very widely publicized wardrobe. Hitler wore a shabby raincoat of English cut and an incongruously brand-new fedora. “Beneath the obligatory cordiality,” says Knickerbocker, “I could see an expression of amusement in Mussolini’s eyes and of resentment in Hitler’s.”

Hitler was swiftly transported to the Grand Hotel on the Grand Canal where, Time Magazine tells us, the “pantherlike Secretary of the Party, Achille Starace, and 80 bulging German detectives” shook the building with “the tramp, tramp of their arrival”. Once safely behind the closed doors of his suite, Hitler hit the roof, raving at his staff, in particular at von Neurath, for allowing him to make such a fool of himself. The Grand, meanwhile, had spared no trouble to make his stay as comfortable as possible. Attention to detail was paramount and the hotel’s Jewish pastry chef, one of the best in Venice, had been exiled to the Lido – to the Excelsior – for fear that his ethnicity (rather than his pastries) might cause offence.


[1] Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker (1898–1949,) was an American writer and journalist, nicknamed ‘Red’ Knickerbocker from the colour of his hair, He reported regularly for Time and other magazines in Europe and the USA and won the Pulitzer Prize for his journalism.
[2] Her memoirs, Ambassador’s Wife, offer fascinating glimpses into life under Mussolini.