book review: naples '44

World War 2 ended in August  1945 with
the Japanese surrender and the
following month a ceremony occurred in
Washington to award the Congressional
Medal of Honor to winners of the award,
those living and to the families of others
to receive the medal posthumously. It
was President Truman to conduct the
ceremony and one of the honorees,
Robert Graebner of Wheeling West
Virginia had this to say about the
experience. He said:

Standing there waiting for the President to
work his way down the line to myself--I have
never been so terrified in my life. I was
shaking like a leaf. Then it was my turn and
the President places the medal around my
neck and he says to me: “I would rather have
this medal than be President of the United

I mention this story because I have just
finished reading a book, Naples ’44 by
Norman Lewis, in which none of these
soldierly qualities of courage, heroism
and steadfastness of purpose make an

In July of 1943  with the war going badly
for Germany and even worse for Italy  
Mussolini was arrested by the king
and in September the Italians threw in
the towel—to surrender to the allies—
the Americans and British.  

Meanwhile the campaign in Sicily had
been fought and the Germans routed to
retreat to the mainland. The allies
followed, beginning at the toe of the
boot and gradually working their way

Enter Norman Lewis. Lewis was English,
a writer and linguist. He spoke a half
dozen languages including German,
French, Italian and Arabic. Language
specialists tended to wind up in
intelligence and Lewis was sent first
to north Africa and then to Italy to
participate in the landings at Salerno.
The book, that takes the form of a
diary, begins at this point.

Naples in 1944 could be described as a
city in a state of cardiac arrest. If an
architect were to plan a city in such a
way to render it most vulnerable to
aerial bombing the city to result from
this design would be Naples—a hive of
narrow zigzagging streets and
precariously sited dwellings  to magnify
the destructive effect and quickly reduce
an entire neighborhood to rubble.


Its a walk through a city literally tumbling about
our ears. There is a stench of shattered drains
or worse—and a return to the middle ages and
all their deformities and diseases and
desperate trickeries—the hunchbacks
scuttling underfoot and a great collection of
idiots and cretins nodding their big heads and
here and there a small legless bundle
balanced behind a saucer into which a few lire
had been thrown.

The tone of the book is set—the tone of
a sensitive and compassionate man—the
humanitarian type—plunked down
amongst a nation of people reduced to
the level of animals.

Meanwhile the authorities had installed
themselves in the city and established
an office—the AMG—the American
Military Government. It was Lewis and
his colleagues in British intelligences
who were attached to the AMG as a sort
of glorified snooping adjunct and DA’s
office. The duties were not clearly
defined—both a plus and minus to the
job—but the idea was to do what could
be done to control activities on the black
market—not much as Lewis says
because “We soon discovered that most
Italians lead political lives of complete
apathy although prone to sexual

These were the themes of Neapolitan
life at this time: food, sex, the black
market. Naturally they were
interconnected and to speak of one was
for the other two to quickly enter the

Letter from a father

Lewis visits a family to investigate some
incident of thievery--or the rumor of
such—and the following day receives a

Sir: I noticed when your honor was good
enough to call that from the way you spoke to
my daughter she made a good impression on
you. This girl has no mother and hasnt eaten
for days. I have no job and cant feed my
family. If you could manage to give her a good
meal once a day I’d be quite happy for her to
stay and perhaps we could come to some
mutually satisfactory understanding in due

The jailed industrialist

An industrialist was sentenced to a year
for black market activities. The wife
goes to the Beacon, the best of the
Neapolitan brothels and asks to see the
most intelligent girl. She dresses the girl
in her best clothes, complete with
jewelry and pays her 4000 lire to
impersonate her, the wife of the
industrialist, and arrange for an
interview with the colonel over at the
AMG who prosecuted the case.


“The visit was a success and 2 days later the
industrialist was re-introduced to civilian life.
The general view of Italians to this story is:
‘Too bad they didnt send one with the

Ride to a soldier

Returning from an assignment Lewis
picks up an American soldier hitching a
ride. They drive a few blocks and the
soldier says: “I feel like a woman. How
about that place over there?” He shows
Lewis his pack with some cans of food.
Lewis drops him off outside an
apartment building and waits as the
soldier rings the bell. The door opens
and there are a few words of
conversation with the person inside and
the soldier gives the OK sign to Lewis
and disappears inside the building.

