A Hit Man, a Detective Novelist and a Woman Who Fell From the Sky

Source: The New York Times / www.nytimes.com / By Dan Bilefsky /

One writer details 10 of his most memorable profiles in over a decade of his reporting.

Hi, this is Dan Bilefsky, the Montreal-based Canada correspondent for The Times, filling in this week for Ian Austen.

Happy New Year! The auspiciousness of 2020 invites inevitable reflections on the past decade. In my case, I have been thinking about the most memorable people I have met or profiled over the past decade or so as a correspondent in places including Paris, London, Istanbul and Prague. Here are 10 — among them a British hit man and the world’s most unlikely monogamist in Turkey.

Louise Penny: An Affable Canadian Novelist With a Penchant for Murder

Dan Bilefsky with Louise Penny
Dan Bilefsky with Louise Penny, the wildly popular Canadian detective writer.Credit…Jasmin Lavoie

From the moment I met the best-selling writer Louise Penny in the spring of 2018, I was struck by her abiding humanity, even if she had electrocuted one character and bashed another in the head with a door knocker. Ms. Penny, who has grappled with alcoholism and suicide, later told me that her novels were, ultimately, about human goodness. “I know what it’s like to hate yourself so much that you have to murder yourself,” she said. “Coming out the other side gave me a profound belief that goodness exists.”

Vaclav Havel: The Playwright Who Overthrew Communism

There are rare people who ennoble you by their sheer presence. One such person was Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. When I first met Mr. Havel in Prague back in 2008, he told me about the five years he had spent in prison as a dissident, his 19 plays and his 14 years as president. “I have had a very adventurous life but not because I have an adventurous nature,” he said. In 2011, I froze in place on a rainy street in Istanbul when I learned of his death, before rushing back to my hotel to update his obituary for The Times. Writing it was both inspiring and humbling.

Vesna Vulovic: The Woman Who Fell From The Sky

Nearly five decades ago, Vesna Vulovic fell thousands of feet after the plane she was on exploded midair. Miraculously, Ms. Vulovic, a flight attendant from the former Yugoslavia, survived. When I met her at her home in Belgrade in 2008, she told me she had no memory of the fall. But she vividly recalled its aftermath, when she was celebrated as a national hero. She earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest recorded fall without a parachute. She died in 2016 at age 66.

Ratko Mladic: The Butcher of Bosnia

When I arrived in the poor, remote Bosnian village where Ratko Mladic grew up, it was covered with blacks crows. It was somehow fitting for the hometown of the Bosnian-Serb general held responsible for the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. In 2010, I and another Times reporter, Doreen Carvajal, investigated his whereabouts. He was captured one year later, in a Serbian farming village. His conviction in November 2017 for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes marked the end of one of Europe’s bloodiest chapters since the end of World War II.

Seemona Sumasar: A Revenge Plot So Intricate, The Prosecutors Were Pawns

In 2011, when I was a Metropolitan reporter in New York, I stumbled on a crime story right out of an episode of C.S.I. The case focused on Seemona Sumasar, a petite former Wall Street analyst who had been raped by a former boyfriend. When she refused to drop the charges against him, he framed her for a series of brazen armed robberies that never took place. As a result, the rapist and his victim switched places: Ms. Sumasar spent seven months in prison. “In the collective memory, no one has ever seen anything like this before,” the Queens district attorney told me at the time.

Pashe Keqi: A Sworn Virgin of Albania

For centuries in a rural northern part of Albania, people lived under an ancient warrior code called the Kanun, dating to Ottoman times. Under the Kanun, murder must be avenged with blood. Consequently, thousands of men were killed in so-called blood feuds, leaving women alone in a culture where men ruled. Some women adapted by taking an oath of virginity and thereby becoming the men of the house. In 2008, I set out for the mountains of Albania and met Pashe Keqi, 78, a sworn virgin, to learn what had motivated her to swap genders. The resulting story is not one I will soon forget.

Freddie Foreman: He Was Once the ‘Godfather of British Crime.’ Now He’s Just a Grandfather.

When I was researching my book, “The Last Job,” about a group of geriatric jewel thieves known as “The Bad Grandpas,” I met Freddie Foreman. Mr. Foreman, now 87, was a former hit man for the diabolical Kray twins in London in the 1960s. Yet when I knocked on his door for the first time in 2017, he looked like a sweet grandpa. Over wine, we talked about his childhood during World War II and, eventually, about murder. It was hard to square the endearing raconteur with the man known as “Brown Bread Fred” (“brown bread” is Cockney rhyming slang for “dead”).

Xavier Dolan: An Iconoclastic Quebec Filmmaker

Appropriately enough, interviewing Xavier Dolan, who talked to me for nearly eight hours about his life and childhood, felt like being in one of his frenetic films. Mr. Dolan is an actor, director and former child star. By the time he was 29, he had directed seven films. His eighth feature, “Matthias & Maxime,” about friendship and male intimacy, premiered at Cannes in May.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn: From I.M.F. Chief to Perp Walks

Before the #MeToo era began, I covered the pimping trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French former head of the International Monetary Fund. It was, by any account, a remarkable fall from grace. During his trial, those in attendance, me included, sat in discomfort as prostitutes testified about the sexual tastes of a man once touted as a future French president. The trial of Mr. Strauss-Kahn, previously accused of assaulting a hotel maid in New York, shined an uncomfortable light on a culture where powerful men had been able to behave with impunity.

Aga Mehmet Arslan: A Polygamist Who Champions Monogamy

While a correspondent in Turkey, I met a polygamist who had five wives and so many children — 55 — he couldn’t remember all of their names. A jovial man with a prodigious pot belly, Aga Mehmet Arslan told me that he regretted marrying all of his wives, since the multiple marriages had created jealousies and, above all, because he was a romantic. “Marrying five wives is not sinful, and I did so because to have many wives is a sign of power,” he said, perched on a divan at his house. “But I wouldn’t do it again.”