Bringing Golda Meir to Broadway has not been easy. Henry Kissinger told her on one of his Middle East peace shuttles that composer Lionel (Oliver) Bart wanted to make a musical about her life. She refused.
The former Israeli prime minister changed her mind when William Gibson proposed a play based on her autobiography, partly because she had seen and liked his Two for the Seesaw and Miracle Worker. Gibson hustled over to Israel to explain how he, the director and cast would bring her story to the stage.
Then it was Anne Bancroft’s turn. Before rehearsals began, she spent two weeks in Tel Aviv with the woman she will portray. They clicked. Bancroft, 46, watched Golda’s every gesture: how she moves her head, lights a cigarette, talks with her hands. Golda used words like “clever” and “sweet” to describe the actress and lent her some dresses she had worn during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The grateful Bancroft said she planned to wear them onstage—altered to fit her slender figure.
Meir, 79, will attend the opening on Nov. 14 of Golda. “It’s good for Israel,” she says of the play, “for the non-Jewish audience that does not know what Israel is.”
Her forthcoming trip to New York is only part of a newly visible Golda. She recently broke 18 months of partisan political silence, lashing out at both Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Meir is particularly incensed at pressures on Israel to agree to the proposed Geneva peace parley. “What is Geneva?” she demands. “A miracle place? Does anyone believe you just go there and make peace out of the blue?” Golda reminds her countrymen that as prime minister she refused to let the United States dictate to Israel. “After the Yom Kippur war,” she recalls, “Kissinger had some demands about our retreat from Sinai as well as the number of Egyptian troops there. I spent two long nights with Kissinger. I’ll never forget. I left Washington after giving him a big ‘No.’ ”
Though she is on the stump again, Golda’s age rules out any more demanding role in Israeli affairs. She has spent the past two years living quietly in a small, two-story house in suburban Tel Aviv, keeping a sharp eye on world affairs and doting on her two teenage grandsons. They live next door with her son Menachem and his wife.
Golda shops and cooks for herself, makes her own bed, and spends long hours chain-smoking and reading in a rocking chair sent to her by an American manufacturer (Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had chairs like it). When friends drop in, she shuffles between the tiny kitchen and the living room, serving them coffee and homemade cake. “I’m used to looking after myself,” says the onetime Milwaukee housewife. “I wasn’t born a prime minister.” Still, there is the ever-present guard at the front door—government protection that she will receive the rest of her life. To Golda, the security men are a nuisance—”gorillas complicating my life”—and at first she refused to accept a car and driver. “Why can’t I take the bus?” she complained, giving in only when it was pointed out that she couldn’t climb on and off buses with three bodyguards tagging along.
As she approaches her 80th birthday in May, Golda Meir shows only minor signs of slowing down. “I have retired from the cabinet and the Knesset, but not from Israel. Do they think,” she I smiles, “that I intend to enter a monastery?”