Vito Genovese

The American Mafia in the thirties was
under the control of  Lucky Luciano.
There was this Don and that Don and
the other Don but when push came to
shove it was Lucky Luciano calling the
shots. Lucky’s second in command was
Vito Genovese. The FBI had been
hounding Luciano for years and finally
managed to deport him back to his
native Sicily where, hailed as a hero, he
didnt miss a beat resuming his
nefarious activities and a few years later
it was Vito who found himself in the
soup, under a murder indictment, and
he fled the country also,  to turn up in
Naples where, following the example of
his former boss he enjoyed the  
confidence and benign patronage of

Then 1943 arrived, the Duce was
arrested and Vito became tight with the
Americans—the AMG—and quickly
assumed control of the
sindacos of most
of the towns within the vicinity of Naples.

Now what you had was: the AMG  calling
the shots policy-wise but it was the
camorra—operating under the eagle eye
of Vito Genovese--that controlled the
black market and it was the black
market that served to regulate life as it
was actually lived among the people of
the city.

The significance of all this was obvious:
that anything involving the black market
had first to receive the AMG stamp of

For example: news leaked out of a
particularly stealable load of military
equipment and other goods arriving by
cargo ship. The
camorra sprung into
action. The officials involved were paid
off and when the ship docked the air raid
sirens sounded to clear the streets, the
mobile smoke screen units were flung
into action and the “shock troops” of the
black market were on the scene in a
flash and the operation went off without
a hitch--to unload the entire contents of
the ship down to the last box of spam,
cigarettes, coffee and bayonets onto the
backs of the waiting army trucks and
they were gone.

sex continued

Lewis is approached by a woman in the
street who implores him to visit her
house where she has something to show
him. He decides to help out.

She lives not in a house but, like 80% of
the Neopolitans, a
basso, a slang
expression, to describe a single room—
windowless, airless, waterless.

What she has to show him is her
daughter, age 13 and thin as a stick.

Lewis says:

Some soldiers are reluctant to have sex with
the average Neapolitan prostitute due to a
fear of venereal disease but are willing to pay
for some other service—fellatio being the most
common—but also for a young girl such as
this to strip and display her sex.

The woman suggests a price of  20 lire—
or 2/3 the cost of one egg on the black
market. Lewis declines.

Prince A

A visit from Prince A—the absentee
landlord of a vast estate in the south.
The Prince is typical of the Neapolitan
upper class—meaning he was educated
to embrace the idea that the business of
trade or to perform some useful
commercial service is unseemly but to
enter a profession in which he is certain
never to find employment is acceptable.
The result is an enforced aristocratic
idleness that leaves the Prince and other
members of his class even worse off
then the average Neapolitan who
merely goes hungry while the prince and
his fellow aristocrats are dying of
starvation. That is why the prince has
appeared at Lewis’ door, along with his
sister, age 24, to enquire if Lewis can
arrange for the sister to enter an army
brothel. Lewis regrets to explain that,
unlike the Germans, the British have
failed to establish these services.


There was no food. Lewis estimates that
1/3 of the food imported into Italy by
the allies was diverted to the black
market. Food was the obsession of
every Neapolitan from the moment they
opened their eyes in the morning until
they fell asleep at night with the same
nagging emptiness gnawing at their

These are some of the things you will
find yourself eating when there is
nothing else to be found:

The roadside plant—mostly dandelions

Small birds—sparrows and warblers

Seafood such as: winkles and sea snails,
and in the poultry dept: chicken heads
and guts, the throat and feet.



The density of the population in the vicaria
district is the greatest in Europe—3000 people
per acre. They live on the indescribable offal
from the slaughterhouse, on the heads and
tails of fish and in a moment even more
desperate than usual—the body of a cat.
There is a rumor of the steady decline of the
cat population of the city and I note the
carcass of a rabbit is never on display in a
butcher shop without the head that
guarantees its identity. Otherwise a swap with
the body of a cat has been known to occur.

cost of living

The average monthly wage for an  
Italian civil servant at this time was
1200 lire. A loaf of bread on the black
market, made with tainted flour is 160
lire/kilo. Olive oil is 450 lire per litre,
eggs are 30 lire each and salt doesn’t
exist and cannot be bought at any price.

