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CELEBRATIONS

At 81, He Finally Won the Woman of His Dreams

July 19, 1998|NOA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It doesn't get much more romantic than this.

As the Indian Ocean gently laps against a ship sailing into the night, a fax machine twitches to life.

To Mae, from Ben: "As a youth I met and loved a girl named Mae / and although I loved her, irrationally, I let her get away. . . ."

After 44 years and four days of waiting, this transatlantic proposal in verse was met with teenage ebullience. Of course Mae would marry Ben.

That was last spring.

Mae Billet Ziskin first met Ben Rosenbaum in 1954. The two debate whether it was at a dance or whether Ben tracked down her number and asked her out. One thing that is not debatable is the chemistry involved. She was a 27-year-old divorcee, he was an up-and-coming real estate developer. They fell in love and considered marriage but ultimately parted.

"My whole family wanted me to marry her," says Ben. "But we weren't ready to make the commitment."

"They chided him, though, all the years for making the mistake of not marrying me," says Mae, "but the timing was wrong."

Mae married her second husband, Jay Ziskin, the following year and 42 years of happy marriage followed.

After a brief marriage to someone else, Ben dusted himself off and went on to cultivate his reputation as the perennial bachelor.

"I was a playboy," he admits.

Mae had stolen his heart, and no woman could wrench it away.

"She was the love of my life," he says. His girlfriends and family all tried to get him hitched, but he continued with his bachelor ways.

Meanwhile, Mae's career as a clinical psychologist and her family life blossomed. Ben developed beachfront properties in the South Bay.

Their paths crossed only twice.

"He showed up at my first public speaking engagement," says Mae. "As if I wasn't already nervous enough." It had been 12 years. Nearly 20 more would pass before they saw each other again.

A series of events led to the two meeting again in 1985. It was an innocent lunch. But, Mae says, even after three decades, the heat was still there.

"I had the sense that it was not something that could continue as a platonic friendship," she says. So, she nipped it in the bud. "I wasn't about to start anything clandestine," she says.

Thirteen more years passed. But the torch remained lit in bachelor Ben's heart.

Jay Ziskin died in 1997, leaving Mae, two children, two stepchildren and many fond memories. Early this year, Ben, now 81 years old, learned of Mae's single status. He called her up and asked for another chance. They made a date for the next day--Valentine's Day.

"Within minutes--no, seconds--it was as if all the intervening time had vanished," says Mae. "We were both pretty surprised. Very pleasantly so.

"He was always very ardent," says Mae. She recalls that Ben would always wrap his protective arm about her shoulders. So on this Valentine's Day she laughed inwardly when they were seated across a wide table from each other. "I wondered how long it would take him to come over to my side," she says. It took a good 30 seconds. "And I thought, 'That's the Ben I remember.' "

They had to say goodbye yet again. On Feb. 18, Mae set off on a long-planned world tour with a friend. But the renewed passion wouldn't rest. The two were like teenagers, on the telephone two or three times every day. Their conversations bounced from L.A. to the telecommunication satellites above and back down to the exotic locales on Mae's itinerary.

Then came the call to her ship, sailing off the shores of Indonesia. Ben faxed her the poem. He wrote that he needed to speak with her immediately.

"You know we are going to be married," he said.

She laughed and acknowledged that he was right.

On June 27, Ben and Mae exchanged vows in a traditional Jewish ceremony at the Olympic Collection in Los Angeles. They shared their rekindled love with about 100 of their closest friends and family. Mae's four children held the chuppa, and Ben, a budding musician, surprised her with a song he had written in her honor. Rabbi William Kramer led the ceremony, saying, "This is much more fun than marrying kids."

* Do you have a joyful event coming up? We will report on selected special moments in the lives of Southern Californians. Write Celebrations, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, fax to (213) 237-4888, or e-mail to lifeandstyle@latimes.com. Include your name and telephone number.

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