Twenty-one years ago, a young reporter was forced to answer a tough question
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 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.
Back in the living room, he motioned me to a large plate-glass window. It was a clear night and the silhouettes of dark, dry hills looked like the backs of whales, beached and sleeping. “That’s Jerusa-lem,” he said, pointing to clusters of lights beyond the hills. “We are exactly 27 kilometers away. Just within their artillery range.”
The two place settings looked lost on the huge dining table. Hussein moved a vase of long-stemmed roses the color of persimmons out of the way so we could talk without obstruction. He was dieting under doctor’s orders and wasn’t at all happy with the Pritikin-type menu to which he was confined. The cook presented each low-fat course with slapstick drama, hovering nearby to watch the king’s reaction with mock terror. Hussein acted as straight man and groaned mournfully as he poked at each new item on the crested plates. When I pronounced a sauceless vegetable dish delicious, the cook smiled la Roberto Begnini and clutched his heart. "Oh, thank goodness, madam! You have saved my job!"
The king interrupted the fish course to turn on the Sony portable television in the dining room in time to catch the evening news broadcast in English at 10 p.m. It was an Israeli broadcast of American network news coverage of a meeting between President Jimmy Carter and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. “More American good intentions,” Hussein muttered, staring at the screen intensely. “God help us.” The fact that Hussein relied on thrice-removed news for information struck me as both ironic and eerie. It was like a child’s game of “telephone” played on a grand scale.
After dinner we sat cross-legged on the floor of the living room and talked about books, rock ‘n’ roll, and what it was like to be a king in a world where kings were out of fashion. “I think maybe I could have won quite a few elections in my time without much difficulty,” he said. “Maybe then one’s image outside might have been different. If you are a monarch there’s a mark against you, at times.”
At one point, I asked who knew him best. “No one,” he replied. “People know various sides of me. But with the big problems, big decisions, one can’t show weakness. One can’t share one’s inner feelings as a human being. I was able to do that with Alia, but behind her, it hasn’t been possible. People don’t really want you to be human. It worries them.”
By the time I met him, Hussein had survived more assassination attempts than any head of state in recent memory, starting at age 15, when he saw his grandfather, King Abdullah (the new King Abdullah is his namesake) shot dead at close range. Hussein was two paces behind when the assassin pointed a revolver at his grandfather’s right ear and pulled the trigger. The boy lunged at the assassin, who then raised his gun and fired again, this time at Hussein’s chest. The bullet hit a medal hung around his neck, striking it at a lucky angle, and ricocheted harmlessly away.
The most famous attempt was the time, in 1958, when two Syrian MiG-17 fighters tried to force Hussein’s Dove to crash. The king, a skilled pilot, outmaneuvered his attackers in his small prop airplane. Another would-be assassin worked in the royal kitchen, where he tried poison dosages on the palace cats. When cat number three turned up dead, Hussein’s guards got suspicious.
When I asked the king about the myriad attempts on his life, he shrugged. “I’m rarely frightened at the time,” he said. “Only later. It helps that I’m a fatalist. I know when my time comes, that’s it. Nothing is going to prevent it. Without that attitude, one can’t go on.” He grew thoughtful. “Sometimes I don’t like myself very much,” he said. “But I’ve tried my best. I’ve never considered being a king as being anything exceptional. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’ve considered myself an ordinary person. The minute I think I’m anything above that, it’s the end of my usefulness to myself or to anyone.” Hussein was quiet for a while. “I believe we go through stages in our life," he said when he spoke again. “An idealistic stage when we are young and we still have our hopes, our illusions. A realistic stage when life has taught us to be a bit more cynical. And then perhaps there is a third stage where one finds peace with oneself. I’m at stage two,” he said. “Perhaps one day I will reach the third stage. I hope so.”
It was nearly midnight and the king looked tired. But then, all at once, he brightened. “Have you been having any trouble getting through to anyone back in the States?” I could see that a certain answer was expected here, but I wasn’t sure what it was. “Uh, I have been having a bit of trouble.” Hussein’s expression bloomed into a conspiratorial smile. “Follow me,” he said, and padded off down a hallway. We passed through his sleeping quarters and study, into the small, stark radio room where he kept every high-tech, gee-whiz communications gadget the pre-PC computer age could offer. The pièce de résistance was a ship-to-shore phone.
Hussein touched the device lovingly. “You can dial anywhere in the world direct without going through the overseas operator,” he said. “I’m not really supposed to have one,” he added. “One is only supposed to have them on boats.” I considered telling him that the king can have anything he damn well pleases, but I thought better of it. “Give me the number you would like to call and I will dial it for you.” He was playing magician and the little black box was his magic rabbit.
Who does one call in such a circumstance? I settled on my best friend, Janet, who, with the time difference, I deduced would be at work. When the connection was made, the king retired discreetly to the next room.
“Where are you?!” Janet yelled into the line. “Um, I’m at the palace in Amman having dinner with my friend Hussein,” I replied idiotically. I was pretty sure he was listening.
Finally it was time to go. As we walked to the door, the king asked if I’d send him a book on the interpretation of dreams that we’d discussed earlier. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to shop,” he said, then told me about an incident, on a trip to New York, in which he’d visited Abercrombie & Fitch. (The king was an avid sportsman.) When he got there, security-minded officials made everyone leave and filled the store with Secret Service agents. “I felt so badly for the salespeople,” he said. “I just bought the first thing I saw and left.”
At the door the king kissed my hand solemnly and said, “I feel like I’ve known you forever.” Good line, I thought. But it wasn’t a line—not really. It wasn’t any kind of pass. Hussein was a man looking for a friend.
The next day, I was packing to leave when I got a call from Fouad Ayoub, the king’s press secretary—a lively, Stanford-educated man with a fondness for Wittgenstein. “I understand you are leaving Jordan tomorrow,” Ayoub said. “I am calling to tell you that His Majesty would like it very much if you would stay.”
I panicked. “Oh, I couldn’t,” I said. “I have a nonrefundable ticket.”
“We could change your ticket,” said Ayoub. Duh. Could I possibly sound any stupider? “Thank the king for his kindness,” I blurted. “But I must return home.” The truth was, I was unnerved by the sense that, if I didn’t leave, I might find myself somehow in over my head.
What can I say? I was young.
From L.A. Weekly (Feb. 19, 1999). Subscriptions: $70/yr. (52 issues) from 6715 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90028.