The Uncle From Rome

Of all the Neapolitan scoundrels out
there wandering the streets—the
hustlers and pimps and hookers and
thieves and scheming politicians and
informants and high and low ranking
members of the
camorra, etc, it was
Lattarullo who becomes his contact—the
uncle from Rome.

Laturllo wasnt an uncle and he wasnt
from Rome but everyone in Naples had
their role to play and this was his. Like
the Prince as described above Lattarullo
was proof of the determination of every
middle class Neopolitan family to have
one uselessly qualified son. The family
could barely put 4 slices of bread on the
table for the evening meal but the son
can now be address with respect—as
avoccato or dotorre or professore

This according to Lewis was classic
description of the inner  workings of
Neapolitan society at this time—a time
of anarchy and disorder and raging
starvation—-but not to lose sight of,
above all, the value of values—to keep
up appearances.

Its on display most prominently at a
funeral. A man who lived in poverty his
entire life is certain to be buried in a
magnificent coffin and given a dignified
farewell and this is where the uncle from
Rome comes in--some professional type
commissioned for a few hundred lire to
appear at the funeral and pose as a
friend of the deceased.

Lewis says:

“Why in this little farce must the uncle be from
Rome? Why not Bari or Taranto? But Rome it
has to be”.

The uncle appears on the scene in a fine
suit, a perfect fit and lets it be known he
has just arrived on the Rome express,
he never uses the 3rd person singular
personal pronoun
lui as all the lower
class Neapolitan types do but says
as in the textbooks. Lattarullo was
perfect to play this part. He had the
patrician appearance, and the Roman
accent and manner had been rehearsed
to perfection.

If anyone at the wake happened to
notice Latarullo as a fellow Neapolitan
often seen wandering half starved in the
streets like everyone else they were
careful to keep this information to

The funeral over Latarullo would return
to his room—the
basso--and eat lunch. A
slice of bread dipped into a precious
hoard of olive oil and briefly rubbed, not
too forcefully, with a tomato.

Lola and the Captain

Lattarullo introduces Lewis to a friend—
Lola--who has a British lover—captain
Frazer. Neither speaks the language of
the other and Lola has come to ask a
favor—for Lewis to pass along  crucial
information she wishes to share with the
captain. The neighbors are beginning to
gossip about the captain, not that he is
her lover which is common knowledge
but that he visits only at night and never
during the day. This is a violation of the
Neapolitan custom in which the lover
always pays a “conjugal visit”, as Lola
puts it, at mid-afternoon.

Lewis promises to pass on the message.

He meets with the captain. Lewis says:

The captain was a striking man with a
beautiful greatcoat made especially for him—
the most handsome coat I had ever seen and,
to complete the picture, a hat that was pushed
up in front with some kind of stiffener that
made him look like an officer in some crack
German SS formation.”

They speak of Lola and it seems the
captain has a few questions of his own,
relating to the husband, or ex-husband,
the deceased husband who Lola has
described via certain gestures that, as
Lewis puts it “can only shudderingly be
imagined” as a sexual superman that
even half starved and in the early stages
of the tuberculosis from which he died
was able to have intercourse 6 times a

Lewis by this time now regards
everything that falls into his lap as an
assignment to be executed with suitable
energy and recommends a local drink—
marsala wine with the yolks of 2 eggs—
and for a little insurance—to wear a
medal of San Rocco—the patron saint of

visit to a cemetary

A colleague of Lewis is invited by a
female contact to visit Naples cemetery.
He decides she merely wanted company
to visit the family tomb. But then at the
cemetery she drags him behind a
monument and—despite the freezing
weather, lies down upon the ground and
pulls up her skirt. Now the officer looks
around and sees other couples
copulating here and there among the
monuments. It seems the  cemetery is
the local lovers lane. He says to Lewis:
“There were more people lying on top
the ground than beneath it”.

