boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Edward von Kloberg III, PR man to world's notorious

WASHINGTON -- As part of Washington's image machinery for more than two decades, Edward von Kloberg III did his best to sanitize some of the late 20th century's most notorious dictators as they sought favors and approval from US officials.

A legend of sorts in public relations circles, he counted as clients Saddam Hussein of Iraq; Samuel K. Doe of Liberia; Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania; the military regime in Burma; Guatemalan businessmen who supported the country's murderous, military-backed government; Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire; and, in a figurative coup of his own, the man who overthrew Mobutu and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. von Kloberg embraced the slogan ''shame is for sissies" as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he traveled with steamer trunks. He added the ''von" to his name because he thought it sounded distinguished.

In a life full of flamboyance, his end followed form: Mr. von Kloberg, 63, leapt to his death Sunday from ''a castle in Rome," a State Department spokeswoman said. His sister said a note was found on the body, and US Embassy officials in Rome told her that he committed suicide.

Washington is a city of advocates and image enhancers, but only a few have staked their reputations as representatives of despots, dictators, and human rights violators. For Mr. von Kloberg, the job was a social exercise as well as an all-consuming effort. As he wooed potential clients, he often highlighted his own bad press. There was a lot.

Epithets abounded. The authors of ''Washington Babylon," a muckraking book about powerbrokers, wrote: ''Even within the amoral world of Washington lobbying, [he] stands out for handling clients that no one else will touch."

By far the most outrageous and lasting public impression of Mr. von Kloberg came from a notorious ''sting" operation by Spy magazine. For a story the satirical journal titled ''Washington's Most Shameless Lobbyist," a staff writer posed as a Nazi sympathizer whose causes included halting immigration to the ''fatherland" and calling for the German annexation of Poland.

According to the magazine, Mr. von Kloberg expressed sympathy for the fake client -- and her $1 million offer. And then he was drubbed in print. Shortly afterward, he showed up at the opening of Spy's Washington office with a first-aid kit and sported a trench helmet, ''So I can take the flak," he announced.

Friends of Mr. von Kloberg saw the article as a revolting caricature of a man whose grace and charm were displayed at intimate dinner parties he threw to unite disparate voices -- 3,500 dinners, he estimated, each with 12 guests.

At one gathering, he persuaded Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United States under Hussein, to meet Jews for the first time. He also brought together District residents, diplomats, socialites, and journalists; many of the latter were fond of his famously accurate news tips.

His voice, said one friend, was marked by an ''almost Rooseveltian, high-class accent." He drove enormous black cars and draped foreign medals (Zaire's Order of the Leopard among them) across his tuxedo. At night, he sported one of two favorite black capes: one with red lining, the other with prints of doves.

As was said of the Bloomsbury diarist Violet Trefusis, a writer he admired, Mr. von Kloberg had a ''taste for outmoded splendors." He believed such flourishes were essential to conducting business with world leaders, the kings and presidents for life whose presence he relished. When they listened to his advice, it was ''very invigorating," he said.

His clients handsomely paid him for his social and diplomatic clout. He often took them to his favorite lunch spot, the Jockey Club, the famed but now defunct restaurant. He would get tipped off when Nancy Reagan or some ranking administration figure had made a reservation. Such unofficial meetings often were effective ways to win an audience with US powerbrokers otherwise inclined to close their doors to representatives of reviled regimes.

Mr. von Kloberg expressed no ethical concerns about his work, saying people such as Hussein were US allies at the time. He said he was ''utterly fascinated" by the Iraqi leader and returned to the District to ''propagandize why they were gassing the Kurds." The reason given, he said, was to prevent Arab fundamentalism from spreading in the Persian Gulf.

''That's pretty awful, isn't it?" he said in an interview. ''That's what you had to do for the overall point."

Political pariahs, he said, were like defendants at trial who have a right to legal counsel. By encouraging relations between the United States and his clients' countries, he hoped to foster a democratizing influence abroad.

He cited the case of Ceausescu, for whom he won US trade concessions. In return, he said, the dictator permitted the printing of Bibles for the first time in decades.

Edward Joseph Kloberg III was born in New York. He described a pampered upbringing in which older female relatives lavished attention on him. His grandmother provided him with an entertainment allowance, which he used while at Princeton University to throw ''great parties." He flunked out, however, and graduated down the road at Rider College.

Hired by American University, he became a key fund-raiser and advanced to be the dean of admissions and financial aid.

In 1982, Mr. von Kloberg began his public relations and lobbying business, later renamed Washington World Group. He hired former diplomats and foreign affairs specialists.

Some potential clients were untouchable, as far as he was concerned. He said he rejected work for Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, who offered $1 million shortly before he was shot to death in 1996. Mr. von Kloberg said there was no potential for ''turning around" that country.

Mr. von Kloberg, who ''tested" his clients by asking them to pay his first-class airfare along with $5,000 a day, spoke poorly only of one client, the Burmese businessman who failed to pay him for thousands of dollars in work for the South Asian country.

He had numerous escapes, flying out of Liberia shortly before a rebel advance and enduring a missile blast at his hotel in Baghdad (a Scud he said Hussein launched for propaganda purposes).

Mr. von Kloberg was constantly crossing the globe, usually returning phone calls after midnight. His social calendar was demanding, and he had a rule in case a party was a flop: ''As soon as you can, learn all the back exits."

His final years were painful medically. He had cancer, diabetes, and the inner-ear condition known as Meniere's disease, which caused a ceaseless ringing sensation. In 2002, he retired after suffering a heart attack during a flight from the Ivory Coast to Paris. He had with him five trunks of luggage, which he claimed before going to the hospital.

Never one to go anywhere unprepared, he phoned the Washington Post months before his death to arrange an interview that he hoped would lead to a better understanding of his life. He said there had been greater challenges and rewards in his career than had he crusaded for a good cause.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives