Bibi and Me
Twenty-nine years have passed since Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and I last exchanged glances in that Manhattan hotel room at the Regency. Now that he’s commencing a third term as Israel’s prime minister — a record matched only by founding father David Ben-Gurion — I can’t help but reminisce.
Twenty-nine years, and not one phone call from the man. Not one flower. Not one letter. Sure, a VIP like Bibi can’t be expected to remember the comings and goings of every temporary secretary over the past three decades. Still, I thought we’d shared a moment. Then again, I thought I’d marry a Rothschild and own a small country. Go figure.
In 1984, I was the ever-auditioning musical comedy star-to-be, a cabaret singer/bartender by night, temp secretary by day. Like most women who’d grown up on Rodgers & Hammerstein and Disney, I dreamed of a Broadway career and a Jewish husband. When I got word that I had a two-day temp assignment for the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, I thought it might be a sign from my yidishe forebears. Could it be? A Jewish bachelor of note in Manhattan politics, just for me? (Or so I conjectured. Netanyahu divorced his second wife, Fleur Cates, in the mid-1980s.)
Outfitted in an ensemble suitable for the role of secretary, I reported to a drab office at 42nd Street and Second Avenue and introduced myself to a tall, broad-shouldered man, his brown hair prematurely threaded with silver. “I’m Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said, the clouds of self-importance swirling around him. “Here’s your desk.” The man barely looked at me. So much for my flights of fancy.
At the end of that first uneventful day, Netanyahu had instructions. I can still recall his fluid diction mingled with a touch of throaty Hebrew. “Tomorrow, meet me in front of the Regency Hotel. 8:30 a.m.”
The Regency? Was there something going on between us after all? Then, forgetting the fantasy, it hit me: My other secretarial costumes were at the cleaners. While dressing like Mae West was perfectly acceptable after the sun went down, among the 9-to-5 mover/shaker crowd, feather boas didn’t work. Ever.
The next morning, the Regency was swarming with Diplomatic Secret Service agents. This was years before the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, and I was oblivious to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres was concluding a six-day visit to the United States.
Choosing the most sedate cabaret garb I owned, I arrived at the hotel dressed in a low-cut black matte jersey jumpsuit, supported by a well-constructed push-up bra and accessorized by a multicolored diaphanous chiffon throw. The Secret Service looked simultaneously confused and lecherous as I walked by: What was a hooker doing at the Regency at this hour of the morning? Before breakfast?
As for any background checks, identification requests, etc., once Netanyahu waved me in, I was unimpeachable. I guess the typing test that the temp agency gave me had covered all the bases.
I was escorted to a hotel room consisting of a double bed and a bare-bones typewriter. The room offered no fancy city views. What kind of suite might his full-time secretary have had? It was petty, I knew, but I cursed her. And I continued to curse her as I realized there was no coffee. If I had to slake my thirst, my only option was to cup my hands under the bathroom faucet. Shame on me; at least I had running water. Appalachian temps probably didn’t even get that.
Eventually Netanyahu appeared, carrying a stack of paper and a handwritten letter: “Type this in triplicate — it’s a rush.” He then hurried off.
Expecting the same letterhead as yesterday, I was shocked to see that it bore the name “Shimon Peres, Prime Minister.” I was now temping for the P.M.? If I’d known, maybe I would have done something nicer with my hair. As I prepared to type in triplicate, sandwiching two copies of carbon paper between three sheets of stationery, I considered negotiating an additional perk, such as, say, a goddamn cup of coffee.
A second shock followed: The letter was addressed to President Reagan. While only an obligatory thank-you note, it had to be error-free.
“Dear Mr. Persident” Damn! A typo! As I rolled in a second stack of stationery and carbon paper, I pictured the bigwigs ingesting great gourmet breakfasts, as opposed to me, the sequestered Dickensian temp, pounding out letters to heads of state on equipment reminiscent of the first Gutenberg press.
Typing out “Peres,” I couldn’t help thinking: How did the Jewish prime minister end up with a last name that made him sound so very Spanish? Buenos dias, Señor Peres. ¿Cómo está usted? I giggled, and then looked down. S—t! Another typo!
Suddenly, at Netanyahu’s request, an agent was at the door, checking on my progress. All I could say was, “Tell him I’m having problems with the typewriter; the ribbon keeps slipping.” Great; I was lying to foreign diplomats. Did the Mossad ever imprison duplicitous temps like me?
My nerves were shot; the typos rampant. Throwing away all secretarial pride, I pecked out the words one letter at a time. Success.
It was only after I’d reported to the agent that I noticed the piles of discarded drafts. I couldn’t just leave them! Weren’t they confidential? Worse, I couldn’t admit to being such a piss-poor secretary. After cramming wads into my purse, I turned myself into an object of rare taxidermy, stuffing drafts into my pockets and down my pantyhose. (If it had been a few years later, when women’s padded shoulders ballooned to the size of twin life rafts, I could have hidden veritable reams.) I felt like a frantic Lucille Ball, knowing that angry Desi/Bibi was about to burst in. I imagined his voice straining to stifle his ire: “You! Temp! What do you think you’re doing?!?” Desperate, running out of time and physical space, I ripped out the pads in my padded bra, and voila! Two chasms yawned open, providing a perfect fit for the last sheets of paper.
Netanyahu entered, took the letter without smiling and turned to leave. “That’ll be all for today,” he told me.
I draped my chiffon wrap over me and slowly, softly crinkled down the hall, down the stairs and out into the light of day. I started to breathe a sigh of relief — but the bunched-up paper was too rough. I stopped for fear of hurting myself.
On October 12, 1984, when Peres returned home, his agenda included advising his Cabinet of the newly formed American/Israeli Joint Economic Development Group, established to aid Israel’s rocky economy.
On October 12, 1984, when I returned home, my agenda included a lengthy nap. I curled up on my bed amid all those ruined drafts, and dreamed of the romance that was never, ever meant to be with Bibi.
Kimberly Gadette writes about film, politics, humor and culture. With recent contributions to Salon.com and Women’s eNews, her movie reviews can be found on her Rotten Tomatoes critic page. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyGadette.