By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005
Washington lobbyist Edward J. von Kloberg III packed five steamer trunks before departing for his final overseas trip in mid-April. That was his custom: to travel in the style of another era, to adorn himself with capes, furs and fedoras, to book the finest suites. But this time the baron, as he called himself, hobbled on a cane back to the cramped economy-class section of an Alitalia flight to Rome.
In his years representing the world's most bloodstained, thieving dictators -- Saddam Hussein and Mobutu Sese Seko among them -- von Kloberg made millions. Now he was sick and broke, heading to Rome to stay in a series of cheap hotels.
For several months before he left, von Kloberg, 63, had been telling people that he intended to kill himself. Ken Mullinax, a close friend, recalls von Kloberg begging him to provide a pistol. "He wanted to do it like a good Prussian."
Mullinax refused, but says von Kloberg persisted in a conversation in March: "I am going to drink a pint of brandy tonight and go to the 12th floor of my building and jump to my death."
Knowing that his friend was fearful of heights, Mullinax responded with blunt sarcasm: "I said, 'Ed, don't jump off the top of the building. Why don't you just get in a trash compactor? It will achieve the same result.' I tried for a month to discourage him."
So did others, but von Kloberg would not listen. He told friends that he was in love with a much younger man who no longer wanted him. He went to Rome hoping to win him back.
On May 1, von Kloberg leapt to his death from what a U.S. Embassy official in Rome described as a castle. Details were few. The lobbyist's many acquaintances here and around the world -- diplomats, socialites and political operatives who remember him as the host of countless parties -- still await word of a funeral service. Meanwhile they swap questions: Why did he do it? What did the suicide note say? Where is the body? And what happened to the lover?
An inveterate self-promoter, von Kloberg would appreciate this. Dead three months, he still has people gossiping about him.
* * *
He festooned himself with red sashes and ornate medals, decorations from faded potentates and the minor nations that retained his services. He spoke in a deep, pompous voice. "Le baron von Kloberg," one of his office cards read. "Chairman and Founder, Washington World Group, Limited, International Consultants."
He was not a baron; he was the son of a successful New York engineer who built bridges and housing projects. From childhood he was fascinated by history and avidly read biographies of important people. He changed his surname from "van Kloberg" decades later, because he thought "von" sounded more noble.
"In Edward's mind he came from someplace else," says Brian Childs, his friend of 20 years. "Edward was his own creation. All the world was his stage."
Impeccably dressed and groomed, Childs, 43, works in a Rockville office tower amid a bland field of identical cubicles. He handles asset distribution for a debt-acquisition firm. In a conference room he studies a pile of photos from the days when he served as von Kloberg's chief assistant -- "I was his aide-de-camp." His face brightens as he mines memories of the man he called EVK:
How von Kloberg meticulously matched the jewels in his pinky rings to the color of his suits. How he kept a "day car" for work, a white 1976 Lincoln Town Car, and a "night car" for parties, a black 1972 Cadillac Fleetwood.
Of von Kloberg advising him, during a 1990 trip to Liberia, "My dear boy, you don't take a check from a government that's falling." So they found themselves sprinting for the last flight out of Monrovia with $100 bills stuffed in their shirts, socks and underwear, part of a $300,000 retainer from the soon-to-be-executed president, Samuel Doe.
And Childs remembers the afternoon at a Georgetown doyenne's garden party when his boss quaffed a few bloody marys and jumped naked into the pool, proclaiming, "I'm Esther Williams!"
"He was the last great bon vivant in Washington," Childs says wistfully. "He was our Oscar Wilde.
"Edward said that life was about the characters you meet, and when a character's life goes out, you will notice a dimness. I told Edward, 'Don't take your life -- there will be a dimness for a lot of people.' "
His response: "I'm not worth anything anymore."A 'Controversial' Clientele
During his long career here, von Kloberg's fortunes -- and reputation -- rose and fell dramatically. Detractors viewed him as the worst kind of Washington mercenary: an amoral bottom-feeder who'd push any agenda for the right price (in some cases, it was $5,000 a day). He weathered the criticism with a titanic ego and glib adage: "Shame is for sissies."