The syphilis campaign

I didnt say the anti syphilis campaign.
The idea was to spread it—not stamp it
out. Lewis says:“This is why intelligence
officers are intelligence Officers”. It was
a fact the incidence of syphilis among
prostitutes was much lower in Rome and
the northern part of the country
because the Germans, who were in
control of these areas, operated brothels
for the army and the women were
carefully scrutinized for any signs of
venereal disease.  But in the south, the
allied occupied south, this was a
problem of epic scope.

Enter Intelligence with a brilliant plan—
to round up  a few dozen of the
Neapolitan whores who were the most
seriously infected with the disease—
without showing visible signs of such,
chancre-wise, and then ship them off to
Rome to be turned loose upon the

But the plan was thwarted for a simple
reason: the whores all had pimps, they
were attached to the pimps and vice
versa—naturally—and some of the
pimps had contacts in high places—
naturally—and the idea gradually ran
out of steam and nothing came of it. Too

The stolen fiat

There was an anti-corruption agency—
publicca sicurezza—that had itself
become so riddled with corruption a new
agency was formed to succeed it-the
squadra nucleo—and one of the first
cases to land on the investigation list
involved a leading citizen—a surgeon--
who had acquired a Fiat sports car that
he did not know, though he should have
known, was stolen. Normally in this type
situation a call would have been paid by
the surgeon on the
— and a bribe handed over of
50,000 lire. But now it was the
on the job to correct that
situation and the bribe had quadrupled—
to 200,000 lire


The loot preferred over all stolen goods
is the telephone cable with the copper
wire innards. The cable is dug up, a
section chopped out, the insulation
removed and from there its over to a
stall in the
via forcella--the open air flea
market to be sold on the black market.
Not a Neapolitan family exists with at
least one member engaged in the
stealing up copper wire.

Otherwise there was nothing too large
or small to steal—from telegraph poles
to vials of penicillin—nor was anything
considered off limits—no matter how
sacred or of value to the cultural

Such as: An orchestra that took a 5
minute break during a concert and
returned to find all their instruments

Or: A priceless collection of Roman
cameos stolen from a museum and
replaced by cheap imitations and then
the thieves to find out the originals they
had stolen were themselves imitations.

Also: Statues that disappeared from a
public square and tombstones from

three missing fingers

A mother appears in Lewis’s office with a
youth of 12 years and holds up a hand
with three missing fingers. She has the
fingers in her purse and has been told,
mistakenly, that the British surgeons
have developed an operation to sew
fingers back onto the hand from which
they have become separated.

How did they become separated? In this
way: the city swarms with dozens of
these juvenile gangs and one preferred
trick is to hop into the back of an army
truck stalled in traffic and begin tossing
out to their chums anything stealable
that may be stashed in the back of the
truck. Its a problem and the army has
decided to solve the problem by hiding
under a tarp a citizen with a hatchet. He
waits for a small hand to attach itself to
the tailgate of the truck and down
comes the hatchet.

Lewis says: “God knows how many
children have lost their fingers in this


In an effort to quench or at least make a
dent in the epidemic of crime prison
sentences have been accelerating—on a
daily basis. So it behooves prisoners to
come to trial quickly. A delay could add
several years to the sentence. The
problem is that the prison system itself
is in chaos and once behind bars any
thing can happen. Frequently a case will
come up for trial, the man cannot be
found and the trial postponed. by the
time the postponement occurs the
sentence for the crime has doubled or

Lewis was obliged to arrest Angelo
Priore, 70 yeas old, with a dying wife
living alone in a basso with no food and
32 cats. The trial had been twice
postponed because Antonio had
disappeared somewhere into the bowels
of the system and in the interim the
sentence had been goosed—boosted
from a fine to a fine plus 3 years.

An exchange in court

The judge is American and speaks no
Italian. The defendant, a halfwit,
accused of the usual, stealing telephone
cable for resale on the black market.
But there are no witnesses, the
evidence  has disappeared and the MP
making the arrest has failed to show in
court and the half wit is jabbering away
some nonsense that has the court in an

The judge: did he just say something
about the Americans?  What did he say?

Interpreter: just a stupid remark your
honor, nothing to do with the case.

