The Baron's Last Exit

Baron Edward Von Kloberg III was a man given to grand entrances and grand exits. The former public relations man to Saddam Hussein and Mobutu Sese Seko, while recently on vacation in Rome, flung himself in full fury off a parapet of the Castel Sant' Angelo, the same site of Tosca's suicide in the Pucini opera. He wanted us to notice him one last time.

Speculation as to why Von Kloberg, the self-described "Washington representative to the damned" killed himself initially revolved around the fact that he was in increasingly failing health. Italian newspapers reported that he was distraught after he was spurned by his Lithuanian gay lover, with whom he was attempting to reconcile. My best surmise is that his conscience finally had caught up with him.

My last comment might appear insensitive, even cruel, but I knew Von Kloberg quite well; indeed well enough to know that he would not only not have been offended, but would have taken some amusement in what I just wrote.

He was famous, or infamous, for representing anyone. His clients included many of the world’s most notorious war criminals and dictators of the past half century. Besides Saddam and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, other Von Kloberg clients included Samuel Doe of Liberia, and Nicolae Ceausecu of Romania. He would take on virtually anyone as a client, as long as the check didn't bounce.

I was having breakfast with him one morning when one particular client, an African dictator, was deposed from power and met his violent end. Without skipping a beat, he was on the phone with representatives of the new government to see if he could keep the account.

A front page obituary of Von Kloberg in The Washington Post said he was known in Washington society circles for his "Edwardian style of living" and "Rooseveltian, high class accent."  He "arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes" and "traveled with steamer trunks." One of his black capes had a red lining, another had a print of doves. As a public relations man, he knew that entrances were everything.           

Sometimes draped over his cape or tuxedo was a medal, Zaire’s Order of the Leopard, personally presented to him by Mobutu. In other societies, one is awarded medals  for humanitarian or scientific achievement. In Mobutu’s Zaire, the nation’s highest honors were reserved for those who assisted Mobutu in whitewashing the mass graves of his victims and the billions of dollars he stole from his people.

Von Kloberg did not take the medal too seriously.  He majestically flung the medal over one of his tuxedos or capes as a gay kitsch fashion accessory. He was also a consummate confidence man.  He had once pleaded guilty to faking letters of support from two ambassadors, who were his clients. to obtain a $60,000 bank loan. He received five years probation for that one.  

On another occasion, when a new Pakistani ambassador arrived in town, she received a letter from Von Kloberg welcoming her and soliciting her business. He boasted that he had four former congressmen and other luminaries working with him. The only problem was that several had never heard of him. One of them, former Rep. Edward Feighan, Democrat of Ohio, was so infuriated that he sued Von Kloberg for $3.5 million alleging "wrongful appropriation of [his] name."

His favorite scam was to bill Saddam Hussein for several op-eds in The New York Times and other newspapers advocating a U.S. tilt towards Iraq in its longstanding conflict with the ayatollahs of Iran. I queried the authors, all of whom claimed to not know Von Kloberg. When I asked Von Kloberg about it, he shot me a mischievous smile, and didn’t deny a thing. Indeed, he told me: "If I was doing my job for Saddam Hussein, you would condemn me for that as well, wouldn't you?  Maybe it is best that I not do my job so well all the time."

But let it not be said that there were often times he did in fact produce results for his clients. In 1989 and 1990, Rep. Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, inserted lengthy statements into the Congressional Record praising Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.  Around the time, Von Kloberg had paid Burton $4,000 in honorarium for giving talks to his clients. The Burton statements praising Mobutu, Von Kloberg boasted to me, were ghost written by Von Kloberg and his staff. Burton's office did not return seeking comments regarding the allegations.

One of the reasons that I got to know Von Kloberg so well was that I wanted him to cooperate with an article I would write about him, whereby he would give me unrestricted access to everything he did over the course of a week. He eventually agreed, and a cover of a national political magazine was already assured. But I never followed through.

For one thing, I had begun to like him, and I did not like the fact that I liked him.  And in obtaining his cooperation, I began to question whether he was the confidence man or I was. In the end, I was honest with him, and told him of my bad intentions -– to write the truth. 

Still, he agreed to cooperate, but then I realized he was not the story. Von Kloberg savored the role of bad guy, famously saying that "shame is for sissies." In the process, he drew attention to himself and  away from many so many so-called respectable Washingtonians who have quietly done much more harm to humanity. Unlike Van Kloberg, their names regularly appeared in the society pages, they had homes in Georgetown, and sent their kids to St. Alban's and Harvard. They worked in the city's most respectable law firms and some even advised presidents. They were the real story.


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