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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Ezra Zilkha

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-11

Ezra Zilkha's journey from the fabled Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar II to the storied boardrooms of Manhattan has taken 2,600 years.

"I am always conscious of history," the financier and investor said yesterday. "My sensibilities are rooted in antiquity."

He can trace his personal history to the Chaldean Dynasty, whose scions - most notably Nebuchadnezzar II - conquered Jerusalem some six centuries before Christ and took Jews to their kingdom in Babylon, now part of Iraq.

"My family were proud members of the Jewish community that Nebuchadnezzar established," Mr. Zilkha, who was born in Baghdad, said. "When the Babylonian Captivity ended and many Jews returned to Jerusalem, my ancestors stayed behind."

They flourished as merchants and bankers, establishing an enduring tradition that eventually produced Mr. Zilkha's father, Khedouri, a towering figure who strode the financial landscape of the Middle East, Europe, America and Asia, and became an important player in international banking.

Khedouri Zilkha - who died in 1956 at the age of 72 - endowed Ezra with ambition and acumen. As the son marks the 50th anniversary of his father's death, he remembers him with affection and awe. And he attributes the professional arc of his own successful life to the values that his father instilled in him.

"He taught me the importance of keeping one's word," Mr. Zilkha said. "He taught me how important it was to keep your name clean. He taught me the value of discipline. And he taught me to complete one's work by the end of each day - and to keep a clean desk."

Mr. Zilkha looked away into the distance, as if at some image that had risen from memory.

"I think of my father every day," he said. "He would have been, on the whole, satisfied with me."

That was said quietly, and with his trademark modesty. In a lifetime spent in banking and high finance, Mr. Zilkha far exceeded whatever ambitions his father nurtured as he was raised in Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo, and New York, and then trained for business in Hong Kong, London, Amsterdam, and Paris.

His accomplishments took him beyond the Zilkha family's banking business into the corporate world in America, where his presence was prized on many boards. Indeed, such were his successes that the moniker of "legendary" almost always is used in conjunction with his name.

Mr. Zilkha isn't swayed by the moniker. He's not given to flaunting his fortune (Forbes once put among the 400 wealthiest Americans), and he isn't one to boast about his philanthropy - which is formidable, particularly toward education, the arts and to the handicapped. (It's impossible to identify but Mr. Zilkha says he's stuttered all his life).

What he's clearly most proud about is his marriage to Cecile Iny in February 1950. While Mr. Zilkha developed his business, his wife came into her own on the charity circuit and as a leading fundraiser for the Metropolitan Opera and the Hospital for Special Surgery. They have three children, Donald, Donna, and Bettina, and four grandchildren.

The warmth with which Mr. Zilkha speaks about his wife and family contrasts markedly with his assessment of contemporary world affairs. He is glum.

"We are living in a very, very dangerous world with a lack of visionary leadership," Mr. Zilkha said. "History shows that entire civilizations have disintegrated because of poor leadership. Look at the times we live in - terrorism; growing youth unemployment such as in France, where street violence threatens to reverse laws; globalization where poor people see more and more what they cannot afford."

He then quoted an Arab aphorism, one of several that Mr. Zilkha can retrieve in the languages he speaks fluently - English, French, and Arabic:

"One eye is always jealous of the other eye."

The reporter asked Mr. Zilkha about the Middle East, a region that he watches closely, not the least because Iraq was the land of his birth.

"Palestinians and Israelis are beyond reconciliation," Mr. Zilkha said. "As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, the same piece of land was sold twice. Let us remember that the real issue in the Middle East is oil."

He quoted another Arab saying:

"What begins twisted, stays twisted."

In his view, the display of cartoons considered blasphemous by Muslims was unnecessary.

"I'm all for freedom of speech - but shouldn't freedom of speech also be about not being needlessly offensive to others?" Mr. Zilkha said.

Would he consider serving as an adviser on Middle East issues to the parties involved, including the United States government?

"I think that one mistake they've made in Washington is not to use people like me who understand the mentality of the players in the Middle East," Mr. Zilkha said. "When it comes to the Arab-Israeli issue, it's so important to understand the emotions that it generates."

Mr. Zilkha had been consulted by the White House during the Gulf War of 1991. At that time, he'd suggested that Allied troops not storm Baghdad because it would be impossible to hold Iraq together on account of its fractious ethnicities. If Mr. Zilkha now feels vindicated, he is too diplomatic - and too shrewd - to show it.

At any event, it isn't his style to gloat, especially over the setbacks of others.

"It's in my nature to be supportive, and to help people find solutions to problems," Mr. Zilkha said.

He frequently addresses global problems within the precincts of two prestigious institutions that he avidly supports - the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Brookings Institution.
In addition to the problems of the Middle East, terrorism and youth unemployment, Mr. Zilkha worries about the international economy.

"The central banks of the world won't accumulate euros, they will not sell their gold - and, in fact, they may even buy gold," Mr. Zilkha said. "We may be facing deflation in manufactured goods because labor has become globalized - and there may be assets inflation because everybody seems to be on a buying spree for dollars, stocks, buildings."

In such an increasingly clangorous world, Mr. Zilkha said, his counsel for the young who may be just starting out is to always emphasize honesty, probity and the preservation of reputation.

"I say to the young, 'Don't go in for instant gratification,'" Mr. Zilkha said. "Time will never forgive what you take away from it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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