After flunking out of Princeton and later earning his degree at Rider College in New Jersey, von Kloberg came to Washington in the 1960s to take a master's in history and international relations at American University. He stayed at AU in administrative jobs through the '70s, leaving with an impressive title: dean of admissions and financial aid.
A natural schmoozer, he wore a meticulously trimmed beard and liked to circulate among the city's old-money cave dwellers, the Green Book socialites, the striped-pants diplomatic set. In 1981 he set up his own PR and lobbying shop.
Three years later he had a criminal record: To secure a $60,000 bank loan, von Kloberg faked letters of support from ambassadors. He called it a "desperate" act to keep his business afloat. He pleaded guilty and got five years' probation and 100 hours of community service.
He bounced back and prospered. He specialized in taking on clients whom others considered untouchable. "Controversial people," he said in the firm's promotional materials, "called 'dictators' or 'despots' by their adversaries." That would include Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania; Messrs. Mobutu, Doe and Hussein; the Myanmar regime and others.
A 1992 Spy magazine piece, "Publicists of the Damned," famously exposed his elastic sense of morality. A writer, posing as a representative of a group espousing neo-Nazi goals (including the reannexation of Poland), dangled the prospect of a $90,000 fee.
"Well, since I'm of German origin, I could not agree with you more. . . . And I believe in many of the tenets that you believe in. So we are not very far apart, my dear," von Kloberg said in a taped conversation. Later he claimed to be just toying with the poseur. (As for his clientele, he told Spy, "I don't have any problem sleeping at night.")
Bad publicity didn't seem to hurt. He spun his representation of thuggish clients by pointing out that they were, at the time, allied with the United States or seeking diplomatic openings to Washington. "In the American tradition, every person is entitled to representation," he was fond of saying. "My job is to give my clients the best advice: the truth. If they're a basket case, they need to know it."
He also took credit for pushing nations such as Benin, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Lesotho and Suriname toward reform and democracy. He coordinated the 1991 state visit of Nicaragua's post-Sandinista president, Violeta Chamorro. His sizable roster of clients, 80 nations in all, gave him a measure of legitimacy.
And his genteel touch was renowned: He sent flowers to newly arrived ambassadors. At the dinners he hosted at his penthouse near Washington National Cathedral, he insisted on enforcing the "EVK quadrille," which had guests changing seats between courses to spark conversation. He hosted legendary lunches and parties at power spots including the Cosmos Club, Georgetown Club, Jockey Club and Duke Zeibert's.
"Ed could have been in a room with his shadow and he'd be working it," recalls Joseph Szlavik, a lobbyist who got his start with von Kloberg. "The more trouble the client was in, the better the party: frogs' legs, champagne."
He was expert at angling into the proximity of the most influential people in the room. Among his most treasured possessions: a grip-and-grin photograph of him with the first President Bush. He got a small in-flight magazine called Executive Class to put it on the cover for a 1997 puff piece (written by one of his employees) that declared von Kloberg "a master of diplomatic mixing and mingling."
His office cranked out sheaves of reprinted news clips that highlighted von Kloberg's name and quotes in red ink. His friend Ken Mullinax, a former press aide to a congressman, told von Kloberg that he knew of only two people in history whose quotes were written in red: "You and Jesus Christ."
Responded von Kloberg: "Well-deserved, young man. Well-deserved."The Other 'Baron'
In 1998, von Kloberg was holding court with friends in New York at the Townhouse, a gay bar favored by an older clientele. A rakish, red-haired fellow in his mid-twenties was working behind the bar. After a night of heavy boozing, von Kloberg ended up giving him a $500 tip.
