Larry J. Kolb

Pascal Riché's LIBÉRATION profile of Kolb in the original French

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Our Man in Miami
by Pascal Riché, Libération
translated into English by David Ball
Friday, June 10, 2005.

Does Larry Kolb really exist? After spending five hours sitting with him in the shade of the palm trees by the edge of one of the most beautiful pools in South Beach, Miami—the pool of the art-deco Hotel Raleigh—we still wonder. Slightly dazed, when we come back into the heat of Collins Avenue and its people walking by with fat, tanned, thighs, we pinch ourselves. Was this man real or did he come out of an airport novel like a puff of steam? The son of a spy, a secret agent himself, a former diamond dealer, ex-agent of Ali, son-in-law of the arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi, fugitive... His life, streaking along at 80 miles an hour through cash, glitz and adventures, is just too improbable. Of course we checked out most of what he has said before we met him, to be sure we weren’t dealing with a mere mythomaniac. We had to face it: even if he fictionalized his life a bit in his memoirs, Overworld: The Life and Times of a Reluctant Spy, he didn’t make it up. Besides, he himself has trouble believing his story: “When I think back over everything that happened to me, it seems impossible.”

In the photos he shows us, we see him, an enormous beanpole walking ahead of Muhammad Ali or sitting next to Khashoggi... A big kid in a suit, incongruous, out of place. He’s Woody Allen’s character Zelig. Or Forrest Gump: the first time he saw the film, he recognized himself right away—minus the hero’s stupidity, but with an attraction for intrigue added on. While gulping down an omelet, Larry Kolb assures us, with a serious air, that he never wanted this tortuous life. But if you answer that you don’t believe a word of it, he laughs as a sign of assent.

Let’s try to sum it up. At the age of twenty-three, a friend of his father’s contacts him and offers him a job working for the CIA. Afraid he’ll be stuck in some boring office, he refuses. He prefers to go into organizing adventure trips for rich people. One thing leads to another, and he meets Jan Stephenson, golf champion and sex bombshell of the day. He becomes her agent, her husband, very soon her ex-husband. Through her, he meets Muhammad Ali, who’s about to hang up his gloves. The photographer Howard Bingham, Ali’s best friend, remembers that “pretty nice guy who used to travel with us sometimes, doing business.” Thanks to Ali, Larry Kolb is introduced to a good part of the fashionable international elite. And in particular the arms merchant Adnan Kashoggi, at the time one of the richest men on the planet. Khashoggi’s wife has an elder daughter, Kim. Kolb marries her and enters the clan. As his address book is rapidly expanding, he attracts the attention of Miles Copeland, one of the founders of the CIA, who has become a kind of Lone Ranger of espionage. Manipulative, and a risk-taker, Copeland manages to convince him to “do him some favors.” He trains him, gives him his taste for intrigue and passion for deception. In Beirut, in the company of Muhammad Ali and some CIA agents, Kolb participates in a failed attempt to free the American hostages held in Lebanon. Later, he becomes friendly with Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, in order to spy on him, after having hooked him by throwing him a fishy Hindu guru, His Holiness Chandraswami Maharaj.

And then his taste for intrigue takes him too far. Thinking he’s doing Khashoggi a favor, he takes part in setting up a vast, shady, undercover scheme to discredit an Indian politician, V.P. Singh, a rival of Rajiv Gandhi in the elections. Kolb leaks documents showing Singh’s corruption; the documents turn out to be fakes. (He swears he’d been manipulated and didn’t know this.) Interpol is called in. He has to lay low in Florida and hope they forget about him. For a long time. “I grew up abroad. Then I traveled abroad around twice a month. So those ten years I spent on that beach felt like exile to me.” He brought up a son. He wrote his memoirs. And he was bored.

Self-analysis is not Larry Kolb’s strong point. When you ask him to explore his relationship to his father, all he does is reel off some stories. Yet Kolb’s life is nothing but a quest for the father. Lewis Kolb was a military intelligence officer, a real one, a man who taught “assassination techniques,” who served as a liaison officer in Tokyo, London, Wiesbaden… and left from time to time on secret missions. Young Larry quickly realized that his father was not the man he pretended to be. “That had to be a shocking discovery; it created a fascination in him,” thinks Michael Woodhead, a friend of his, formerly with the BBC. “He’s had an unresolved anxiety inside him ever since: who is my father, exactly? What made me what I am?”

The day he agreed to work for Miles Copeland, it was surely to try to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he only ended up with a disjointed series of adventures, a thousand miles from the well-ordered if adventurous life of his father, an officer immersed in the chess game of the cold war.

But Kolb still has the bug. For a year now, he’s got himself caught up in a new intrigue. He talks about it a bit, but with lots of “don’t-quote-me-on-this,” and “this-is-off-the-record.” From what he hints at, we gather he’s been called on to disentangle the threads of a political plot hatched by crooked former CIA agents, Republicans trying to slip Al Qaeda money into the accounts of the Kerry campaign in 2004—the subject of his next book whose hero, of course, will be himself.

Kolb likes to ham it up; he’s paranoid, clumsy and sure of himself all at once. He looks at you the way people do who were once shy. His body is constantly swinging between tension and relaxation. To relax, all he has to do is smile: he has the fleshy, sidelong smile of Elvis Presley. Once, that got him into his most unbelievable “Zelig” situation ever. One day in 1984, Muhammad Ali was posing for the press with his buddy Jesse Jackson. Kolb, who was with him at the time, was standing slightly in the background. The photo is forgotten—until Elvis fans happen to see it, and think they recognize their hero. The media displays the photo; Elvis’ stepbrother certifies that it really is Elvis. So Elvis didn’t die in Graceland in August 1977 after all! The legend has been going strong ever since: 7% of the American people think Elvis is still alive.

Kolb talks, tells stories. We’ve stopped being surprised a long time ago: it seems anything can happen to him. When Hurricane Jeanne hit Florida last year, his house was blown away—of course. When our photographer leads him onto the beach in front of the hotel for a photo, a storm is in the air and Kolb warns her: “You know, there’s a good chance we’ll be struck by lightning. That hasn't happened to me yet.”

READ Pascal Riché's LIBÉRATION profile of Kolb in the original French
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