Prime Minister Golda Meir had the reputation of being a model of reserved, straight-laced probity, yet in an exchange with Oriana Fallaci, Italy's most celebrated and hard-hitting political interviewer, she was seduced into revealing such private feminine intimacies that I felt my cheeks heat up.
It was the summer of 1972, and I, head of the foreign press bureau, had to fight an impulse to stare when first setting eyes on this world-renowned, don't-give-a-damn interviewer and intrepid war correspondent. Fallaci was a sinewy creature, with a very Italian 40-odd-year-old face that was full of hutzpa and mettle. My mere mention of the prime minister's wish to know what she wanted to talk to her about elicited an instant tongue-lashing: "Mrs. Meir shall know what I shall talk to her about when I talk to her. And if she has a problem with that, I shall pack my bags and go home right now."
Fallaci's reputation for skinning a person alive was legendary. Any attempt to patronize her, humor her with false conviviality or seek to justify a gross injustice could put a match to her Roman fury - as when she ripped off her chador in the midst of an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, who said Muslim women must never uncover their faces; or when Fidel Castro huddled up a trifle too close to her and she told him he stank of body odor; or when she threw the microphone of her tape recorder in Muhammad Ali's face when he belched into hers.
MISTRESS OF theatrics, Fallaci could display balloon-pricking irreverence one moment and charming sweetness the next. Even the toughest could be disarmed by her feigned innocence, hanging themselves on the petard of their own confessional trust in response to her conveyed impression that her pugilistic questioning was merely for her own enlightenment.
US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that his 1972 interview with her "was the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press." In it, Kissinger was bewitched into acknowledging that the Vietnam War was "a useless war," and into ridiculously confiding that he often thought of himself as "the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding alone ahead on his horse."
When I mentioned these foibles to Golda Meir she smiled a mischievous sort of smile, and, tellingly, on the appointed day welcomed Fallaci into the comfort of her lounge at home rather than to her desk in the office. Golda chose to wear that day a stylish black dress, as any hostess might, and excused herself as she ran into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. Pouring, she insisted, as any mother would, that her guest try her cheesecake and remarked how youthful and chic she looked despite the rigors and risks of her job. She then delved into an appreciation of Fallaci's recently published, best-selling Vietnam War memoir, comparing that war with her own against terrorism.
An hour and a quarter later a captivated Ms. Fallaci found that instead of conducting a knuckle-fighting bout she had been engaged in a genial female chat, and an equally charmed prime minister said she would love to continue it sometime soon, and instructed me to arrange a date.
"What am I to do with a woman like that?" effused Fallaci folding herself into my car. "How am I to be objective? She reminds me so much of my mother - that same gray curly hair, her tired and wrinkled face, that sweet and energetic look. I think I have fallen in love with her."
Then, exhaling a Gloria Swanson sigh, she heaved, "I need a drink! Take me back to my hotel! I have to think!'
BY THE TIME the second meeting took place the journalist had fully retrieved her warrior professionalism and she pummeled the prime minister with hard-hitting political questions which Golda parried with the tough, singular passion of a Deborah facing down a Sisera. But then, half-way through, Fallaci switched from fortissimo to pianissimo, from a Valkyrie to a Prince Charming, and gently asked some very personal questions, beginning with, "Are you religious, Mrs. Meir?"
The prime minister responded with a dismissive wave of the hand, and categorically replied: "Me, religious? Never! Only my grandfather was religious, but those were the days when we lived in Russia. In America we observed the festivals, but went to the temple very seldom. I only went for the High Holydays to accompany my mother. You see, to me being Jewish means being proud to be part of a people that has maintained its distinct identity for more than 2,000 years, with all the pain and torment inflicted on it. And alsoâ€¦"
Abruptly her voice trailed away and she leaned deep into her armchair, looking past Fallaci with a remote stare as if recapturing a second thought, an image so vivid she could see it clearly in her mind's eye. Quietly, almost reverentially, she said, "The one time I've ever really prayed in a synagogue was in Moscow. It was shortly after the establishment of the state and I was Israel's ambassador there. If I'd stayed in Russia longer I might have become religious - maybe. Who knows?"
"Because in Communist Russia the synagogue was the one place where Jews could be Jews. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they came in their thousands. I stayed in the synagogue from morning till night. And I, who am an emotional person, prayed, really prayed."
