Prolific biographer Secrest (Elsa Schiaparelli, 2014, etc.) delves into a remote corner of Cold War history.
Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960) was a man of parts: an intellectual, a devotee of careful planning, a socialist at a time in Italy during which the capitalist economy was controlled by “a tiny elite group of allies who held key minority positions in each others’ companies.” His evolution was not without its checkered elements; he went along with Mussolini’s fascist government for a time, as an expedient, while other family members took an active role in the resistance and helped smuggle Jews out of the country. Yet a socialist he was, with a vision of a postwar nation that did not quite square with that of the American government—in particular, CIA director Allen Dulles, who favored “a double agent ready for action, not an ambitious, left-leaning industrialist who wanted to impose upon American policy his plan for a new Italy, ad nauseam.” Olivetti soon went on to take his firm, renowned for its typewriters, into the realm of electronics, developing a mainframe computer, “the first fully transistorized one in the world," that threatened the near monopoly IBM enjoyed on such machines. (Later, Olivetti developed a portable calculator so closely emulated by HP that the Italian company launched and won a copyright suit.) Word came that Olivetti wasn’t reluctant to sell the technology to Russia and China, among other potential customers, and not long after, Olivetti was dead, the victim of a heart attack when presumed in the prime of health. A year and a half later, his chief technologist and designer died in a suspicious car crash. Did American intelligence do these dirty deeds? It’s not outside the realm of possibility; after all, Secrest writes, the Russians likely assassinated two American scientists involved in missile guidance systems. That much of the author’s argument proceeds by inference and suggestion doesn’t diminish its plausibility.
A competently written story that limns the complex spy-vs.-spy calculus of a time still fresh in memory.