At this time last year, the Metropolitan Opera was aflame in controversy about an opera production called The Death of Klinghoffer. The eight performances between Oct. 20 and Nov. 15 brought waves of accusation and defense, of every political and artistic variety, over this dramatization of a real-life cruise ship hijacking and murder.
In that event, which took place 30 years ago this month, four Palestinian gunmen terrorized passengers aboard the Achille Lauro, killing one Jewish man on October 8, 1985: Leon Klinghoffer, 69, whom they shot and then pushed off the ship in his wheelchair. His wife, Marilyn, survived the attack. The couple were celebrating their 36th wedding anniversary on the cruise, in the company of a group of friends who summered together at the Jersey Shore.
The opera was first staged in 1991, and has been produced around the world numerous times. Last fall, however, was the prestigious Metropolitan Opera’s home-stage premiere of this work – by American creators John Adams and Alice Goodman – that has long been criticized by some as anti-Semitic. It was hard to find a New Yorker with an interest in opera, art, politics, Jews or Palestinians who didn’t have a strong opinion about the opera and the Met’s choice to produce it.
Amidst the drama, however, the humble life of Klinghoffer the New Yorker got lost. He was a son of the Lower East Side, born in 1916 to immigrants from Eastern Europe who ran a hardware store on Avenue D. His father died at just 29, so Leon and his brother Albert took over working in the store, Klinghoffer Supply, to support their mother and three other siblings.
A building known to most East Villagers, the Key Food at Avenue A and East Fourth Street, is where the Klinghoffer business moved next. According to GVSHP research, the one-story building was constructed in 1944 for Albert and Leon as a warehouse, truck garage and hardware store. The facade of glazed brick was a popular choice in post-World War II architecture. The building was a symbol of their success, as it was a new and larger location for the business. It provided space for manufacturing small appliances, one of which was their invention: the rotobroiler, which contained a rotisserie and heating element.
Much of Leon Klinghoffer’s life was also spent at another building nearby – the white-brick apartment building at 70 East 10th Street, which occupies a full block directly south of Grace Church. It was there, in the home he shared with his wife, that The New York Times set its moving obituary, with his two grown daughters and their husbands remembering their Leon.
To them, he was not a helpless victim, but a strong, happy, and devoted family man who struggled to overcome poverty and the two strokes that put him in a wheelchair. He was an inventor who had loved to go dancing with his wife. His family counted on him for advice and support.
His daughters have continued to protest the opera as exploitative and anti-Semitic. The photo above is from the archive they donated to the American Jewish Historical Society, about this son of the Lower East Side whose life’s end was also a historic event, and the inspiration for a controversial work of art.