Magazine

At home with Schlamowitz: Gaddafi's Jewish pen pal

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Media captionLouis Schlamowitz has 60 albums packed with correspondence and signed pictures of world leaders

An elderly Jewish man from Brooklyn has spent decades as a pen pal to world leaders as diverse and unlikely as JFK, Ayatollah Khomeini and the recently deceased Col Gaddafi.

In Louis Schlamowitz's cramped Brooklyn flat, a signed photograph from President John F Kennedy sits above an action shot of Gen Manuel Noriega of Panama, signed with best wishes.

And there is Mr Schlamowitz, wearing sideburns, meeting President Richard Nixon at the White House, just as the Watergate scandal gained momentum.

The Queen is one who got away - she has not personally responded to the indefatigable 81-year-old autograph hunter from Brooklyn's Canarsie neighbourhood. At least not yet.

"The Queen only writes to people she's met," explains Mr Schlamowitz, a former florist and veteran of the Korean War.

He still treasures the three-decade-old photograph of the Queen and Prince Philip sent by Buckingham Palace.

Image caption Mr Schlamowitz says his correspondence with world leaders gave him a part in history

Mr Schlamowitz has 60 albums packed with correspondence and signed pictures of world leaders, movie stars and sporting heroes of yesteryear.

It all began when he was deployed to Korea with the US Army in 1953 and a friend suggested he use a spare Christmas card to write to President Harry Truman, on the off chance the American leader would write back.

When the response arrived from the White House, Mr Schlamowitz found his calling.

He began scanning the newspapers, writing down the names of public figures, noting the dates of their birthdays and anniversaries.

"Not everybody replies to me, but most people do," he says. "I write nice things to them, but it doesn't mean I'm sincere."

Mr Schlamowitz, an observant Jew, has corresponded avidly with Middle East leaders who do not recognise the state of Israel. He acknowledges that has earned him more than the occasional rebuke from rabbis.

Image caption Mr Schlamowitz has resisted most offers to buy his collection, which he intends for his family

"It doesn't mean I agree with them," he says. "I just want to add them to my collection."

Mr Schlamowitz corresponded frequently with the late Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, for instance congratulating him on the anniversary of his revolution. In response he received lengthy letters railing against US and Israeli policy.

"I stopped writing to him in 2000," Mr Schlamowitz says. "I got fed up with all the propaganda."

His practice of writing to leaders hostile to the US has earned Mr Schlamowitz visits from the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security over the years, he says.

Mr Gaddafi was a particular cause for concern: CIA agents wondered why Mr Schlamowitz was the pen pal of the leader of a government suspected of being behind the Lockerbie bombing.

"It's just a hobby," Mr Schlamowitz says he explained to the suspicious CIA officer.

"Hell of a hobby, Schlamowitz," came the reply, he says.

Despite these interrogations by officialdom, Mr Schlamowitz remains particularly proud of his Middle East albums. They feature Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, former PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, assassinated in 1981.

Image caption Gaddafi sent him anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda

The Arab uprising has swept away leaders to whom Mr Schlamowitz wrote, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who sent Christmas wishes from Cairo to Canarsie.

"I think Mubarak did the right thing, stepping down," Mr Schlamowitz reflects. "Gaddafi should have done the same. Politics is a brutal game."

This treasure trove of autographs and memorabilia has led dealers and collectors to make the pilgrimage to Canarsie over the years.

Mr Schlamowitz has sold a few items from his JFK and Marilyn Monroe collections, but most of his albums remain intact, ultimately intended as gifts for his family.

He says he plans to write "again" to US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and says he will pen a note to the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo.

Mr Schlamowitz complains he cannot hold the pen as well as he once did, but he says the writing keeps him occupied.

"I feel good when they write back. I'm nothing special, just an ordinary guy, and now I'm part of history."