His name: Darius Monkevicius, a Lithuanian who'd left his homeland in the early 1990s. He had a background as a masseur but aspired to a much higher station. He said he'd once worked in Rome as a private assistant to a Lithuanian ambassador. He liked to talk about his roots in nobility, which he said could be traced back to 1523.
Within a year, von Kloberg hired Monkevicius and bestowed upon him the title "executive vice president and partner for United Nations outreach" at the Washington World Group. They also became lovers.
Now the younger man took to calling himself Baron Darius von Lubicz Monkevicius. He frequently accompanied von Kloberg to Washington parties, sporting sashes and medals of his own.
A lengthy news release put out by Washington World Group announced that Baron Monkevicius, a Renaissance man "fluent in six languages," would eventually succeed von Kloberg as chairman. It quoted Monkevicius as if he were an expert on post-Soviet states: "The future peace and harmony of the world depend upon an enlightened understanding of these new political entities."
The release also trumpeted his "lifetime goal": to return to Lithuania and become its president.
Several of von Kloberg's friends smelled a phony. At least von Kloberg did his "baron" act with a robust sense of irony, whereas Monkevicius seemed to be really trying to pull it off. "He was some third-tier royal from a fourth-tier nation, trying to socially climb," says Mullinax.
The pair also set tongues wagging with their hysterical fights, some of which played out in public. Friends warned von Kloberg that the relationship was doomed.
"They made Tristan and Isolde look like Barbie and Ken," says writer Alexa Gelmi, who met von Kloberg 15 years ago when she was an editor at Washington Dossier magazine. She recalled this exchange between the couple in a restaurant one evening:
"Edward said to Darius, 'Why do you hate me so much?'
"Darius said, 'Why do you love me so much?' "Gazing at the Castle
In 2002, during a flight from Ivory Coast to Paris, von Kloberg suffered a heart attack. He suffered from diabetes (exacerbated when he drank), recurring bouts of skin cancer and an inner-ear disease that caused dizziness and an incessant ringing.
He closed his office and this time would not bounce back. After years of wanton spending, he had no savings. The penthouse had to be sold. Sometime in 2004, Monkevicius broke off the relationship. In mid-December he went back to Lithuania.
At that point von Kloberg faced eviction from his apartment. Even his splendid wardrobe was in hock: He owed a $1,000 dry-cleaning bill.
He started distributing paintings and other prized possessions to friends. He consigned his furnishings and antiques to auction.
"His bills were astronomical," recalls Gelmi, 50, who lived near him on Cathedral Avenue, took him to dinner and bought him groceries. But the once-shameless lobbyist felt ashamed to accept charity and what he called "welfare" treatment at public hospitals.
"He looked like a walking corpse-to-be," Gelmi says. Last winter she called a suicide-prevention hotline but was unable to arrange an intervention. She says von Kloberg was furious that she had tried.
After Monkevicius left town, several of von Kloberg's friends say their worst suspicions were confirmed -- that the 33-year-old baron was nothing but a "kept boy" who dumped his sugar daddy after the money ran out.
Not true, declares Monkevicius, speaking in a lengthy interview from Rome, where he relocated in mid-February. "We loved each other very much and stood by each other. It was a real relationship. It was not about the money and not about the sex."
He portrays von Kloberg's friends in Washington as jealous backbiters: "Once I came into Edward's life he was not dedicating so much time to his friends. All those gifts he was buying for them, it sort of stopped. He was making me happy."
Though their romance faded more than a year ago, he says he continued to help care for von Kloberg. "Edward was very lonely. I would get him dinner and lunch, support him, taking him for walks and to the pool, exercising him at home, trying to make him better."
After Monkevicius left the country, he says von Kloberg phoned him incessantly, wanting to visit. Monkevicius says he discouraged him but in April von Kloberg decided to fly to Rome.
