Bold Man & The Sea

Words | Jonathan Lobban

A serendipitous encounter between M.J. Bale and Eduardo Szego revealed the story of a bold and indomitable man who endured World War Two terror to become one of the most respected classic boat owners in Italy.

“It has been a 33-year love affair,” Eduardo Szego says wistfully of Melisande, his petite but high-maintenance English rose.


It’s dusk in early June and Eduardo, a Milanese scientist, sailor and classic boat enthusiast, is admiring his 95-year-old nine-metre yacht, temporarily moored here in Porto Venere on the Ligurian coast. Melisande and Eduardo have spent the day sailing in the Gulf of La Spezia, along with a half-dozen interlopers from the Antipodes – the M.J. Bale crew. With thanks to Anna Molteni, a friend of Eduardo and fiancé of our Italian tie maker Davide, we had commandeered Melisande for our spring campaign shoot.


Eduardo and I are in a Fiat rental departing Porto Venere for Tellaro, where we will join the rest of the crew for dinner. It’s only a 38km drive, but the journey, which hugs the coastline and takes in the boat-building port town of La Spezia and smaller Lerici fishing village, will take an hour.


Sitting with his six-foot frame squashed next to me, Eduardo is wearing Ray Ban aviators and looks the spitting image of Gianni Agnelli, the famed Italian playboy and Fiat owner. I tell him so. “Funny you say that” Eduardo replies, pointing in the harbour to a vintage Bermudian yawl with deep mahogany deck and blood red sails. “That is Agnelli’s second boat, Capricia. ‘Capricia’ is Italian for ‘capricious.’ Much like life, yes?”


I ask him whether we could record an interview on my iPhone during the drive. “What do you want to talk to me about?” Eduardo asks suspiciously. “I am just a scientist. I can’t talk about fashion.” “Well, let’s start you’re your beloved Melisande.” His favourite subject, Eduardo grunts in approval. “She was born in 1928, but I purchased her in 1990. She was built on the Isle of Wight by the famous English architect and designer, Alfred Westmacott, who also had a shipyard.”


His original idea, Eduardo says, was to sail Melisande from the south coast of England to Normandy in France, then lower the mast and float it down the canals to near Marseille, before sailing on to Liguria. Unfortunately, the English weather put paid to his plans. “When I was there the strongest storm in 100 years whipped up,” he says. “It was unbelievable. You couldn’t stand in the street. The wind was 80 knots. It was raining and very, very cold.” He asked an English shipyard to make refurbishments, but they were “unsatisfactory”. “We went through every detail, but the work was not very good,” he says. Eduardo finally put Melisande on a truck to make the refurbishments in Italy to his exacting standards. “And in a way,” he concludes, “I have never stopped working on her.”

Moored in Portofino for a decade, then Chiavari, near Rapallo, he moved Melisande permanently to Le Grazie, a small ancient village near Porto Venere.

At 89 years of age, Eduardo is just six years younger than Melisande. A chemical scientist, he lives in Milan and works in collaboration with the Milan Polytechnic, with whom he has obtained patents for new carbon capture technology. He played rugby in Bologna in his late teens through to his early twenties, and thus likes Australians. “You can trust rugby players, because they are honest,” he says. But sailing has always been his passion. He began with snipes, which are small racing yachts, in the Adriatic Sea when he was six.


Following World War II, when Eduardo was 13, he began sailing seriously with a family friend, Cino Ricci. Ricci was skipper of the Italian Team Azzurra in the 1983 and 1987 Louis Vuitton Cup. The construction of Azzurra was funded by Aga Khan and Gianni Agnelli.


Night has already set in as we pass through Lerici. Now, something twigged. “Eduardo, you just said that you learned to sail on the Adriatic as a child. I thought you were from Bologna?”

“No, I went to university in Bologna. I was born and raised in the Emilia Romagna. In Cesena, near Forli.”

“You were born in 1934, yes?”


“That means you were five when World War Two broke out?”


“What do you remember?”

“I remember everything.”


“Yes. I remember the persecution.”

“Because you were Jewish?”


“Do you mind talking about it?”

“It’s a long, long story. There is a book which came out just now written by my brother, Alberto, together with a journalist about the story of my family, which is very special. It’s called A Cas Di Donna Mussolini. It’s about the sister of [Benito] Mussolini. We were guests in her house during the Second World War.”


Eduardo’s father, he begins, was Lajos, a Hungarian civil engineer. “My father was Jewish, and he was in the Hungarian army during the First World War. He was captured by the Russians and sent to Siberia. But my father was specialising in – how do you say? – hard concrete. At the time it was something very new. And he was immediately sent to Vladivostok to design the construction of the harbour. It was a new harbour, because after the revolution in Russia, and after the war, the Russians wanted to start building more modern structures and update the old infrastructure.”


After working in Vladivostok for six or seven years, still effectively a prisoner of war, Russia incredibly let Lajos Szego return to Hungary. But the Hungary he returned to was devastated by war, so when friends at the Milan Polytechnic persuaded Lajos to come to Italy, he came and worked as an engineer on road and bridge projects in Venice, Rome and Milan. He was awarded Italian citizenship in 1932. With his wife, Maria, and three young boys, Lajos eventually settled in the Emilia-Romagna region, working with the grandfather of Cino Ricci, Eduardo’s childhood sailing friend, who had a large civil construction company.


