Ms. Malagodi escaped the Nazis, married a famous Cuban sculptor and an Italian politician, then devoted her life to helping children and mothers in Senegal. She died of Covid-19.
This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
Elena Malagodi’s life unfolded like the pages of a novel.
She was born in Rome, the daughter of a Jewish actress from Latvia and an Italian military officer. She and her mother fled the Nazis in Riga during World War II and found shelter in the Uzbek city of Tashkent. She returned to Western Europe after the war; married a Cuban sculptor in Paris and then an Italian politician in Rome; curated art exhibitions by Surrealists; and founded two philanthropic organizations in Senegal, where she spent the last two decades of her life.
Ms. Malagodi was president and founder of that organization, which had been working in Senegal since 1999 and operates a medical clinic, an agribusiness, schools and job training programs. (“Natangué” means “prosperity” in the Wolof language.) She also started Founding the Future of Childhood in Senegal.
Elena Iannotta was born on Aug. 16, 1936, to Mita Kaplan, who arrived in Rome from Riga in 1934 to study acting. Her father was Capt. Antonio Iannotta, with whom her mother had an affair.
In 1940, Captain Iannotta was mustered for war and Elena and her mother left for Riga, which was impoverished, and where Jews were subject to Nazi persecution. They fled to Tashkent and returned to Riga after the war.
Elena left for Rome when she was 19 and there found her father, who had joined the Resistance during the war and later became a wealthy film producer. He paid for her studies in Geneva, Paris and London, and she became an interpreter fluent in five languages.
In Paris she met the sculptor Agustín Cárdenas, who was born in Cuba and was of Senegalese heritage. “It was a chance meeting along the Boulevard Saint-Germain,” she told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in 2014. “Meteoric. I married first his sculpture and then him, in 1962.”
She hobnobbed in Paris with cultural luminaries like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Isaiah Berlin and organized exhibitions for her husband, as well as for Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ercole Monti, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Alberto and Diego Giacometti. She had four children, all of whom became artists.
She and Mr. Cárdenas divorced after 15 years. She married Giovanni Malagodi, who had been president of the Italian Senate, in 1988, after his wife died. Mr. Malagodi died three years later.
Among her survivors are Luigi Di Giamberardino, her longtime companion, a neurobiologist, with whom she ran her organizations in Senegal (he also had Covid-19, but recovered); her sons from her first marriage, André Bouba, Timor and Solano Cárdenas; and a number of grandchildren. Another son, Arlen Cárdenas, died last year.
Ms. Malagodi said that she began visiting Africa regularly after Mr. Malagodi died as a way to help overcome her loss, but that “my grief was nothing compared to what I saw” — poverty, illness, illiteracy, and religious and ethnic conflict. She was particularly distressed by the sight of a legless boy on horseback on the beach. And that, she said, was why she kept coming back to help.
On her trips, she said, she would always seek out an old marabout, a Muslim holy teacher, who would give her a ritual bath, into which he spat.
She would feel reborn, she said in the La Repubblica interview: “It’s as though Marabout can read my thoughts. He says, ‘You are the only white woman who always returns.’ It’s true. If Africa needs us, I also need this land.”
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.