During a Security Council meeting in August 2006 at U.N. headquarters in New York, the rotating President from Ghana felt so accomplished at pronouncing the name of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece Dora Bakoyannis that he proudly, though discreetly, high-fived his neighbor at the table and his compatriot, Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Minutes later, however, he realized that his own name seemed even more difficult as participants like Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Sergei Lavrov attempted to thank "His Excellency Nana Addo Dankwa Akifo-Addo."
Naturally, at the U.N. more than elsewhere, varied cultures have to cope daily with oddly perceived names. Some helpful Indian officials try to abbreviate the first couple of a prolonged one to look, for example, like P.J. Parthasarathi. Other Asians would be known by one name only, like Indonesian President Bambang, a former general.
Part of my task as head of the Department of Public Information was to introduce visiting senior officials at press conferences. That meant not only remembering their precise name but pronouncing it correctly, while listening to occasional requests. The creative Vaclav Havel, who was most charming sought, to visit a rock joint CBGB on the Bowery in a taxicab until advised otherwise by New York's finest. President Menem of Argentina merely longed for a "cafetito."
Some heads of state made it somewhat difficult by changing their own name, let alone that of their country. President Saparmurat Niyazov became Turkmenbashi. A more drastic one was by Colonel Joseph Desire of the Congo/Zaire who declared himself "Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga," briefly meaning "the most virile cock in the neighborhood." He may have been disappointed when French traffic police did not recognize his stature as they stopped his driver for speeding while carrying coconut ice cream back to the villa near Cap d'antibes.
There was a case where a dignitary not only changed his name, but had a blank bio. We were handed only his date of birth and the date of his election to preside over that new country. It turned out he had been the long-serving Chief of Security Services but in a new incarnation converted to free capital market economy. A prime minister insisted on holding a press conference on a "hot, humid and hazy" summer Friday afternoon of a 4th of July weekend. Disregarding advice, he insisted that the media would fill the hall once they heard his name. When no one showed up, he noisily suspected "a media conspiracy of silence" while I tried in vain to explain that it was merely HHH New York.
Maestro Luciano Pavarotti was the first participant in Voices for Life, launched to enlist creative arts and sports stars in specific worldwide campaigns to promote the quality of life. Having experienced war as a child in Italy, his emotional focus made a valuable impact. A first event in Sarajevo aimed at raising funds for children in conflict while trying to revive ethnic cohesion. Performers like Eric Clapton, Sinead O'Connor and Zucchero joined in an unprecedented concert, later produced under "Pavarotti and friends." Another event, as the Maestro's health needed more attention, was in his hometown, Modena. When the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a former Dutch prime minister, realized that over one million dollars were raised that evening, he started dancing in the aisles.
Like any talented artist, Pavarotti deserved constant care. I was delighted to devote appropriate time and attention as we met at U.N. headquarters, his apartment in Central Park South and a New York outpost of a Milan pastry café on Madison Avenue. As his hips became more painful, he was reluctant to perform in public except when there were strictly binding contracts.
During a particularly hot summer day after leaving to Southampton, I was informed that our Maestro was at Lennox Hill Hospital for urgent care. Hurrying back to 77th Street, I was told by the reception that no such patient was listed. With the time difference, I waited for the following day to call and find out the selected alias, then was promptly directed to his room when I asked for: "Joseph Verdi."
3. Overheard on Madison Avenue
"Are you calling to take me out or to complain?"
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