It was sort of therapy, seeing Broadway's revival of "The King and I," the tall man with the iron-gray hair was saying with a small laugh.
"Each of us had to adjust to the 'King and I-ship.' We're no longer individuals to our friends. They don't come up and ask, "How's your golf game or where have you been flying?' They ask, 'How is the Queen ?' . . . So you do have to admit to being a figure rather than an individual. I don't think I've adjusted yet."
Najeeb Halaby was talking about himself and his ex-wife, Doris, and their two remaining non-royal children, Alexa and Christopher. The "queen" is his 27-year-old daughter, Lisa, now Queen Noor, the blond and beautiful wife of Jordan's King Hussein, 42.
Halaby, 62 - known as "Jeeb" - cracks all the jokes about "my son-in-law, the king," and there is pride in it all, of course. But there is also some ambivalence. After all, Halaby, a man with a super ego spent a lifetime being known solely for himself.
He is the controversial former head of the Federal Aviation Administration and former chairman of the board of Pan Am, where he made more than a few headlines on his own.
From the beginning, as a spoiled only child - the son of a Syrian father and a "strong-willed, English-Scots, Tennessee-rebel, traditional Southern woman" - Halaby was destined to prove things to test himself. Only now, at "60-plus" has be began to figure out what made him run so hard.
The kid golfer who became team captain at Stanford, the Yale Law School graduate, the Navy pilot who flight-tested America's first jet fighter, the teen-ager who soloed in 1933, the FAA administrator who parachuted to learn first hand whether sky diving should be regulated. Yes, he decided. Then came the months of corporate haggling, machinations, back-stabbing, showdowns and finally, his forced departure from Pan Am.
So now Halaby is back doing things alone. He has just returned from soloing across the Atlantic and down through the Mediterranean Amman in a two-engine Cessna 340. "A little ice, of all places, over Northern France, and a little thunderstorm activity over Greece," he says in Lindberghian Lone Eagle-eze.
While soaring by himself, Halaby started dictating into a tape recorder a novel about lust and adventure in the Mid East: A male pilot, working for the CIA and the Israeli cause and a female pilot "out of the PLO apparatus," sign on "this executive jet service designated as the common carrier for the Arab and Israeli negotiators. They fall in love. They're mad about each other and they also have with them the tape recorder with all these peace plans. They decided to defect for love and are just about to present the peace plans when one of the PLO guys gets them. But the king - don't say Hussein , please, just say 'the king' - learns there was the tape recorder. And there are all the peace plans on the tape. So there is the funeral for the two lovers - but there also is peace."
He sits back, over a glass of wine at the Madison Hotel, and savors the idea of writing a novel.
Halaby who used to be compared with actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. when he was the dashing Kennedy-appointed FFA head, has weathered the trip into this 60s well. His craggy face is still handsome, his humor saves him from his considerable self-absorption. And he says, he is happy. "Much more than in those miserable Pan Am days. Actually, I probably ought to do and 'Up the organization sort of nevel . . ." Absent Father
Instead of a novel, Halaby's first book, "Cross-winds: an Airman's Memoirs," is long on his life at the top in the multi-billion-dollar aviation business - from meeting air ace Eddie Rickenbacker to working with JFK to fighting with Pan Am's legendary founder, Juan Trippe.
The book is perhaps most revealing for what it omits. For the irony is that Halaby, now known primarily as the father-of-the-queen, admits that in his achieving days he hardly knew his family.
"There is hardly any reference to my wife of 30 years in the book. I was feeling hurt and angry at the time," Halaby says of his divorce three years ago. This made it difficult to include private thoughts, he says. "There was a constant charge (on his wife's part) of neglect. You know, at 60-plus, I now recognize how the absent father is one of the worst criminals of our time."
Halaby's own father died when he was 12. Halaby writes that his father, when he first came to the United States, was "more of a peddler than an importer, but thinks he could have sold Stars of David in the middle of Bagdad."
One summer, Halaby's father shrewdly noted that the President's wife vacationed in Bar Harbor, Maine. He followed her there and soon was selling to Mrs. Grover Cleveland and her friends, then began to import more and more fine fabrics, rugs and works of art. Next, Halaby's father decided to move to Dallas where cotton and oil millionaires "could both appreciate and afford what he had to sell." There were restrictions against Arabs in Dallas and Halaby himself was teased and nicknamed "Rug Merchant," but "Dad still managed to get into the classy Dallas Athletic Club."
His Cristian Scientist mother imprinted in Halaby "the perfectability of the human being. This is the most pervasive stream in my life. That you really can perfect yourself. That reduces your fear and anxiety quite a bit because you think if you just work and try hard enough you can make a perfect flight, do a perfect job, make a correct policy. They you go on to true perfection, which is spiritual. That is why I have never been afraid of death."
But this kind of view can be a curse as well. "You're so demanding of yourself and you transfer that to your wife and kids - and when they don't rise to your expectations, you express your disappointment. And then you really are a menace. You want everyone to do as well or better than you - and then when you have a son and you call him to say you're fired from Pan Am and he says, 'Welcome back to civilization ' all you can think, is 'My God'."