By the outbreak of the Second World War Lajos was renowned as a pioneer in the Italian construction industry. It didn’t stop the family’s persecution from anti-Jewish sentiment, due to Fascist Italy’s so-called Leggi Razziali (Racial Laws).


Eduardo says that in 1943 he recollects constantly moving from one hiding place to another, “running away from every place we stayed.” Sister Bernadette, a nun who worked at a local hospital, took pity on the family, changing their surname to Orlati (Lajos becoming ‘Luigi Orlati’). Incredibly, Sister Bernadette asked Edvige Mussolini, the younger sister of dictator Benito Mussolini, to take them in. Around May 1944 the Szego family arrived to stay at Edvige’s Villa Maggio in the Apennines. They would be there the entire summer.


“We were her guests and she accepted to receive us in her villa,” Eduardo remembers. “There were three floors in her villa in Emilia-Romagna. There was a German command on the top floor and Donna Mussolini was on the first floor. We were therefore in the middle of the sandwich.” Eduardo recalls that Edvige was an ‘honest’ woman who made them biscuits. In an editorial for Bet Magazine Mosaico, a publication for Milan’s Jewish community, Sarah Parker writes that Edvige made sails for the toy boats of Eduardo and his brothers, and that the boys would play with the boats in the villa’s garden fountain.


“Who knew when she knew that we were Jewish?” Eduardo says of Edvige. “With the click of her fingers she could have us taken away. But she didn’t want to do that.” Did Benito Mussolini ever discover that his sister was hiding the Szego family? “Well, there is a book written about Mussolini,” Eduardo responds. “In the book he says in a certain moment, ‘When I was talking with my sister, I told her that I know you are helping Jewish people.’ He could not kill his sister, no? And Edvige did not want to put her brother in that position, so she let us understand, ‘Please go.’”


With the help of an underground network of sympathisers and partisans, the Szegos stayed on the move, until Eduardo says “they found a “very, very isolated small village of four houses” deep in the region’s wilderness. “There were four families in four houses, there wasn’t even a road. I remember being very, very scared. I was very frightened all the time.”


While the liberation of Rimini took place in September 1944, there was still fighting in the Emilia-Romagna region up until the spring of 1945. But Lajos couldn’t keep the family in hiding anymore. Eduardo’s brother needed urgent medical help for a type of blood cancer. He had gone two years without treatment. The family survived, but as Eduardo says, “the situation [with my brother] was so compromised that finally he died in 1949, when I was 15.”


Having missed three years of school, Eduardo was appointed tutors to help his education so he could return to class, cramming three years of education into just one month. He admits that life was difficult in the years following the conclusion of war, feeling that “I was always missing something.” Eduardo worked hard on his studies. He caught up with then overtook his classmates, ending up finishing high school a year early. He was accepted into chemical engineering at Bologna University, where he also played as a fleet-footed winger for the rugby team. Today he continues to work in Milan. His new carbon capture tech has patents in Europe and the US, and already being considered by large engineering firms. “Let’s hope,” he says. 

Eduardo’s love for the ocean is supreme. He is considered a legend in the Italian sailing community. In his long seafaring career, Eduardo has sailed practically all around the Mediterranean, including the Ionian Sea and Aegean Sea. Aboard a 32-ft boat he once sailed south from the Aegean Islands to Turkey and then on to north Africa, where he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Reaching the Canary Islands, he then crossed the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in Barbados. A few years later Eduardo sailed south from Punta Arena in Chile, and via the Magellan canal and Beagle canal in the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, he rounded Cape Horn under sail.


His passion for the “handsome” cutter Melisande is also renowned, and has been rewarded. Using his skill for scientific research, in 2006 he won the Mopi Award, given to the person who can provide the most through and comprehensive historical documentation of their classic boat. Eduardo’s presentation – the only one submitted on CD – included the original hand-written license from 1928, registered by Lloyds of London, photocopies of the original design and a photograph of the boat taken in 1930s by Beken of Cowes.

An image comes to mind of young Eduardo sailing toy boats in Edvige Mussolini’s fountain, experiencing the most inhumane amount of terror ‘hiding in plain sight’, all with an extremely sick older brother requiring, but not receiving, specialist treatment. One hopes that when he is out on the water that this genteel and lovely man reconnects with what can only be described as his indomitable spirit.


I rather like this take from Murray Hassan, M.J. Bale’s resident art, literature and whisky expert. After telling him Eduardo’s story, Murray compared him to the work of an ‘Old Master.’ “Eduardo, like many older people who have lived a full life, is like a painting by an Old Master,” he said. “They often have many layers of previous work, expressions and ideas, hidden underneath the portrait you see before you.”


As Rembrandt said, “A painting is finished when the artist says it is finished.” As the sprightly Eduardo enters his 90th year, one gets the sense that he still has a lot of living to do. His email to me in July confirms it. “Jona, in a few days I plan to be on board for short sailing somewhere around: Would you join us? Ahahahahahah, it would be great!”


A Casa Di Donna Mussolini by Christina Petit and Alberto Szego is published by Solferino and is available to purchase on Amazon.