Lisa Sergio was born Elisa Sergio on March 17, 1905, in Florence, Italy. She was the daughter of the Baron Agostino Sergio, a landowner, and of Marguerite Fitzgerald, from a socially prominent family in Baltimore, Maryland. In her early years, Ms. Sergio received little formal education, but through private tutoring, travel, and some coursework at the University of Florence, she acquired a prodigious liberal arts education. Gifted in languages, she also possessed fluency in English, French, Spanish, and German.
Always highly independent, and a staunch advocate of women's rights, Ms. Sergio began her professional career at the young age of seventeen as associate editor of "Italian Mail," a literary weekly published in English in Florence primarily by and for the English-American community in Italy. Contributors to the magazine included such notables as Walter Savage Landor, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Douglas, and Wyckham Steed. Initially unhampered by the government, the magazine was used later for propaganda by Mussolini. Ms. Sergio resigned in 1928, having advanced to editorship. From 1928 to 1930, she worked as a freelance writer and translator in English, French and Italian.
In 1930, Ms. Sergio became general secretary and bibliographer for the Association of Mediterranean Studies. The organization was formed in 1929, under the patronage of the Department of Fine Arts of the Italian Government, to include the directors of the Foreign Academies of Rome and eminent foreign scholars in a cooperative project to excavate antiquities. Here Ms. Sergio met such notables in the field of archaeology as Eugenie Sellers Strong whom she assisted. During this period, Ms. Sergio first met Mussolini who came to visit the site of a particularly rich excavation of silver artifacts.
Increasing government regulations on archaeological projects, and diminishing (primarily American) funding due to the Depression, contributed to Ms. Sergio's decision to accept an invitation from Mussolini to become a news commentator in Rome - the dictator had heard of her reputation and skills in translation. Moreover, the urging of an old family friend, Count Guglielmo Marconi, the famous inventor of the wireless, must have encouraged Sergio’s final acceptance, in 1932, of an assignment as news broadcaster in French and English on Rome's 2RO Radio, under the direction of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law. Neither Marconi nor Ms. Sergio could foresee, at that time, the roles their respective skills were to play in Fascist propaganda.
Ms. Sergio became known as the "Golden Voice of Rome.” She was instrumental in establishing short-wave radio programs in 21 languages. In addition to her work as translator of Mussolini's speeches and government bulletins, her programs included Italian lessons, broadcast to England, which supplemented a weekly column printed in "World-Radio," a publication of the BBC. In 1935, this culminated in her grammar book, "Shorter Italian" (Hirschfeld Brothers, England).
On March, 10, 1937, Mussolini signed an order for her dismissal. In the five years of her broadcasting service, Ms. Sergio had grown increasingly critical of the government and the dispatches she was required to air. She began to tamper with certain official bulletins. Her anti-Fascist friendships with newsmen and intellectuals drew the attention of the authorities. Eventually, an accumulation of wire-tapped telephone conversations and other indiscreet actions - especially Ms. Sergio's express views regarding the Ethiopian crisis - formed the evidence necessary to oust her as an unreliable citizen of Fascist Italy. It was at the advice and with the assistance of Marconi that Ms. Sergio left Italy. A few days after her departure, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Ms. Sergio arrived in New York in July 1937. Her English and French broadcasts and several appearances on "The Magic Key" program of WJZ radio, had made her well-known to American radio men. David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America, invited her to serve as guest commentator for NBC. From 1937 to 1939, Ms. Sergio hosted the NBC programs, "Let's Talk it Over" and "Tales of Great Rivers." She acted as commentator on opera and music. From 1940 to 1947, Ms. Sergio was news commentator for WQXR radio (New York City), where she hosted the popular program, "Column of Air." She was also a news commentator for ABC radio from 1942 to 1947. With the advent of television, she hosted programs in the early 1960s: "Frontiers of Faith" for NBC-TV; "New Nations of Africa" for ABC-TV. Ms. Sergio never abandoned radio, however, and continued to host a popular program entitled, "Prayers through the Ages," on WMAL radio (Washington, D.C.), from 1962 until a few years before her death.