Halaby seems envious, proud and disappointed all at once regarding his son Christopher's approach to life. "He swung completely away from anything I've ever been associated with. He really thinks business is a jungle."
Christopher is a guitarist and his "dream is recording, having his own band . . ." Halaby pauses for a minute. "If he wants to be a musician that's fine, but God, look at the economic consequences! But at the same time, I feel so frustrated about not being able to play the piano or guitar and do something really lovable and enjoyable like that." Charm and Survival
When Halaby was in Washington he gained a reputation for "showboating," for playing politics and healines to his advantage. "He was either loved or hated by those who worked for him," said one acquaintance of those days. "Sure he had a massive ego, but he also had charm and was interesting."
In his book, Halaby lays down this calculating 11-point "formula for survival." It included: "Get and keep the initiative . . . Remember that the press and Congress have no predictable code of ethics or standards and are not accountable for their transgressions except in subscriptions and elections . . . Always have a home base of political support and nurture it."
Halaby says today, "I don't think I recognized how hungry my ego was until the last five or six years. The drive was to do something in superior fashion and be recognized for it. I've really gotten fastened on to this aphorism, "There's nothing a man can't do in life if he's willing to do it without expecting credit for it.' God, that's a powerful thought."
During this leadership, Pan Am was plagued with monumental losses, in part caused by the purchase of 30 expensive 747s that were "eight years ahead of their time." Halaby also was no successful in getting a merger with a domestic carrier and clashed with Trippe, who continued to run the Pan Am show "long after he reached his apogee. He just hung on too damn long."
One major Halaby mistake: "Having inherited all these big 747s why didn't I go what later became the Laker route? We talked a great length of having those seats sold on a theater basis and we would have dropped the fare way down.
"The old guard at Pan Am said, 'No, you'll break up IATA, the fare-setting organization, which Pan Am was instrumental in building.' If I knew then what I know now, I would have just said, 'To hell with IATA. We'll fill the seats and be the most popular airlines in the world." (IATA - International Air Transport Association - last week abandoned its 33-year-old role as the industry's fare-fixing cartel.)
Reflecting on the pilot mentality in general, Halaby says, "There are more egotists in the higher ranks of airlines than in regular industrial corporations. Pilots are mainly individualists. They've flown 'over it all,' have a sense of dominance. You do silly things like flying the Atlantic to prove that you can do it all alone." Royal Perks
The end of Halaby's solo journey meant taxing up to Amman's "Royal Hangar," Halaby likes the phrase.
The king is "so gracious" and his daughter seems "so happy," but Halaby admits that he worries about the age difference and that the king has been married three times before. "But the source of my greatest concern is just plain security and political pressure. He has a 24-hour-a-day job and she's sharing it with him and it's full of political and physical risks. If you take the radical Palestininans, he's got to be one of their highest-priority targets."
His daughter, who wed in September, has had to shift from as "independent, casual, work-your-way-through-life" to a "dependent, totally unprivate serve-your-way-through life." In one recent interview, the queen called herself an "independent loner" who has learned to call her husband "His Majesty." "I am much more willing than I have ever imagined to give up my unimportant needs, to adjust my schedule and habits to suit the king's. I don't think of myself as Lisa. That is over for me now."
Halaby was instrumental in introducing his daughter to the king. After leaving Pan Am five years ago, Halaby went into several lucrative enterprises, particularly in Arab countries. Halaby became an adviser for Jordan's neophyte airlines, formed an aviation technical company, and helped put together an Arab Air Academy to train pilots, mechanics and controllers for all of the Arab world.
Lisa, a Princeton graduate and planner/architect, was hired to help design the first Arab University of the Air and then Amman Intercontinental Airport. Hussein met Lisa with Halaby at the airport. After three months of what gossip columnists used to call a "whirlwind courtship," Halaby writes, "His Majesty called me and in a most engaging, old-fashioned way said, "Sir, I wish to ask you for the hand of your daughter in marriage."
While Halaby jokes that "I don't think I'd be a likely candidate, say, for ambassador to Tel Aviv," being Hussein's father-in-law can only be an enhancement for Halaby in his current role of "International negotiator and problem solves" with a "string of legal associates throughout the Arab states, Iran and Southwest Asia."
Nor, as Arab petropower continues to spread around the world, can it hurt Halaby's advisory roles with corporations such as Bank-America, Chrysler, Uniroyal and Whirlpool. One More Sprint
Halaby is well off, with a Manhattan office and a New Jersey farm and he dates the successful and famous such as Barbara Walters. "I find there are widows and divorcees around New York in abundant numbers. But, I don't know.Having obviously failed at marriage, you're not anxious to leap back into that kind of challenge."
However, Halaby reflects, he now has "a little more time and less uncontrollable drive." Maybe a more rewarding private life could be possible the second time around.
"I really find being alone a delight, and that solitude and reflection can be marvelous." However, the old Halaby was soon taking over. "But I have so many things I still want to do. Before I get too old to be any good at it, it would be fun to do one more public job."
It sounded like an advertisement to Washington's political world as Halaby said, "My credentials in the Democratic Party are still pretty good . . . I feel I have just one more public sprint left in me."