It was 1984, and Shimon Peres had just become Prime Minister of Israel.
As a feature reporter/producer at a radio network, I wanted to get a comment on his new position from someone appropriate. Israel’s first prime minister (and Peres mentor) David Ben-Gurion was no longer alive, so I decided to get in touch with the next well-known name that popped into my head: Lauren Bacall.
[Related: Actress Lauren Bacall dies at 89]
I found a phone number for Bacall’s agent, introduced myself, and asked if the film legend might be available for a short interview. I had met her years earlier, and, like millions of others, was a big fan.
“Don’t be ridiculous”, he sputtered. “Miss Bacall is a very busy woman.” He went down a list of projects she was then involved in, from movies to television to Broadway. “Why would you even bother her, and me, with this?” he asked indignantly.
“Well”, I replied, “Miss Bacall and Mr. Peres are first cousins.” There was a pause at the other end of the line, before the agent said “What are you talking about? That is completely untrue. Where in the world did you hear something like that?”
It was my turn to pause. “I’m not sure,” I said, “but I do know I heard it years ago, I think around the time I met Mr. Peres in Israel. Someone told me his birth name in Poland was Perski, which was Miss Bacall’s birth name too … although she spelled it Perske … and that their fathers were brothers. They quite obviously look alike, and I would appreciate it if you would ask her about this.”
Again, silence for a moment. In a somewhat calmer tone, the agent asked for my phone number and said he’d get back to me.
Ten minutes later, he called. “I am so, so sorry,” he said contritely. “I just spoke with Miss Bacall and she confirmed what you told me. I had really never heard this before, and couldn’t imagine why you wanted to speak with her about Peres.”
“So, will she do the interview?” I asked. “No,” he said. “She explained to me that after her parents got divorced when she was six years old, her father basically abandoned them, so growing up, she never had any contact with the Perske side of her family, and doesn’t know her cousin. But, she did say that she’s proud of him and wishes him the very best.”
Some years later, Peres invited Bacall to Israel, and the two did finally meet. The cousins whose origins were in Wolozyn, Poland rose to the top of their chosen professions in Hollywood and Jerusalem. And for one brief moment in 1984, I had fun playing the ultimate game of Jewish geography.
Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist.