"Finally," says fashion's La Pasionaria at 33, "I feel I'm getting somewhere personally." Born in the wealthy resort town of Porto Santo Stefano to Italian author Luigi (The Italians) Barzini and his second wife, heiress Paola Gadola Feltrinelii, Benedetta, raised by governesses, went to a succession of private Swiss schools. Offered her first modeling job by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in 1963, Barzini went to New York ostensibly "for 10 days" and stayed four years. She hung out at Andy Warhol's Factory (her romance with Warhol star Gerard Malanga was much publicized) and danced at parties like Truman Capote's spectacular ball in 1966. While competing with Marisa Berenson for the unofficial title of most celebrated jet set beauty, she also studied at the Actors' Studio. "It was the meat market," she recalls of those days. "At parties the girls would be dancing, and an art director would say [here Benedetta skillfully imitates a New York accent], 'Yeh, yeh, what about that one over there? She looks awright, doncha think? Hey baby, come on over here.' "
Although Benedetta was clearly headed for the top rank of New York models, she decided to return to Italy to act. She met director Roberto Faenza, and they married in 1969. On the night she gave birth to twins Nini and Giacomo, now 6, Faenza walked out. "I guess being a father was too much of a shock for him," she sighs. "I knew I was headed for a hard life."
Barzini now lives communally with the twins, two female students and a male professor in a middle-class neighborhood of Milan. "There is no way I could afford to pay all the rent on the 300,000 lire [$350] allowance my mother gives me every month," she explains. In addition to teaching a course in feminism at the University of Milan, she devotes much of her time to the Unione Donne Italiane, a militant feminist group that includes many Communists. She has recruited 130 women for a consciousness-raising session one day a month and has formed a block organization to tackle problems of working-class women. "At the turn of the century, a woman who wanted to work was considered a whore," she contends. "There is still the same unconscious connection today." Barzini also spends two days a week with expectant mothers as a volunteer at a local hospital.
She admits that Faenza's abandonment left her in deep shock. "Only after six years," she says, "am I beginning to get some of my confidence back and feel capable of being involved with someone." She will say little about the new man in her life except that "he's a separated parent in the same situation as mine." Her approach to romance is pragmatic. "At midnight you want to sleep after a hard day," she shrugs. "It's hard to find time for a man."
Benedetta's famous father, a leading figure in the right-of-center Liberal party, has made no secret in the past of his disappointment over her ultra-leftist views. He seems to be softening, however. "I consider her motives not to be political," the elder Barzini now claims. "I ask, 'Why the Communists?' She replies, 'They are the only ones who do something.' Benedetta is inspired by a desire to help people solve their problems. In other days she might have been a charity worker."
Back in the '60s model Benedetta Barzini was told by a New York agent: "Look—come to the parties, be nice to everyone, marry a rich American and you can stay in the U.S. That's the way it works." Barzini had other ideas. "I didn't want to fall into the cliché," she says. Instead, she left the modeling business in 1973 to become a Marxist and radical feminist organizer in her hometown of Milan.