THE TWO women were now leaning closer to each other and Fallaci, speaking almost secretly as if I was not there, probed the prime minister about her family life.
"Oh, it was hard, very hard," lamented Golda, recalling her neglect of her children when they were young. "My children, Sarah and Menachem, suffered so much on my account. I left them alone so often. I was never with them when I should have been. And when I had to stay home because of a headache or something, they were so happy. They would jump up and down, and laugh and sing, 'Mama's staying home. Mama's got a headache. Mama's staying home."
Meekly, she went on:
"And if you have a husband who is not a social animal like yourself, and who feels uncomfortable with an active wife like me, a wife for whom it's not enough to be a wife, then there's bound to be friction. And the friction may even break up the marriage, as it did mine.
"So, yes," - she paused to extract a handkerchief from her handbag and blow her nose - "I've paid for being what I am. I've paid a lot."
Fallaci bent even closer, and whispered. "That sense of guilt toward your children, did you also feel it toward your husband?"
A parade of intense emotions crossed Golda's face. She sat bolt upright, and with a wag of a finger, admonished, "Oriana, I never ever talk about my husband. I don't want to talk about him now. Change the subject."
"But did you?" The Italian's eyes were compelling, magnetic, her voice mesmeric.
The prime minister studied her fingernails in pensive silence, shrugged her shoulders, and in a thawed tone, said, "Well, all right. For you, I'll try."
Dabbing an eye with her kerchief, she said broodingly, "My husband, Morris, was an extraordinarily nice person - educated, kind, good. Everything about him was good. I met him when I was 15. We got married soon afterwards. From him I learned all the beautiful things, like music and poetry.
"But I was too different from him. He was only interested in his family, his home, his music, his books. For me, domestic bliss was not enough. I wasn't born to be satisfied with music and poetry. He wanted me to stay at home and forget politics. Instead, I was always out, always in politics. I had to be doing what I was doing. I couldn't help it."
SHE TOOK a breather to light a cigarette, and following the trail of the smoke with a dismal eye, flared, "Yes, of course I have a sense of guilt toward him. I made him suffer so much. He came to this country for me because I wanted to come here. He came to the kibbutz for me because I wanted to come to the kibbutz. He took up a way of life that didn't suit him because it was the kind of life I couldn't do without. It was a tragedy, a great tragedy."
Her mouth tightened, and the tensing of her jaw betrayed the intensity of her emotions. "He was such a wonderful man," she breathed. "With a different sort of a woman he could have been so very happy."
"Didn't you ever make an effort to adapt yourself to him, to please him?"
Golda's dark eyes were full of pain. "For him I made the biggest sacrifice of my life: I left the kibbutz. There was nothing I loved more than the kibbutz: the work, the comradeship. But Morris couldn't stand it. He couldn't stand the hard work. He couldn't stand the climate. He couldn't stand the communal way of life. He was too individualistic, too introverted, too delicate. He got sick and we had to leave for Tel Aviv."
RESTLESSLY, she began to stroke the arm of her chair, and between clenched teeth, went on, "My feeling of pain at leaving the kibbutz still goes through me like a needle. But I put up with it for his sake, thinking that in Tel Aviv our family life would be more tranquil, harmonious, but it wasn't. In 1938 we separated. In 1951 he died."
"Wasn't he proud of you, at least in the last years?" asked Fallaci compassionately, to which Golda answered with a twisted smile:
"I don't know. I don't think so. I don't know what he thought. He was so withdrawn it was impossible to guess. Anyway, his tragedy did not come from the fact of not understanding me. His tragedy came from the fact that he understood me only too well, but could not change me. He understood I had no choice but to do what I was doing, and he did not approve of what I was doing. It was as simple as that. And who knows" - this with a shrug and in almost a whimper - "if he wasn't right?"
"But you never thought of getting a divorce, never thought of remarrying?"
Golda answered with a vigorous shake of her head: "Never! Such an idea never entered my mind. You have to understand, I've always gone on thinking I'm married to Morris. Even though we were so different and incapable of living together, there was always love between us. Ours was a great love. It lasted from the day we met to the day he died.
"And a love like that" - she had risen to her feet, and there was a dull ache of desire in her voice - "such a love can never be replaced, never! So now you know what I've never told anybody before."
The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Golda Meir. firstname.lastname@example.org