By Michael E. Miller
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In recent weeks, the 77-year-old visionary has made a valiant effort to win attention for his idea of a new world order, sending out information packets highlighting the centerpiece of his grand scheme: Freeda, a 500-foot statue, torch raised high to inspire the world's citizens to seek freedom. On the outside of the press kits of poems, photographs, and declarations he's sent to the likes of Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr., and Miami-Dade Community College president Bob McCabe is this hand-scrawled plea: "I must have Freedom Tower NOW! NOW! Before it is too late! I was made for Freedom Tower. Freedom Tower was made for me!"
The only thing that prevents Don Gilbert (a.k.a. Don Hope, a.k.a. Letz Hope) from realizing this particular dream is the $6.5 million in cash demanded for the foreclosed property by the owner, a Lichtenstein bank. Gilbert, a landlord who owns five small local apartment buildings, claims he's already spent $150,000 of his own money to build and publicize two smaller models of the Freeda statue. Ultimately, he intends to construct the 500-foot-high version -- with actress/activist Jane Fonda as model -- to display on a mountaintop in San Francisco.
Six and a half million dollars being a bit steep for a small-scale residential landlord, Gilbert is seeking financial help from celebrities and philanthropists to purchase the Freedom Tower. The edifice, which was built in 1925 to be the headquarters of the Miami News and largely has stood vacant since 1988, would serve as the home base of his proposed freedom movement.
Though he has garnered no promises of support so far -- or any responses, for that matter -- Gilbert is undeterred. "They haven't said no yet," he remarks of one celebrity couple he's beseeched, the aforementioned Fonda and her media-mogul mate, Ted Turner. And late last month he was readying a press kit to mail out to Larry King, in the hope that King will give him a forum to to pursue his public wooing of Fonda.
"I think it's a worthy cause, but it's an uphill battle," says friend and fellow world-government advocate Leon Schiff. He, for one, is skeptical of Gilbert's Freedom Tower plan: "It's a little farfetched; that would take too much money." Even more daunting is the revelation from Bill Cutler, a realtor who represents the tower's Lichtensteinian owners, that four parties are seriously interested in the property. Gilbert, Cutler implies, isn't one of them. "But he seems like an interesting guy," the realtor adds charitably.
That's a bit of an understatement. A frenetic talker who periodically leaps up to find another photo or letter illustrating his obsession with Freeda, Gilbert sometimes gets so wound up that he clutches his balding skull and talks down into the table. He says he suffers from bipolar (or manic-depressive) disorder, and his output of anthems, poems, sketches, letters, and press packages has a manic edge. Visitors to his son's low-slung ranch home in the Westwood Lake subdivision of southwest Dade can't help but notice the hand and torch jutting over the roof into the sky: It is the upward arc of Gilbert's beloved 23-foot Freeda, constructed of hardened urethane foam on a steel frame.
Commissioned by Gilbert for approximately $20,000 in the fall of 1993, the model was originally intended for display in Port-au-Prince, to mark Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to power. "We would surely have gotten it on CNN, and everyone in the world would have said, 'Look at that statue!'" Gilbert recalls. He was unable, though, to make arrangements for the statue to be erected in Haiti; it remains unclear whether Aristide was ever apprised of the plan. Gilbert was given permission to place the sculpture in front of Bayside's Torch of Friendship, where it stood from April to June of this past year. Unfortunately, he reports, the artwork attracted virtually no attention. "We didn't get any press," he says. "Not one mention." He tried again a few months later, spending $4000 for a booth at the Kids' Show exhibition at Dinner Key Auditorium in Coconut Grove, again with no feedback. For that show, he asked his daughter, a local artist, to make two abstract foam sculptures A a blue tube with a pink curve cut into it, signifying a mother cradling her child; and a modern version of the scales of justice, emblazoned with a glowing heart. All three pieces now stand in Gilbert's back yard, next to the clothesline.
His Fonda fixation dates back to the days when she flew to Hanoi during the Vietnam War; he has always admired "her guts." During a local Vietnam Veterans Against the War convention here in the early Seventies, Gilbert sat behind her at a meeting and handed her a poem he had written about world peace. Now he's hoping she and her husband will team up with him to get his message across -- Fonda by modeling for the statue and reciting poems in praise of Freeda, Turner by broadcasting news of Freeda worldwide on his network, CNN. "We're going to change the world, if she will cooperate and he will cooperate," Gilbert says. "My problem is to get them involved."