On this day: Umberto II, outed before his coronation

Umberto II

Born September 15, 1904 into the thousand-year-old Savoy dynasty that ruled unified Italy from 1860, King Umberto II reigned for only 34 days. He ascended to the throne three years after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini outed him as gay.

Unlike most of his family, Umberto was a staunch Catholic. But he was also staunchly gay.

Famed Italian journalist Domenico Bartoli enjoyed close access to the royal family.

“The prince was a true believer and a practising Catholic almost to the point of fanaticism. Therefore, sensual urges had a satanic origin, yet he was unable to resist them. Thus the consequences of his sins became a devastating burden.

“The exact nature of the sins, however, could only be whispered.”

‘Forever rushing between chapel and brothel, confessional and steam bath’

But what Bartoli whispered, others would later say out loud. A biographer wrote of the young prince “forever rushing between chapel and brothel, confessional and steam bath.”

Umberto particularly enjoyed the company of young military officers and rewarded them handsomely. A former lieutenant later wrote of the prince ‘seducing’ him with expensive gifts including a silver cigarette lighter inscribed ‘Dimmi di si!’ (‘Say yes to me!’).

Among Umberto’s other conquests, Jean Marais, later the lover of Jean Cocteau and one of the greatest stars of French cinema. Also, the 1.98-metre tall Italian world boxing champion Primo Carnera. And young Italian aristocrat Luchino Visconti, famous now as the acclaimed filmmaker of cinematic masterpieces like The Damned and Death in Venice.


umberto II
Primo Carnera, Luchino Visconti and Jean Marais (foreground, with Jean Cocteau).

In 1930, Umberto entered an arranged marriage with Princess Marie José of Belgium. The prince personally designed his bride’s wedding dress. But then chose to spend the wedding night and honeymoon with male friends rather than her. The married couple lived apart and ignored their dynastic obligation to produce an heir for four years.

The princess did give birth to four children in the decade from 1934. However, gossip that a fascist politician fathered the children reached even the king’s ears.

The Italian Foreign Minister of the day made a diary note of the announcement of Marie José’s second pregnancy.

“I was left to understand the child will be his [Umberto’s] without the intervention of doctors or syringes.”

The princess’s doctor later confirmed that three of the couple’s four children were conceived via artificial insemination.

Victor Emmanuel III

Umberto’s father ruled as a constitutional monarch, a system of government that allegedly provides a safeguard against the excesses of democracy.

It didn’t work.

Victor Emmanuel III allowed, and indeed, assisted the rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Despite misgivings about Il Duce’s alliance with Hitler, the king did not oppose Italy’s entry into WWII. Then, when defeat seemed imminent in 1943, he deserted the fascist leader.

But a 20-year association with fascism had compromised the monarchy. Some saw Umberto as a better alternative. He had occasionally stood up to the fascists and retained some respect from the populace.

Ugly Starlet

However, Mussolini had an ace up his sleeve. His spies had surveilled the prince since his youth and compiled an extensive dossier. Fascist newspapers published lurid articles about the man they called ‘Ugly Starlet’ and his gay sexual exploits.

Nevertheless, Victor Emmanuel’s unpopularity saw him forced to step aside and appoint Umberto regent. The king hoped to make a comeback when things settled down. But that never happened. A post-war government determined to hold a referendum on whether to retain the monarchy. Fearful of going down in history as the last Savoy king, Victor Emmanuel abdicated and his son succeeded him as Umberto II.

However, a majority voted for a republic and Umberto II reigned for only 34 days. He went into exile and died in Geneva in 1983. As Catholics, he and Marie José never divorced. But nor did they ever co-habit.

In 2012, Umberto II’s grandson, an Italian reality TV star, threatened to sue a writer who included his grandfather in a list of gay and bisexual heads of state.

“This is defamation. This book must not be on sale and I want to sue the author because it damages the memory of my family.

“But, as I’m in favour of gay marriage and LGBT issues, I’ll give all the money coming from compensation to Italian LGBT associations.”

Um… Okay.

Also: Dickie, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma

The gay royals at the funeral of the homophobic George V.

Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Swan King

For the latest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) news in Australia, visit qnews.com.au. Check out our latest magazines or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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