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Memories of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


Eighteen years ago in Alexandria, Egypt, four Palestinian terrorists carrying suitcases packed with guns and ammunition boarded the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. A day later they seized the ship, herded American and British tourists together and then wrenched one wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger away from his wife.

Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old New Yorker recovering from a series of strokes, was shot in the head. His body was dumped overboard. But not before he reportedly bit the terrorist who wheeled him off to his death.

A man named Abu Abbas, a former adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was quickly identified as the mastermind behind the October 1985 hijacking and murder.

Last week, Abbas was finally captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad. He had lived in Iraq under the protection of Saddam Hussein for most of the past 17 years. The Bush administration is exploring ways of reviving the charges against Abbas and bringing him to trial in the United States.

Better late than never. I write this with a personal sense of relief and closure because I knew Leon. Or I should say, I knew Leon and his rather remarkable wife, Marilyn Klinghoffer. It was Marilyn who took a chance long ago and offered me my first job in journalism.

In 1978, seven years before Achille Lauro, Marilyn was working in the human resource department of a small, private company called Gralla Publications that produced trade magazines with such catchy names as Kitchen Business, Premium Incentive Business and Professional Furniture Merchant. I had moved to New York City that same year to share an apartment with a buddy from grade school. He was well employed. I was jobless. After some misguided pursuits on Wall Street, I rethought my goals at age 23 and tried to get my foot in the door of the New York journalism world.

I answered many ads. Finally, Gralla invited me in for an interview in what was then still-gritty Times Square. I wore my only suit, a garish navy pinstripe purchased with every intention of making my career on pinstripe-loving Wall Street. At Gralla, just around the corner from the X-rated theaters that then dominated 42nd Street, I was lucky not to be mistaken for some pimp.

My interview was with Marilyn. She was a short woman with black hair topped with a startling, natural ribbon of white hair. She was gregarious, putting me at ease with a big smile and lots and lots of questions. She handed me an editing test. Take these unruly paragraphs, she said, and edit them with this pen to make the story clear and crisp.

Then she took out a small hourglass and flipped it over in front of me. "Go," she said.

Somehow, Marilyn later offered me my first job in magazines. In fact, she gave me a choice. I could take a position that paid $9,500 a year, or another at $10,000. Of course, I went for the big bucks.

Gralla was full of young people and Marilyn was our mother hen. She loved the New York arts, dressed with flair, knew everybody in the office and constantly checked on our well-being. Only husband Leon, an appliance manufacturer who had overcome humble beginnings on the Lower East Side, and daughters Lisa and Ilsa were a higher priority.

I first met Leon at the office. He had suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side and left him in a wheelchair. But he was fighting back and learning to speak again. Marilyn doted on Leon. That's one reason we saw him often at work over the next few years, and at social gatherings. Leon was part of that bigger family.

For Marilyn and Leon, their 1985 cruise on the Achille Lauro was a celebration of their 36th wedding anniversary. By then, Marilyn was suffering from colon cancer. But few knew it.

From a Palestine Liberation Organization base in Jordan, Abbas directed the hijackers. When the ship was seized, he demanded the release of 50 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Leon was shot because he was a Jew, then tossed with his wheelchair into the Mediterranean. Leon's body washed ashore five days later in Syria.

How fitting. That's the same country to which Abbas recently tried to flee in the final days of the Iraq war. He was turned away by guards at the Syrian border and captured in Baghdad last week.

After Leon died, Marilyn became an early but brave symbol of American vulnerability to terrorism. After she returned home to East 10th Street in Manhattan, Marilyn told President Reagan in a telephone call that she had seen the hijackers in jail in Italy and had spit in their faces. "Oh, God bless you," Reagan was said to have replied.

The same month, Marilyn called terrorism "the gravest danger confronting the civilized world" -- little did she know of what was to come -- and urged a global commitment to combating it.

Later, Leon's murder was turned into a Hollywood movie called Voyage of Terror starring Burt Lancaster. An opera was even composed called The Death of Klinghoffer.

Leon was hardly a victim in life. Though he moved all of a dozen blocks in his 69 years, he became fairly affluent after World War II when he helped invent the popular rotobroiler, a box that contained a rotisserie and a heating element. In turn, he gave money to help the Lower East Side settlement houses where he had grown up.

I left Gralla for newspaper work in the early 1980s and never got the chance to speak directly to Marilyn again. In addition to giving me my first writing break, in a way she is responsible for my meeting Leila, my wife of nearly 23 years. She, too, worked at Gralla back then.

When I saw Marilyn on TV and in photos after Leon was killed, she seemed to have aged 20 years in a matter of weeks. Marilyn died of cancer at 59, only four months after Leon's death.

Years after the Achille Lauro murder, some news reports suggested the hijacking was botched from the start. Abbas later called Leon's killing a mistake and renounced violence.

But now it is time for Abbas to be held accountable.

I'm sure that's what Marilyn would want. But I can also hear Marilyn, a true lover of life, say: What a waste.

-- Times business writer Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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