I was on a mission to meet Golda Meir. My determination to come face to face with Israel’s fourth prime minister was born of a near-miss with the country’s first.
In 1970 my teenage friends and I stood outside David Ben-Gurion’s bungalow in his desert kibbutz, eagerly awaiting his scheduled appearance, but his bodyguard said the elderly, retired nation-builder was napping and couldn’t be disturbed. Our bus had to leave, and my hopes of shaking hands with a true hero of the Jewish people vanished into the sands of the Negev.
Golda was prime minister that summer, and her tumultuous five years in office are now the centerpiece of a remarkable, definitive new biography called “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel” by Francine Klagsbrun.
The riveting account of Golda’s extraordinary journey, from her impoverished childhood in Russia to her status as a universally-recognized head of state, also references the end result of my quest to meet this unique politician. It was a result that, to my astonishment, sparked headlines around the world and was later dramatized in a movie.
When I returned to Israel in 1972 to study at Hebrew University, Golda was still in office. But on a subsequent 1974 trip, she had just resigned, and while visiting a friend who lived in Ramat Aviv, directly across the street from her (which, in my 21-year-old mind, made the meeting bashert, a matter of fate), I had the chutzpah to walk up to the lone guard at her front door and ask him to check if Golda had a minute to say a quick “shalom.” He resolutely declined.
The following year, as a working journalist at ABC-TV, I became friends with the media representative at the Israeli consulate in New York. Azariah Rapaport was a well-known figure in Israel’s political and entertainment fields, and he periodically acted as spokesman for both Golda and Israel’s Labor Party. In 1976, he tried to arrange an interview for me during my week-long visit to Israel, but the still-busy Golda had a full schedule.
By 1978, however, Golda was slowing down. I told Rapoport I’d be returning to Israel in December to visit my sister Susan, who was then living in Jerusalem, and he promised that this time, finally, I’d get to see the former prime minister. Three weeks before my scheduled trip, I heard the bulletin bell go off in the newsroom where I worked, and rushed over to see the wire service report: GOLDA MEIR DEAD AT 80. I was heartbroken.
Shortly after my arrival in Israel, Rapoport called, actually apologized, then said “I know that nothing can make up for you not meeting Golda. But I have an idea. Every reporter in Israel is desperate to interview a woman named Lou Kedar, who was her personal assistant and close friend for the last 30 years. Lou refuses to even consider it before the end of the shloshim, the 30-day mourning period, but if you’d like, I can ask if she’ll see you when it’s over.” I’d never heard of Kedar (alternately spelled Kadar and Kaddar), but I said, sure.
A week later, Rapoport gave me Kedar’s phone number. At the end of a cordial conversation, she said, “Look, I don’t know if I’m ready to do an interview. But you’re staying with your sister two blocks away from me, so come over tomorrow and we’ll have tea. And then we’ll see.”
In those pre-internet days, I suddenly had to prepare for the possibility of an interview. Fortunately, the apartment my sister and her friend Terry Feinstein Maseng were subletting had a book about Golda on its shelves, and I tore through it while writing questions for Kedar.
Sitting at their kitchen table, I asked the two what they would say to this eyewitness to history, and Terry responded, “I think I would ask her to tell us something that we don’t already know about Golda.”
The next afternoon, Kedar greeted me warmly, ushered me into her living room, and pointed out the spare bed where Golda had slept a year earlier. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had made his groundbreaking trip to Israel, and after meeting him in Jerusalem, Golda was too tired to return to her home near Tel Aviv, hence the sleepover at Kedar’s apartment.
After making tea and chatting for 10 minutes, Kedar said, “OK. If you want to take out your tape recorder, I think I’m ready to talk about her.”
And so we did. Kedar, born in Paris in 1913, arrived in Palestine in 1935 and eventually found a position with the Jewish Agency. She was badly wounded when Arab terrorists blew up the Agency building in 1948, but after recovering, she applied for a job with Golda. Meir was about to become Jerusalem’s first ambassador to Moscow and needed someone who spoke French, the diplomatic language of choice.