Monkevicius says he met his former lover at the airport and, over the next two weeks, helped him pay for lodging at small, inexpensive hotels. During the day, they would visit the grand five-star hostelries where von Kloberg stayed during the flush years: the Villa Medici at the Spanish Steps, the Excelsior on Via Veneto. They'd nurse Cokes and cappuccinos.
"He could just sit for an hour and for him that was enough," says Monkevicius, his voice solemn. "He said to me, 'This is the way life should be, my dear.' "
Von Kloberg didn't talk of suicide, he says, but made odd inquiries: "He asked how high you could climb up into the Colosseum and how deep the Tiber was . . . And he was asking me every day to take him to the Castel Sant'Angelo."
The castle, not far from Vatican City, rises majestically above the Tiber. The ancient papal fortress is popular with tourists who climb its winding stairways to peer over the ramparts onto the city.
Fans of Puccini's opera "Tosca" know it well. The opera ends with Tosca leaping to her death from the castle; her lover is dead and she cannot bear to live without him.The Tragic Finale
Monkevicius's account might be flavored by self-interest, but it's corroborated in part by Christopher P. Winner, editor of the American, a magazine based in Rome, whose late mother was a friend of von Kloberg. The lobbyist visited her often in the glory days (once bringing Pakistani president Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq to a party at her apartment) and now was intent on giving the son a photograph of her that he had brought with him to Rome.
Winner spoke briefly with von Kloberg twice but was too busy with coverage of the papal succession to see him. "He left seven messages on my machine, most waxing poetic about my mother," Winner says by e-mail. "He seemed wistful, despondent, unstable, perhaps drunk," but there was no talk of suicide.
"What precipitated Ed's messages to me was a desire to go back in time to happier days in Rome," Winner says. The final voice mail came on April 30.
The next day, von Kloberg went alone by taxi to the Castel Sant'Angelo. He lingered there until early evening and the museum was closing. He went to one of the sentry openings high in the rough fortress walls, climbed on a chair, and flung himself an estimated 20 stories to the courtyard below.
Police found several handwritten notes on von Kloberg's body, at least one of them blaming Monkevicius for his act. They also found a four-page glossy reprint of the Executive Class article that von Kloberg frequently sent to clients, with its cover of him clasping hands with former president Bush.
In a note to the police, he described himself as a "relatively public figure" and suggested they could learn more about him by Googling his name.
Another note cited his pain upon learning that Monkevicius had allegedly taken another lover during their relationship. "My brother felt betrayal," says Carol van Kloberg, his younger sister and sole survivor, who reviewed the notes given to her by police. "He cited personal and business betrayals and deceits by Darius."
Monkevicius denies having an affair -- "No, never. It was never true" -- and says von Kloberg had never accused him of stealing.
And what of the note the spurned lover left for him? "It was actually not very nice," Monkevicius admits. "He says that I am his killer -- that he died out of love for me." He chuckles in an odd, dismissive way.
He believes von Kloberg killed himself "like Tosca" to scapegoat him: Had the lobbyist committed suicide in Washington, people would have assumed that money and health woes were to blame. "He was finishing his life in a very eccentric way: He jumped from the castle out of love, to show that he is still powerful and great, and what a big heart he has."
Monkevicius finds the episode "very tragic" but he will not accept fault, saying, "I did everything I could."
As for becoming the president of Lithuania, an ambition he spoke about in a March interview with one of the country's largest newspapers, the baron says he's put that on hold. Instead, he's started a business as a wedding planner. (Not just any wedding planner, he says, but one who arranges private blessings from the pope.)Globetrotting Till the End
Carol van Kloberg had her brother's body cremated in Rome. She plans to hold a private service in Washington, perhaps in a few months.
It took longer than expected for the Italians to return the ashes. In June they arrived at Dulles, marked for pickup by "Edward von Kloberg." They were sent back to Rome, then returned through Paris, then finally made it to Upstate New York, where his sister lives.
This gave von Kloberg's friends something further to talk about and even smile about. It seemed so fitting. He always loved to travel.