Dinner with King Hussein of Jordan

Twenty-one years ago, a young reporter was forced to answer a tough question

| May-June 1999

In 1978, when Celeste Fremon was a young reporter traveling in the Middle East, she managed to arrange an interview with King Hussein of Jordan, a coup that few journalists at the time were able to wrangle. After their first meeting, Fremon was invited to a private dinner at the palace with the 42-year-old king. "Hussein was, at the time, between wives,” Fremon recalls. "Alia, his third wife, had been killed the February before in a helicopter accident. And he was still a few months away from his first date with Queen Noor, née Lisa Halaby. When I met him, the king was a very lonely guy." 

In February, when Fremon learned of Hussein’s death, she went back through her notes from the decades-old interview. While much of the material was tied to events of the day, other elements were especially poignant when viewed through the lens of time. "Hussein believed in the absurdly anachronistic notion of his family’s divine right to rule,” says Fremon. "Yet he played that role to the end with kindness, bravery, and great heart—a truly decent man in an arena where such men are in far too short supply. And for that he’ll be remembered. By me. By everyone.”
—The Editors
 

The palace was about 10 miles outside Amman. A taciturn Jordanian army sergeant fetched me from the hotel in a dark Mercedes, and we drove in silence past two sets of guarded iron gates, each bearing the unmistakable gold crown. The king’s residence was a two-story modern stone structure the color of sand, its architecture a hybrid of desert fortress Bauhaus and ’70s Southern California ranch, the kind of house that a rock star of the era might lease during a recording session in Los Angeles.

When I arrived, the king was in the upstairs living quarters dressed in a short-sleeved plaid shirt and casual slacks, losing a game of Ping-Pong to his children’s American nanny. When he greeted me he urged me to drop the formality of Majesty. “Please,” he said, “call me Hussein. It’s my name, after all!” The beige-on-beige decor was completely forgettable. In those pre-Noor days, Hussein’s furniture looked like it had all been bought in 15 minutes from a high-end mail-order catalog. The only items of note were the big color photos of the king’s eight kids, most of them taken by Hussein.



Hussein was a small, sturdy man, just 5 feet, 4 inches, with a large head and a mouth that took up much of his face. He was not classically handsome, but a cute guy by any woman’s standards. He was charismatic, impassioned. He’d been a thrill seeker as a young man. But now he compelled attention in a gentler manner.

“Do you want to see what is most precious to me?” he asked once the nanny was gone. I nodded and followed him. He led me to the nursery, the wing of the house where his three youngest children slept. He spoke also of his older children. Abdullah, who two decades later would be crowned king, was then 16 and away at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts; Hussein was trying to decide what to get him for his birthday. He admitted he was closest to the “babies,” as he called them, who then ranged in age from 2 to 5. As he took me from room to room, he lingered over each sleeping form.