Kedar smiled at the memory of their initial meeting. “My impression was that she was very tall, which she wasn’t, and very fat, which she wasn’t. But I was terribly thin at the time, having spent the siege of Jerusalem without food. Golda began by telling me she had just met a young widow whose husband had been killed in the War of Independence, and she was deeply upset by it. Only after that did she start asking me about my French and my Hebrew and whether I wanted to go to Russia with her.”
It was the dawn of decades of globe-trotting. “We were much closer when we were traveling than when we were at work in Israel,” recalled Kedar. “We would fly together, live together, drive in all kinds of vehicles together to many strange places. We had to talk to each other every evening about our impressions, and she enjoyed the intimacy we had then. Each time it was a wonderful adventure.”
As the conversation progressed, the reserved Kedar became more animated, especially when describing Golda’s meeting with president Richard Nixon.
“I think he was apprehensive before he met her, because of her reputation of being such a strong-willed woman, but it changed the minute they met. I was a few meters away, looking at both of them, and I saw that it clicked. She was relieved, and he didn’t feel anxious. My impression was that they liked each other,” Kedar said.
We talked about the final years of Golda’s life, with Kedar lamenting “She kept quite active, according to me, much too active. She kept forgetting her age and her bad legs and the rest, and went for very long trips to the north or south of the country, which meant many hours in a car. She also had, from time to time, very painful headaches.”
Kedar spoke of Golda’s last days, but only became emotional when I asked if she might write about her experiences.
“Maybe, maybe. I’m still under the shock of not having Golda,” she whispered, as her eyes filled with tears.
Is there anything that has been left unsaid about Golda?
It was time to end the interview, but I wanted to get in Terry’s suggested question. “Is there anything that has been left unsaid about Golda Meir? Anything we don’t know, that you or she would want us to know?”
Kedar pondered her answer for a moment. “I think almost everything has been said. But maybe it’s the fact that she had this disease [malignant lymphoma] for 15 years, and kept secret about it. I think she was a real heroine. She would go in the middle of the night many times to get cobalt [radiation] treatments, because people were not supposed to know. It would have worried them, and she could not have gone on with her job as prime minister.”
My eyes widened as Kedar spoke about the cancer — which was not publicly acknowledged until Golda’s death — and I asked her to tell me a bit more.
“Well, the treatments were very painful, and the doctors didn’t think she’d go through with them. But she did, and she would go back to the office in the morning as if nothing had happened. Nobody else noticed, because she was her ordinary self, a strong woman doing the job she had to do. I think I was the only one who knew what she was going through,” Kedar said.
I was stunned at the unexpected revelation. The next day, I called the Associated Press office in Tel Aviv, introducing myself as the news director of a radio station in New York, and a freelance reporter for AP and UPI.
When I said I had interviewed Lou Kedar, the AP editor virtually exploded. “How did you get that interview?!” he demanded. “We’ve had a request in since Golda died!”
“Well,” I laughed, “you’re in Israel; you surely are familiar with ‘protektzia.’”
(Also known as “Vitamin P,” the word has been defined as “having the right connections at the right time and the right place to get done what you need done.”)
Once he got over his fit of pique, the editor asked me to play for him, over the phone, the part of the interview that I thought was most interesting. As he heard Kedar’s words, I could tell he considered this, at the very least, newsworthy. He transcribed the section about Golda’s clandestine cancer treatments, promised to give me credit, and thanked me for giving him the story.
I left Israel the next day, headed to London for the weekend, then returned home to New York, where I discovered the AP article had caused a sensation. Headlines in countless newspapers blared, “The Secret Courage of Golda Meir,” “Golda Hid Cancer Bout,” and “Meir’s Fight Against Illness.”
I presented the entire interview on my radio station, and UPI’s audio service broadcast an edited version of it nationwide. It was a bittersweet ending to my long, failed quest.
Three years later, Ingrid Bergman starred in “A Woman Called Golda,” her final film role. Anne Jackson played Lou Kedar.
In one scene, Bergman-as-Golda is sneaked into the basement of a Jerusalem hospital in the middle of the night, then hustled down the corridor to secretly undergo radiation treatment.
My serendipitous interview with Kedar had been immortalized on screen by a Hollywood legend. There surely was a feeling of deep satisfaction. But to be honest, I wish I could have just met Golda Meir.
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