Judge: please leave it to me to decide
what has to do with The case. I insist on
knowing what he said.

Interpreter: he said “When the Germans
were here we ate once a day. Now the
Americans have come we eat once a

Judge: ask him if it means nothing to
him that we have freed him and his kind
from Fascism. How can he talk about
us and the Germans in the same breath?

The interpreter interprets and the
defendant rolls his eyes and begins
jabbering and also to emphasize his
words, grabs his private parts. The court
erupts in laughter.

The judge: Im losing patience with him.
What does he say now?

Interpreter: with respect your honor he
says, Americans or Germans its all the
same to him. We’ve been fucked by
them both.

The Judge: Hes off his head. Get him out
of my sight. Case dismissed.

The prisoner: Best wishes your lordship.
May all your children be males.

Three Neopolitan Protestations
of Honesty—all prefaced with
“your honor”:

“Your honor he is as innocent as the soul
of a child murdered by Herod”.

“I swear to your honor on the mourning
worn for my sister who died a virgin”.

“God knows your honor I’d sooner lie to
my own father”.

The moors


What is it that turns an ordinary decent
Moroccan peasant boy into the most terrible of
sexual psychopaths as soon as he becomes a

He  investigates a complaint of rape—a
young girl driven insane by an assault
from a group of Moroccans—French
Colonial Troops. Cases such as this
involving these troops—the Moors as
they are called by the locals—are on the
rise and back at the office Lewis is met
by a group of
sindacos  from the
neighboring towns and an ultimatum
given: either clear out the Moroccans or
we will take action and do it our own

Lewis says:

These men looked like the toughest movie
gangsters and I was convinced they would
carry out their threat.

And they did. Some weeks later Lewis
investigates another call—the murder of
five Moroccans in the village of Cancello.

The Moors were invited to meet some
women and once inside the house were
given poisoned food. While still conscious
they were castrated and beheaded. The
beheadings were assigned to youths of
12 or 13 to prove their worth but they
lacked the strength and skill and the
men were obliged to finish the job.

Extraordinary Naples


Naples is extraordinary in every way. Last
week a Nobleman in our street was lifted by
his servants from his deathbed, dressed in his
evening clothes, then carried to be propped
up at the head of the staircase over the
courtyard of his palazzo. Here with a bouquet
of roses thrust into his arms he stood for a
moment to take leave of his friends and
neighbors gathered in the courtyard below,
before being carried back to receive the last
rites. Where else but in Naples could a sense
of occasion be carried to such lengths.

The blind children

Lewis takes Lattarullo to lunch. Its a
cold day and the restaurant is without
heat and the customers bundled up in
overcoats made from stolen army
blankets. The waiter arrives at Lewis’s
table bearing a fish on a platter—the
“show fish”.  Lewis says: “As usual there
was a trick involved” The trick was to
sever the head of the fish from the body
and to cut the body into small portions
that were unidentifiable and the
question arises—are the body of the
fish and the head of the fish the same
fish? And the answer, according to
Lattarullo is: no. The body is from a
different fish--perhaps the dogfish—one
to be avoided. They settle for macaroni.

Now while they eat there is a
commotion. Five little girls, perhaps 9-
12 years of age appear in the door.
They are dressed in black, a uniform of
some kind, buttoned under their chin
with black boots and stockings and hair
cut short—institutional style. They are
orphans—also blind and they are
weeping. They were passing by with
their guardian and there was the smell
of food and they gravitated to it and
now they were inside bumping their way
around the room.

Lewis waits—for someone to offer a bit
of food from their plate but of course no
one does. The customers continue to
concentrate on their food, shoveling it
into their mouths as though these
children do not exist.

Lewis says:

This incident had a profound effect. Until now I
clung to the optimistic belief that human
beings eventually come to terms with pain and
sorrow. But now I knew I was wrong. These
little girls, any one of whom could have been
my daughter came weeping into the restaurant
and weeping still when they were led away
and I knew that, condemned to everlasting
darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep
on incessantly. They would never recover
from their pain and I would never recover from
the memory of it.

