Gaia Servadio, who died in Rome at the age of 82, was a journalist and writer of irrepressible Italian descent, author of some 40 books, who spent most of her life in Britain and who animated for decades one of the last notable literary salons; she was also formerly Boris Johnson’s mother-in-law.
Encouraged by an Anglophile mother who had worked at the British Council in Rome, Gaia Servadio arrived in London in the mid-1950s, when she was 17. Originally, she hoped to be a painter, and enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art before studying design. at St Martin’s and Camberwell.
Luckily, the BBC asked him to participate in the making of a documentary on Danilo Dolci, the Sicilian social activist. It started her career as a journalist, first as a correspondent for Italian newspapers, although later she wrote for British newspapers, including the Telegraph headlines.
She has especially established herself by her work on the Mafia, little known beyond Sicily before the 1960s. Following the popular success of The Godfather, she published in 1974 a biography of the boss of the Mafia Angelo La Barbera, who is stabbed to death in prison the following year. She herself received threats and then focused on other matters.
In 1961, when she was still in her twenties, she married Willy Mostyn-Owen, who was then working for Christies. Ten years his senior, he was familiar with Italy, having previously been employed by art historian Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, his home in Florence.
An Old Etonian – a school she thought was overrated – and the owner of Aberuchill Castle, Perthshire, and Woodhouse, a Georgian mansion in Shropshire, Mostyn-Owen provided an entry into English society for Gaia.
Although she in turn brought a decided glamor to it, like many expats, she could be scathing about her new home. “The English – well, some of them are terrible fools,” she mused of the upper-class milieu she found herself in, “but some are eloquent and literate.”
She felt treated by her husband’s friends as an oddity (she never lost her hoarse accent), perhaps not least because she was then a full member of the Italian Communist Party. She later revealed that Mostyn-Owen had also been baffled by the overwhelming success in 1967 of her Candide-style novel Melinda, On the Spirit of the Times.
Although the couple had three children and their marriage did not officially end until much later, there has been infidelity on both sides. Her many admirers included Gianni Agnelli, who wooed her aboard his yacht. When, in a fit of anger at her young son’s mess, she threw all of her toys out the window, including a highly prized model of a Fiat 500 that Agnelli had given her, the tycoon replaced it with another – on a large scale.
Gaia Servadio believed that Agnelli was drawn to her because he was used to women who were “princesses or prostitutes”, not to those who had their own opinions; she was always aware that in Italy it was difficult to be taken seriously as a woman. She was cheerfully outspoken, her dislikes encompassing political correctness and psychoanalysis (“the penance of the middle classes”).
Her home on the Chelsea-Pimlico border, her chaotic cuisine reflecting a style of making that she admitted to be ‘rushed’ or sloppy, has become a meeting point for many other Italians passing through London.
Among the visitors were Primo Levi, a friend of his father, a fellow industrial chemist, Inge Feltrinelli, widow of the publisher of Dr Zhivago, and director Bernardo Bertolucci and his wife Clare Peploe.
There they could meet historians and writers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Denis Mack Smith, Al Alvarez and Lady Antonia Fraser. Gaia Servadio’s address book ranged from Harold Acton to Evelyn Waugh, including Maria Callas, Pierre Cardin, EM Forster, Mary McCarthy, Nancy Mitford and Philip Roth.
Her own books, mostly in Italian, included biographies of director Luchino Visconti (1980) and composer Gioachino Rossini (2015), an inspirational life for La Traviata, Giuseppina Strepponi (1994) and a study of Renaissance women. (1986).
Among a myriad of other projects in which she was involved include a Gustav Mahler music festival in London in 1985, organized with Claudio Abbado, the conductor, and a Verdi Week in 2011 for the Italian Embassy in the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Unification.
Several times in the 1980s, Gaia Servadio hosted Channel 4’s talk show After Dark. She also researched the archeology of Sicily (for which she learned to read Phoenician), and in 2008, Asma Assad, the wife of the Syrian ruler, asked him to organize an arts festival in Damascus, although the events were unsuccessful.
Travel was another passion, not only in the Middle East, but also in India, France and Russia. She was proud to speak a little Russian, and in a characteristic episode, on a recent trip to Estonia, she haggled with a street vendor for the price of a box of caviar. When it was opened it turned out to contain dog food.