Brooklyn florist, 81, mourns the loss of his favourite pen-pal, Muammar Gaddafi
Libyan dictator sent letters, photographs and Christmas cards to shopkeeper for 40 years
When he wasn't cutting deals with terrorists, torturing dissidents, or adding to his vast collection of tents and military uniforms, Muammar Gaddafi liked nothing more than to sit down with a few sheets of watermarked notepaper and bash out rambling letters to his American pen-pal.
So says Louis Schlamowitz, an 81-year-old Jewish florist from Brooklyn, who spent several years of his adult life exchanging notes, signed photographs and Christmas cards with the late Libyan dictator. Like any loyal friend, he was surprised and upset at the violent manner in which Gaddafi was removed from office.
"I felt bad about the way he was killed," the elderly New Yorker told reporters, showing off a scrapbook of their correspondence. "He should have stepped down like the president of Egypt... It's about power and money, and when they lose it, they go down and the people who are their advisers go down with them."
Mr Schlamowitz began sending unsolicited letters to Gaddafi in the late 1960s, shortly after he had seized power, congratulating him on his elevation to high office. To his surprise, the Libyan leader swiftly wrote back. "He was a good pen-pal," said the Canarsie resident. "I felt it was very nice of him to take the time to write back to me, because I'm nobody special."
Over the years, their relationship evolved into a level of familiarity which allowed for frank exchanges of political views: "We kept corresponding with each other. I'd send Christmas cards and letters to him about my different viewpoints about the United States and Israel," the florist recalled.
In one note, sent in 1981, Mr Schlamowitz argued that "the state of Israel would never be split because it's the homeland of the Jewish people". Gaddafi rose to the bait, responding in a two-page note that "America practices terrorism against the Palestinian people through providing Israel with the planes and weapons for attacking the Palestinian camps". Despite his pen-pal's surname, Gaddafi seemed not to realise that the man he was corresponding with was Jewish. And Mr Schlamowitz didn't mind his anti-Israeli rhetoric. "I wish people well, but I don't have to agree with them," he said. "I'm not in politics. I do it as a hobby."
Other letters he received contained a selection of signed photographs, showing the Libyan leader in eccentric outfits. A Christmas card written around 2000, and signed by Gaddafi, thanks Mr Schlamowitz for his "friendship through the years".
The Colonel's letters and cards are included in a selection of scrapbooks detailing written exchanges between Mr Schlamowitz and a wide cross-section of world leaders and celebrities, ranging from Richard Nixon and Harry Truman to Marilyn Monroe and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
At one point, Mr Schlamowitz was visited by FBI and CIA agents, who wanted to know why he was exchanging familiar letters with hostile foreigners. So he showed them his scrapbooks. "I said I collected them as a hobby, and they were amazed," he told the New York Times.
Not every long-distance relationship ends happily, though. Upon reading that the Arab Spring had spread to Libya, Mr Schlamowitz sent his old pen-pal a final letter, urging him to cut a deal with the rebels. But it was returned unopened. "I felt bad about how he was slaughtered. They really gave him the one-two-three," he recalled. "But that's politics."
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