A Friend of Vito

The stealing of penicillin was out of
control—to the point that the
neighborhood pharmacies are in short
supply and even the military hospitals
are feeling the pinch.

Lewis is assigned to investigate the
problem and the trail leads to Vittorio
Fortuna, pharmacist and friend and
associate of Vito Genovese. But there is
Lewis, on the steps of Fortunas house
with his papers in order, an arrest
warrant, and the following conversation


This will do you no good. Who are you? You
are no one. I was dining with a certain Colonel
last night. If you are tired of life in Naples I can
arrange a transfer.

But the arrest is made, Fortuna is locked
up and Lewis prepares for the next step,
prosecution. At this point a
note arrives in the office, addressed to
Lewis, inviting him for a chat with
Colonel Poletti—the G in AMG.

Over at AMG Lewis meets not with the
Governor but the governors deputy, a
“a small, dried out, light-
starved functionary”

The GD(sighing deeply): Senor Fortuna
has had a sudden attack of appendicitis and
been transferred to the Hospital at

Lewis: that is a civilian hospital. Why wasn’t
he sent to the prison hospital?

DG: the prison does not have the proper

Lewis is stuck. He knows he can take a
doctor to the hospital to examine
Fortuna where they are sure to find an
incision in his stomach, the running of a  
temperature and a dire prognosis
featuring a slow recovery followed by a
long convalescence.

Now the ball would be in my court. I could
insist on returning him to the prison hospital,
where the facilities were indeed primitive, and
now it begins to look like victimization to
anyone who did not know the facts of the case
and Fortuna would be sure to file an appeal to
AMG, who would be sure to refer the matter
upward to the next level at no. 3 District.

He returns to the office to report these
latest developments and his boss,
sighing deeply, says
“I simply don’t see how
you can spare the time”.

And that was that.

And also: All the fish from the Naples
Aquarium—the renowned Naples
Aquarium with many exotic species—
have been eaten

What about the Swabian prince who
spoke of his celebrated ancestors and a
contempt for the peasantry so sublime
that a tax was imposed for sleeping with
their wives—21 nights a month

And there was don Rico the capitalist
who had “the sad eyes and drooping
features of the bloodhound and these
enormously long fingernails on the little
fingers of each hand to prove—in the old
fashioned style of the south—that
he does no work”

And lets not forget Marcello the
midget gynecologist--who required a
stepladder to perform his examinations
and specialized in the restoration of lost
virginity for those who could afford it,
and whose boast was, as Lewis says—
“that the replacement hymen is much sturdier
than the original and takes even the most
vigorous husband 3 nights to demolish it”

Well I could go on but you get the idea.
Its a book of 175 pages and on every
page or nearly a story so incredible and
incredibly hilarious, hair-raising, tragic,
squalid and absurd as to make your
head spin. It all combines to leave you
with one—and only one—conclusion:
thank God this wasnt me.

Farewell to Naples

Its oct 1944 and lewis says “The
thunderbolt has fallen”
--orders to pack up
and prepare for his next assignment—to
embark for Port Said where he is to pick
up 3000 Russian prisoners who deserted
to the Germans and repatriate them
to their native land. From Southern Italy
to the Russian front and just in time for

Normally I like to end a piece with
words of my own--some penetrating
observation that boils down everything
that went before it to the 100%
satisfaction of the reader. Thats the
idea. But with this book nothing I write
could compare with anything Norman
Lewis has written on every page and I
will leave it to him and the words with
which he ends the book, taking leave of
the city and the people of the city he has
conceived such an affection for:

I am left with only hours to spare and no time
to say goodbye to friends scattered through so
many towns—no time for a glass of
with any of the scheming sindacos or a coffee
substitute with the girls in the
Gran café I was
unable to help marry a soldier or a last meal at

zia teresas
and to shake the gnarled paw of
the old aunt, or even a half hour to spare for a
dash up to the
Vomero for a last panoramic
view of the great grey and red city spread
below. But I will see Lattarullo
and I know  that when it is time to go he will
take my hand and say: ‘I'll be at the station
tomorrow to see you off’ and I know he will be
there as promised, dressed in all the dignity of
zio di Roma suit for such an occasion.
norman lewis
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