By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005
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 U.S. 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.
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: The District resident, 63, leapt to his death Sunday from "a castle in Rome," a State Department spokeswoman said. Von Kloberg's sister said a lengthy note was found on the body, and U.S. 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 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." Washingtonian magazine once named him one of the city's top 50 "hired guns."
By far the most outrageous and lasting public impression of 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, 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 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, each with 12 guests, he estimated.
At one gathering, he persuaded Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United States and the United Nations 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, 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 in the Westin Fairfax Hotel. He would get tipped off when first lady Nancy Reagan or some ranking administration figure had made a reservation. Such unofficial meetings often were effective ways to win an audience with U.S. powerbrokers otherwise inclined to close their doors to representatives of reviled regimes.
Von Kloberg expressed no ethical concerns about his work, saying people such as Hussein were U.S. 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 investment 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 U.S. trade concessions. In return, he said, the dictator permitted the printing of Bibles for the first time in decades and, for a stiff price, allowed Soviet Jews to travel through Romania on their way to Israel.
Edward Joseph Kloberg III was born Jan. 9, 1942, in New York, where his father was an engineer who built housing projects. He added "van" to his surname in the 1960s and decades later changed it to "von" when Arnaud de Borchgrave, the dapper newsman, told him it sounded more distinguished.
Von Kloberg described a pampered upbringing, in which older, female relatives lavished attention on him. His grandmother provided him with an entertaining allowance, which he used while at Princeton University to throw "great parties." However, he flunked out and graduated down the road at Rider College in Lawrenceville, N.J., in 1965.
At American University, he received a master's degree in history -- writing his key papers on the Borgia popes and Mohammed Ali Pasha, the founder of modern Egypt. But his true passion was throwing soirees that won him such admirers as Garnett Stackelberg, the society columnist. He later struck up friendships with Holly Coors, the Republican fundraiser, and Barbara "Bobo" Sears Rockefeller, the ex-wife of a Standard Oil heir.
Hired by American University, he became a key fundraiser and advanced to be the dean of admissions and financial aid.
In 1982, von Kloberg began his public relations and lobbying business, later renamed the Washington World Group. He hired former diplomats and foreign affairs specialists as well as Bennetta B. Washington, wife of former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington.
He had trouble paying the staff and in 1984 pleaded guilty to faking letters of support from ambassadors in an effort to attain a $60,000 bank loan. He was sentenced to five years of probation and 100 hours of community service. "No money ever changed hands, and I took complete blame," he said in an interview.
Von Kloberg's friends in the diplomatic community did not abandon him, and his success on trade and investment missions helped him rebuild his clientele.
Nor did the Spy article hurt. "You'd be surprised how much business I got as a result," he said.
Some people were untouchable, as far as he was concerned. He said he once turned down work for Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, who offered $1 million shortly before he was shot to death in 1996. Von Kloberg said there was no potential for "turning around" that country. Among those he wanted to help was Alfredo Stroessner, but he said the long-serving Paraguayan strongman never hired a lobbyist.
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 "stiffed" him for thousands of dollars in work for the South Asian country.
He had numerous short escapes, flying out of Liberia shortly before a rebel advance and enduring a missile blast at his hotel in Baghdad (a Scud that he said Hussein launched for propaganda purposes).
Von Kloberg was lively and peripatetic, constantly crossing the globe and usually returning 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.
Survivors include his companion, Darius Monkevicius of Rome; and a sister, Carol van Kloberg of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.