Part 3: Richard Hirschfeld – Friend, confidant of Muhammad Ali
Unlikely pair eventually travel to Lebanon for U.S. Government
Exactly when and how Hirschfeld and Ali met is a mystery. In the late 1970s, they were traveling in the same celebrity circles. Hirschfeld had done legal work for Donald Nixon (brother of former President Richard M. Nixon) and used those connections to socialize with highly placed Republicans and GOP loyalists. Among them was John Wayne. Hirschfield was introduced to Ali as Wayne’s attorney at a dinner in Southern California in 1979.
Hirschfield impressed Ali and it is believed that their relationship began at that point.
The pair met again in London by chance. Ali was there for a photo shoot on behalf of the Arab-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International. By 1980, Ali and Hirschfeld had become friends.
It was an unlikely friendship. Ali, the larger-than-life boxing legend, exemplar of pop culture and convert to Islam; and Hirschfeld, the diminutive Jewish financier and lawyer.
Some speculated that aging Ali saw a bit of himself as a young man in Hirschfeld — brash, savvy, quick-witted. They shared a love for the “sweet science.” The sport that had made Ali a legend.
The two became inseparable friends. Ali — once famous for his rapid-fire banter and rollicking rhyming couplets — was slowed by Parkinson’s. He spoke infrequently and in hushed tones.
Hirschfeld became Ali’s mouthpiece. And, according to some accounts, even his voice.
According to Sen. Orrin Hatch, Richard Hirschfeld had saved Mohammed Ali and watched over him like a brother. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ali once called Hirschfeld the best friend a man could have. And Hirschfeld said of Ali that he had put a shield around him because he was a symbol of the times — a champion of many of causes outside the ring.
Hirschfeld once said that Ali was entitled to stature outside the ring because he was bigger than the sport.
On Oct. 2, 1980, Ali stepped into the ring against Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, hoping to capture a fourth heavyweight title at age 38. Hirschfeld had helped arrange financing for the $12 million event. By the early 1980s Hirschfeld had returned to Hampton Roads from his self-imposed exile in California and maintained a short but exclusive list of clients, Ali among them.
Hampton Roads was where Hirschfeld and I first came to know one another. I was building houses in Virginia Beach when I received a phone call from Hirschfeld stating his intent to return to the area and asking me to perform some remodeling at a house that he was purchasing in the Little Neck section of the City. I was aware of the reports of Richard’s activities and the questionable business dealings that surrounded him. Before agreeing to do the remodeling, I inquired with people that I knew, all of whom suggested that I should decline.
Nevertheless, I agreed to do the work that he asked me to perform and when he arrived with his family, I went to his house and met him for the first time and presented him an invoice. We walked down the street talking about all sorts of things while he pulled out a large wad of cash and paid the invoice in full on the spot with no questions asked. Upon returning to his house we were standing on the porch when his wife Loretta stuck her head out the door to tell him that Mohammed Ali was on the phone. I do not know to this day why or how he came to call me, but I was well known among most of the Realtors in town and perhaps it was one of them who gave him my name. But what I found in this first encounter was a man that was completely different from anything that I had ever heard about him previously.\
In June 1982 Hirschfeld threw a lavish reception for friends and business associates at the Cavalier on the Hill Hotel, to which my wife and I were invited guests. All political dignitaries and leaders of the business community in Virginia Beach were invited. Mohammed Ali was in the reception line and as I approached him, I did not know whether to shake his hand softly or firmly as I did not want to embarrass him or myself. But as I took his hand, I felt that he did not grasp me firmly, so I returned with a soft handshake so as not to upstage “The Camp.” He spoke very softly and was very friendly in his demeanor. The memories of that encounter have stuck with me ever since.
Before the event at the Cavalier, I received a call at home from Hirschfeld inviting my wife and I to have dinner at the Isle of Capri Restauran, which was owned by Eddie Garcia, whom I had known for many years. Richard told me where to sit. We had completed our dinner when Richard and Eddie entered the room with their wives and one man that I did not know. As we passed their table to leave, we stopped to chat and were introduced to this man whose card identified him as a New York banker. Richard asked me about my knowledge of one of his associates named Robert Chastain. I acknowledged knowing him and the conversation quickly ended. The next day the headline in the Virginian Pilot was that Financing for the Pavilion Hotel had been secured. Clearly, Richard needed someone to validate the existence of Mr. Chastain and that was my purpose of the evening. Chastain was not only an associate of Richard but was also his partner. Chastain was connected to Arab money being investing in various places around the world and clearly that was the funding source for the Hotel project.
Ali and Hirschfeld rode horses together on the farm near Charlottesville where Ali lived for a time. Ali also consorted with Hirschfeld’s business associates in Virginia Beach. The tandem of Ali and Hirschfeld regularly dropped in on political luminaries during the 1980s, sometimes to pose for photos or for Ali to sign autographs. During one such visit, Ali autographed a pair of boxing gloves for Henry Hudson who was a prosecutor in Virginia. Hirschfeld would later come to regard Hudson as an adversary after Hirschfeld declined to support his bid to become a federal judge.
Through the years, Hirschfeld shielded Ali from those who sought to market everything from cologne to shopping centers. But some were convinced that it was Hirschfeld and not the would-be hucksters he fended off who ultimately betrayed Ali’s trust.
In 1988, the Atlanta Constitution reported that an imposter using Ali’s name and voice had made hundreds of calls to politicians, congressional aides and journalists. The voice on the phone had knowledge of topics the boxer had never shown an interest in such as the Dixiecrat political movement of 1948. Acquaintances said Hirschfeld could impersonate Ali, but Hirschfeld always denied making the calls.
At one point Ali and Hirschfeld appeared on the east steps of the US Capitol, where The Champ gave his friend a big squeeze and denounced Hirschfeld’s critics.
One day in February 1985, Hirschfeld spoke with his sister JoAnn by phone, telling her that she might see him on TV in a couple of days with Mohammed Ali. He assured her that everything would be all right and used the term “honor bright.”
This was family code for a sacred vow. Her father had said that he had never known Richard to use that term and tell a lie. A few days later she watched as her brother and Ali got off the plane in the Middle East. They were there to help secure the release of American hostages being held in Beirut, Lebanon.
Officially, the mission was not state-sponsored. But these two men were there at the behest of the State Department, which was confirmed by a former CIA agent who played a role in the mission and later worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a consultant.
Ali and Hirschfeld made the trip not only to help free hostages but also to gather intelligence on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Party of God terrorist organization. They were there to use Ali’s considerable influence in the Muslim community to gain access to mosques and other locations where Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, was located.
As a result of the mission, the U.S. government obtained specific information about the locations of Hezbollah operatives in Beirut. Later, Hirschfeld described how he was briefed on the venture by State Department officials and later received a phone call from then Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Hirschfeld and Ali were staying in Washington at the time. Bush instructed the men to go to Syria instead of volatile Beirut. After hanging up, Ali declared he would have none of it!
As Hirschfeld later recalled, Ali exclaimed: “That does it, Richie! We’re going to Beirut. I’ve never been afraid to go nowhere,” said Ali, “and I ain’t scared of nobody!”
This would not be Hirschfeld’s last or boldest foray into the World of Intrigue.