ON THE PHONE, the voice gave nothing away.
It said merely who he was and why he was calling and, of course, who his daughter was ("is" is only technically correct), but there was nothing distinctive about the voice, nothing to remind you of her. In person, it was different. He was standing by the elevator, waiting, and when the door opened you only had to take one look. Illiam Perske is Lauren Bacall's father.
He was dressed in a black sports shirt, buttoned to the neck, gray slacks, and he was standing in the hallway of the building where he lives, waiting for me. He is an old man, 89, with gray hair, but he had that look, "the look" -- the inset eyes, the distinctive nose, the long, feline face and, of course, the lean body. He was his daughter's father and she his daughter but they have not seen each other since she was 6, since, she says, he dropped out of her life, leaving Bacall and her mother eventually to fend for themselves.
That is why he called. It's not true, he said. What Bacall writes in her book and says on television and tells the magazines is not true. He is not the sort of man who would fail to make child support payments, who would turn his back on his obligations.
"She was 6," he says. "What could she know?"
"Is this why you have called me?" I ask.
"She hurt me," he answered. "It hurts."
That was on the phone. Now, in the apartment, he leads me to a chair and a desk. To the left is a low piece of furniture and on it are old magazines -- Life, The Saturday Evening Post, some others. They all contain interviews with Bacall and, bracketed in red, things she has said about her father -- things he denies. The carpet is very hot, well furnished, deeply and richly carpeted. It is the home of a man still affluent in his 89th year. His business was selling medical equipment and he did well at it.
"I made enough money to last me the rest of my life," he says. "There isn't a person I owe a dime to. That's a nice feeling."
He sits in a chair, me at the desk, his wife Sally standing all the time behind me. They are an old Washington family, the Perskes, having come here years ago, having dropped the "y" from Perskey to sort of erase the past. But it haunts them nonetheless, and while anyone would hesitate before plunging into a family fight there is something about Perske that beckons -- his plight could be anyone's.
He takes out photostats of canceled checks designed to show that he paid child support. He points to the names of the lawyers who endorsed the checks and to the dates as if all of it was significant -- but it proves, really, almost nothing. It is too late, too long ago, a family fight no outsider can understand or settle. He tells stories, spills out names of family members, sits back in his chair and carries you back through the years to his father's hotel in the Catskills when he met a woman and fell in love.
"I loved her," he says of Bacall's mother. "Love is blind." He shrugs his shoulders and looks down.
Always he comes back to those things Bacall said. For every charge there is a response, for every slight there is a look of hurt. "Tell me what she says in the book," he says. "I have not read the book."
"She says that when she came to Washington with a play you called and asked for 12 tickets."
He looks at his wife, puzzled.
"Twelve tickets? I called?" He turns to me. "See! See what she does!"
Still, I procrastinate. The truth will never be known here, but what can be sensed is how somethning that looked small at one time, something out of character, maybe, some sort of aberration, comes to dominate a life. Peter Townsend, for instance, hero and businessman, is known as the man who couldn't marry Princess Margaret. Nelson Rockefeller, four times a governor and once a vice president and with a few bucks in the banks, dies at night with a woman not his wife and leaves this earth on a banana peel -- exits as a joke.
And so now in the apartment, this is my impression of Perske. He has been robbed of his sense of identity -- his own image of himself, the way he wants to look to the world. It happened once to me, so I recognize the problem. They said something about me in the papers, something more or less true, but something embarrassing, and all I wanted to do was go up to people and yell, "It's not the whole story. There's more to me than that!" It's the sort of thing that can drive you nuts, and with Perske, his wife says, there are neighbors who look at him now and look away.
Perske and I are saying goodbye in the hallway. He has come to the elevator and I ask whether he would like to see his daughter again. It's his only child and it would be nice to arrange this. He shakes his head no. It's too late for that. He would like to see his grandchildren, but it's too late for that also, so the elevator door closes on an old man, childless in a way, maligned either in fact or in his own mind, fighting for his epitaph to be more than a line in a best-selling book -- "He had flown the coop."
Maybe he should have kept in touch.