LOOKING BACK ON MY LIFE, I often wonder why my path has crossed with so many others. Was there a purpose for our meeting? Did these myriad individuals, some significant–others seemingly not, have something to teach me? Have I attracted everyone I have known into my life? Or are the people whom I have encountered simply the result of God rolling the dice? I don’t have answers to these questions. I am, however, of the opinion that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who believe there is a reason for everything–a design behind all that occurs and exists; and those who believe that we are simply the victims of one huge, random joke.
If you fall into the former camp, as I do, then you pay attention to the people who you bump into, be they the Dalai Lama or the janitor at your child’s school. They all come together to form the bits and pieces of a puzzle, one we weave into a tapestry and call our life–one that holds the unique awareness we call our truth.
And so it is that, decades ago, I spent some time wondering why in the world, on an evening back in the spring of 1973, at the age of twenty-one, I met Omar Sharif. To this day, I still ask myself why I met him when he was in the prime of his life, with the world at his feet, when he was at his absolute best?
I began writing this chapter yesterday afternoon, July 9th, and woke up telling myself that, after a few edits, I would post it today. I had been thinking for several weeks that I should work on it, but felt the irresistible urge that impels me to write only hours ago. I’ve told you, before, that I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe that David Richo was right when he said: “We do not create our destiny; we participate in its unfolding. Synchronicity works as a catalyst toward the working out of that destiny.” Delia Parr perhaps said it more poetically when she noted that coincidences are simply “intricate pieces of the providential design God created for each of our lives.” And yet, when these pieces fall into their place, I am always a bit shocked. Each time, I pause, as if to fully absorb the moment of recognition when I am hit with the realization that my timing is no “coincidence.” It is perfect…it was meant to be.
As I turned on my computer this morning to finish my final edits, I paused before the news now going viral. Omar Sharif died today, in Cairo of a heart attack.
In the spring of 1973, he was forty-one years of age and looked just like the picture I have posted to the left. In a word, the man was drop dead gorgeous. I had been in love with him since the age of eleven, when I first saw him play the part of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, a role that Alain Delon had turned down, after a successful screen test, because of the brown contact lenses he would have been forced to wear. With the release of Dr. Zhivago, my infatuation with Sharif only worsened. And, by the time he starred opposite Barbara Streisand, as Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl, I was hopelessly in love with the man. Of Lebanese-Syrian descent, fluent in five languages, Sharif represented everything I hoped to find in the opposite sex: great looks, charm, elegance, savoir-vivre and, above all—sex appeal. As for the cleft in his chin, it was an added bonus.
You see, I don’t think there is a girl out there who, at seventeen, doesn’t have a fantasy of being swept off her feet by some larger than life prince charming. And, for me, that prince was Omar. The wit, the twinkle in his eyes as he smiled—and that fabulous gap between his two front teeth that the French so aptly have dubbed “the river of happiness”—all of it, and all of him, epitomized my ideal man. “Hello gorgeous,” I’d think whenever I’d come across his fabulous face. He was Rudolph Valentino, but with the animal still in him.
By the Spring of 1973, I had been working at Merrill Lynch for about 6 months. But Merrill wasn’t just the place I went to in order to make a living. It was the lieu de rencontre from which many an invitation for a new adventure arose. One evening in early June, Gérard Bonnet asked if I would like to attend a dinner with him at Regine’s, the Parisian hot spot on the rue de Ponthieu I had come to know and love. Along with Le Prive and Castel’s, it was one of my favorite night clubs, and I quickly said “Yes!”
The dinner was in honor of a young Danish model whom I did not know. She had just married one of le tout Paris. I didn’t know him either. But it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was young and beautiful, and had been given the opportunity to dress up, sip champagne, and revel in the glamour of Paris at night. Pitou understood this need of mine to spread my feathers, having experienced the need, himself, while living with Suzy during the Fabulous Fifties. Nonetheless, he had, long since, tired of le chichi of Parisian nightlife, and had no qualms whatsoever over my accepting Gérard ’s invitation.
“Vas-y,” he said confidently, as I dressed for the evening. “Amuse-toi bien, mon chou.”
