Remembering Nora Ephron and Her Book “Heartburn”

A look back at the beloved writer and director’s uniquely Washington love story, which chronicled her marriage to Carl Bernstein.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

The cover of the first edition of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

Washington owes a debt, and a moment of mourning, to writer and director Nora Ephron, who died last night in New York from leukemia. She was only briefly a Washingtonian, but her experience, as unfortunate as it may have been for her, left us with probably the only real published and cinematic Washington love story, Heartburn. It had no spies, no world crises, no acts of Congress—only love, betrayal, and heartbreak, set against a Washington backdrop and communicated with a biting wit.

In the glowy months after Watergate, after the resignation of President Richard Nixon, after the Washington Post won the Pulitzer for its coverage of the historic story, reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were the closest Washington had ever come to having its own rock stars. Whatever they did, wherever they went, made it into the gossip columns. They were good copy, whether it was being spotted with Robert Redford as they worked toward the movie version of their book, All the President’s Men, or with the women in their lives. For Woodward, it was Francie Barnard, whom he married. For Bernstein, it was Nora Ephron.

Not only were Bernstein and Ephron an intriguing couple, but they met cute and married wonderfully. A judge performed the ceremony in New York City, with Woodward and Barnard as witnesses. Given the time and the players, what could be more romantic? They were the toast of both Washington and New York at the time. Their friends were the glittering costars of the Watergate episode, including especially Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn, and Richard and Barbara Cohen. Whatever happened to them was the juicy fodder for the city’s most-read gossip column, “The Ear,” written by Diana McLellan for the Washington Star.

Except the fairy tale romance, like so many fairy tale romances, was a nightmare for Ephron. When she was pregnant with their first child, she learned Bernstein was carrying on a rather public affair with Margaret Jay, the wife of the British ambassador. There were rumors, there were sightings, and—as the adage goes—the wife may have been the last to know. McLellan helped a lot with that. “It was my duty to reveal what le tout Washington already knew,” she wrote this morning on Facebook.

There’s no question the implosion of Ephron’s marriage was a terrible time for her. She and Bernstein stayed together long enough for the birth of a second child, but divorced in 1980 after four years of marriage. She returned to New York. It could have all ended there but, fortunately for people who love good books, she wrote Heartburn. Its slight but action-packed 179 pages are mostly a thinly veiled recounting of her marriage to Bernstein—rich with detail about their lives together, their friends, her enemies (Jay), Washington—but more than that, it includes recipes! No kidding. It’s a witty, mean, fun roman à clef with occasional pages devoted to how to make excellent lima beans, Key lime pie, cheesecake, bacon hash, and Lillian Hellman’s pot roast. I have a first edition. It is treasured.

The movie of Heartburn, released in 1986, holds up well as a sharp period piece. The filming in Washington, of course, was just as sensational as the Bernstein-Ephron romance. There were regular sightings in Georgetown of the filming, and of the cast, which included Meryl Streep (as “Rachel”) and Jack Nicholson (“Mark”), plus Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Stockard Channing,and Karen Akers as “Thelma” (Margaret Jay). The director was Mike Nichols.

It’s a very adult romantic comedy. There are no cheap laughs or hijinks aimed at a teen audience. It’s all high-minded and sophisticated, but also sentimental and bitterly romantic. And it’s oh so Washington, with a few side trips to New York post-Watergate, the decade from 1975 to 1985, which was as exciting as this city’s been in modern times. (A lot of the credit for that goes to McLellan and her take-no-prisoners gossip column). In various interviews Streep talked about how hard she worked to embody Ephron, getting down the little ticks of the way she would stand or use her mouth to emote worry or doubt. She succeeds. As Mark, Nicholson is a robust and arrogant version of Bernstein—really, the Bernstein that could only exist in a movie. (Later, in Broadcast News, Albert Brooks captures another episode in the Bernstein book of moments.)

At the end of Heartburn, the book, Ephron writes, “Of course, I’m writing this later, much later, and it worries me that I’ve done what I usually do—hidden the anger, covered the pain, pretended it wasn’t there for the sake of the story. . . . Because if I tell the story, I control the version. Because if I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. . . . Because if I tell the story I can get on with it.”

The end of the film is one of my favorite film endings of all time. Streep’s Ephron has left her philandering husband and boarded the Eastern shuttle with her young son and infant, and is heading back to New York to “get on with it.” The soundtrack kicks in, a chorus of children’s voices singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and over them, Carly Simon singing “Coming Around Again.”

The lyrics:

“Baby sneezes,

Mommy pleases,

Daddy breezes in.

So good on paper,

So romantic

But so bewildering.”