At a party on her first day at NBC radio, Ms. Sergio met Ann Batchelder, food columnist and associate editor for the "Ladies Home Journal." Ms. Batchelder later adopted Lisa Sergio as her daughter and helped her to secure U.S. citizenship, which she received in late 1944. The saga of obtaining her citizenship is detailed in Ms. Sergio's papers here. Included is the painful experience with the American Legion during the McCarthy years when Ms. Sergio's name was included on the Legion's blacklist of notable U.S. citizens whose patriotism was deemed questionable in the rising tide of Communism. Ms. Sergio's name was cleared in 1950. For many years Ms. Sergio divided her time between her work in New York and Woodstock, Vermont, where Ms. Batchelder was a long-time resident. Ann Batchelder died at the age of 73 in Woodstock, June 1955.
During the late 1960s, Ms. Sergio began extensive lecture tours around U.S. universities in response to the anti-war movement. Her keynotes were always on the need for human and women’s rights; the socially, politically, and economically detrimental effect of war; and the promotion of international peace. From 1947 to 1950, Ms. Sergio was an instructor in international affairs in the department of sociology at Columbia University, New York. She was a Danforth visiting lecturer in international affairs from 1960 to 1971, and a William McKinley scholar and lecturer at a consortium of Ohio colleges in 1970. Over the years, Ms. Sergio conducted study tours in Europe and Latin America, as well as lecturing on international affairs in the U.S. and Canada.
Ms. Sergio was author of several well-received books, among them: "Synoptical History of Fascism" (Government of Italy, 1936); "Prayers of Women," editor (Harper, 1965); "I Am My Beloved: The Life fo Anita Garibaldi" (Weybright & Talley, 1969); "A Measure Filled," biography of feminist Lena Madsin phillips, (Luce, 1972); "Jesus and Woman" (EPM Publications, 1975); "You Can Upholster.”. Ms. Sergio contributed articles and stories to magazines in the U.S. and Italy, including "Reader's Digest”; "Rotarian”; and "Widening Horizons,” newsletter of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (IFBPW), for which she was also editor from 1947 to 1960.
Ms Sergio’s abiding interest in the literary, as well as the dissemination of printed information on world affairs, is attested to by the numerous proposals among her papers for magazines such as "World Around Press," a quarterly of news articles from abroad that Ms. Sergio proposed to translate into English; a periodical of literary articles entitled, "The Modern Essayist" for which Ms. Sergio hoped to secure contributions from literary notables, including Aldous Huxley; and a literary book club for rare and esoteric books, called "The Rarities Book Corner." Ms. Sergio continued her translation work: one of her primary interests was to translate books by Italian authors on Italian art and history for publication in English.
Ms. Sergio's papers are replete with correspondence relating to the many literary and intellectual associations made during her lifetime. These include: writers such as Stringfellow Barr, Katherine Drinker Bowen, Vera Brittain, Ernest Dimnet, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Victoria Ocampo, Lowell Thomas, Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Margaret Widdemer, Dorothy Thompson; feminists such as Carrie Chapman Catt and Lena Madesin Phillips; and other eminent individuals such as Welthy Fisher, president of World Education Inc., whose special interest was literacy in India; Lise Meitner, the Austrian atomic physicist; and the great Italian tragedian Alexander Moissi whose close associate and benefactor was Max Reinhardt.
Perpetually active, Ms. Sergio's career encompassed much work for various organizations, prestigious and important in their respective fields. She was member of the board of managers of the Broadcasting and Film Commission of the National Council of Churches; director of the Vermont Council on World Affairs; member of the President's Commission for the International Cooperation Year, 1965, trustee of the Helen Dwight Reid Foundation; member of the board of directors of Bacon House, Washington, D.C.; board member of the Washington Society of Choral Arts; board member of the Lena Madesin Phillips Fund of IFBPW; and board member of the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C.
Complementing her participation in internationally affiliated organizations Ms. Sergio travelled widely to countries including Jordan, Israel, India, and Latin America. Her focus was always the improvement of living conditions, particularly for women in the Third World. Her travels brought her in contact with such leaders as King Hussein and his brother Prince Hassan of Jordan; Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister; Egidio and Giulia Ortona, ambassador of Italy and his wife; as well as many eminent Americans including Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt.
For her years of dedication to the human cause and achievements in broadcasting and publication, Ms. Sergio received many accolades both in the U.S. and internationally. To name a few among the many, Ms. Sergio received honorary degrees from Keuka College, 1963; from St. Mary's College of the University of Notre Dame, 1966; and from Valparaiso University, 1970. She was named chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, 1947; cavaliere of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, 1975; and presented with the Medal of Independence (or Order of Al-Istiqlal) of the 1st Degree by King Hussein of Jordan, 1976.
Ms. Sergio died at her home in Washington, D.C., on June 22, 1989. She was 84.