Writer and director Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday night at age 71, will be remembered by many as the fearless female who introduced Harry to Sally, taught Tom Hanks to woo Meg Ryan over email and helped two strangers fall in love in Seattle.
But Ephron, whose name has become synonymous with witty blockbuster romantic comedies like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” got her start in a city quite the opposite of Hollywood: Washington, D.C.
Ephron’s first job after college was as a White House intern under John F. Kennedy, a president known for his promiscuousness and who allegedly had an affair with one of his interns. Ephron, to her “sadness,” had no such luck, she said in a 2006 interview with ABC News.
“I was probably the only person in the entire Kennedy White House that JFK had not made a pass at,” Ephron said.
Her only interaction with Kennedy was a brief exchange while the two were walking out to the South Lawn for a Marine One takeoff, she said.
“He came out of the Oval Office right behind me and I turned and I saw him and he saw me and the helicopter’s going and you can’t hear a thing and he said ‘How are you coming along?’ and I said ‘What?’” Ephron recalled. “That was it. That was it, me and JFK.”
Ephron, who studied journalism in college, said her time at the White House in the 1960s made it clear that “Washington was probably not a great place for women.”
But after a stint in New York as a reporter and then columnist, love brought her back to Washington when she married Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, one half of the duo that exposed President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Bernstein, who worked as ABC News’ D.C. bureau chief after leaving the Post, offered Ephron her first stab at screenwriting, soliciting her help in re-writing the script for “All the President’s Men,” a feature film about Bob Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation.
While her version of the script was never used and her marriage to Bernstein ended in divorce, Ephron’s second tour in D.C. provided fodder for her first novel, “Heartburn,” a fictional take on her tumultuous marriage to Bernstein.
For years after their marriage, Ephron insisted she knew one of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest secrets: the identity of their key Watergate source “Deepthroat.”
“I knew that Deep Throat was Mark Felt because I figured it out,” Ephron write in a 2005 Huffington Post column after Felt revealed his identity. “Carl Bernstein, to whom I was married for a brief time, certainly would never have told me; he was far too intelligent to tell me a secret like that. He refused to tell his children too, who are also my children, so I told them, and they told others, and even so, years passed and no one really listened to any of us.”
After catching Bernstein having an affair, Ephron’s last foray in Washington ended and she moved back to New York. Twenty-five years later Ephron’s opinion of the capital city remained as firmly rooted as her feminism.
“There’s too much pretend manliness going on around here,” Ephron said in the 2006 ABC interview, affirming her support for testing politicians for excessive testosterone.
Ephron blamed this “pretend manliness” for the U.S. going to war in Iraq.
“There were a lot of guys who wanted to prove that you could just go in and smack people down,” she said. “The women are not to blame for this… It’s all those guys.”
Ephron said the time is ripe for a woman to run the White House, but that America is still looking for the right woman. She knocked the conventional wisdom that a potential female president would have to be “sweeter and kinder” than the testosterone-filled men who are currently running the country.
“I don’t think people are looking for some sort of fabulous female twist on leadership I think people are looking for a leader,” Ephron said. “People will vote for a woman president. The question is will they vote for this particular woman.”
At the time of Ephron’s interview with ABC, Hillary Clinton was positioning herself for her presidential bid, a bid Ephron said she was skeptical of.
“One of Hillary’s biggest problems I think is that she’s got so much history,” she said.
“She’s a Rorschach,” Ephron continued, comparing Clinton to the psychological inkblot test. “Everyone projects onto her what they want to happen in a way that I think is unbelievably hard if you’re Hillary Clinton.”
Ephron died Tuesday night in New York after being treated for myeloid leukemia and pneumonia.