Yet, shortly after arriving at the glamorous hot spot, I remember feeling quite annoyed. Everybody who was anybody knew Gérard and, not surprisingly, he found his dinner card situated next to the bride’s—front and center at the head table. I, on the other hand, knowing no one, had been shuttled off to Siberia—a sparsely populated table to the rear of the club. As I sat there, alone, I checked my purse to see if I had brought some mad money; cab fare with which to get home and back into the arms of Pitou. I knew he would be waiting for me, ready to laugh about the experience. As my eyes flit from table to table in search of a familiar face, I must have looked terribly preoccupied. Thinking I could last no more than 45 minutes, tops, I quickly guzzled a flute of champagne.
That’s when I spotted him.
Standing at the base of the stairs, he, too, was perusing the room. Every eye in the house was upon him as he tracked the women from table to table. My jaw must have reached to the floor; I couldn’t believe it. Dressed, impeccably, in a black suit and a crisp white shirt with French cuffs—tanned, lean and utterly beautiful, his scintillating eyes suddenly locked onto mine. Then, breaking out into a magnanimous grin, he began walking…straight for Siberia. He took the seat next to mine and, once settled, exclaimed: “Tell me everything about you!” I was only twenty-one; what in the world was there to tell?
I kept thinking that, at any minute, he would get up and leave me for one of the terribly sophisticated women with cleavage that littered the room that night. But it was as if they didn’t exist. He was completely engrossed, endearingly attentive, and only concerned with me—hour after hour after hour.
We danced until three in the morning and, at one point, he softly kissed me on the neck before whispering in my ear: Fly with me to Kentucky. He was leaving in two days to look at racehorses, he said. He’d be gone a full week.
“Come with me,” he entreated.
When we finally parted in the wee hours of the morning, he slipped me his phone number.
“There will be a ticket for you. All you have to do is pick up the phone.”
Then, giving me one marvelous, wonderful kiss, he put me in a cab.
From my office the next day, I must have picked up the phone a hundred times. My heart racing, I’d dial the first six digits to his Parisian flat before, abruptly, hanging up. By four o’clock I was no longer picking up the receiver. I simply sat staring at it. One thought had been with me the entire day although, I must admit, it wasn’t a thought I had the prior evening. Pitou. Real, tangible, flesh and blood and completely in love with me—Pitou. If I got on that plane, it would be over; a lifetime with the one man in the world who truly mattered in exchange for one week of blissful fantasy. As I gathered my things and readied myself for the walk home from work I made each evening at seven, I felt utterly exhausted. I can still remember the sound of my key as it clicked open the front door to the little apartment on the avenue Foch that Pitou and I shared back then.
“Ah, Bérénice,” he exclaimed, as I dropped my coat on to the entrance hall chair. “There you are…did you have a good day?”
I took one look at him, and in that instant it hit me: “This is for life.”
I think I laughed and cried all at once before asking him to pour me a drink. He had a chicken roasting in the oven. And the silverware and plates were waiting on the coffee table where we liked to eat each night.
I never told him about my one evening with Omar, although I am guessing that by the time I had walked through the front door of our apartment, he had already heard about it from a friend. Wise like a fox, he did exactly what Omar had done the night before. He spent the entire evening listening to me, as if I were the only woman in his world.
I have always wanted to cross Sharif’s path, if just once more in this lifetime of mine. I have wanted to tell him of the important role he has played in it. But, sadly, that opportunity was not given to me. Omar Sharif was, truly, an intricate piece of the providential design God created for my life. We spend so much of our lives fantasizing over what could be, what we think we want to be, without realizing what is, what we already have, and the unbelievable joy that we can experience as a result of what already lies in our hands. Omar forced me to consider what is truly important, and what is not. As I sat eating chicken that evening, and laughing with the one man whom I have truly loved, it struck me how lucky I was. The movie star idol, the larger than life man with enormous sex appeal whom I had dreamed of conquering as a teenager while watching afternoon matinées on the television set—was sitting right in front of me. He had a uniquely sly and quirky smile on his face that evening, as if he knew what I had gone through earlier that day—as if God had whispered into his ear that all good things come to those who wait.
Pitou knew how to wait, confident that God knew exactly what He was doing.
Next Post: Paris–The Cinderella Years: “I Can’t, I Can’t!”