In 1973 Nora Ephron met Carl Bernstein at a Manhattan party. He was the Washington Post Watergate sleuth soon to be immortalized onscreen by Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men; she was a New York and Esquire magazine writer of some merit. It wasn’t Sinclair Lewis and Dorothy Thompson maybe, but for Washington it was the hottest item this side of Sally Quinn and Carl’s boss, Ben Bradlee.
After two and a half years of courtship, Bernstein and Ephron wed quietly in a civil ceremony in Manhattan in 1976. (Both had been married previously: Ephron to free-lance writer Dan Greenburg, Carl to then Washington Post reporter Carol Honsa.) Bernstein had mended his skirt-chasing ways, and for three-plus golden years the marriage confounded the cynics.
But what the media had brought together, the media last week were rapidly putting asunder. Just before Christmas Nora, 38, stormed out of their Washington condominium and resettled in a New York apartment with their two babies, Jacob, 17 months, and Max, 7 weeks. (A preemie, Max was released from New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital just two weeks ago.)
“Carl’s a rat,” Nora confided to a friend and called New York Daily News syndicated columnist Liz Smith to confirm the split. “Writing this scoop makes me feel sick,” lamented Liz, who adds that two weeks earlier she had called Nora about the stability of her marriage and rumors of Carl’s resumed swinging. Then the Ear gossip column in the Washington Star named the other woman: Margaret Jay, 39, the lanky, blond daughter of former Prime Minister James Callaghan and the wife of ex-British Ambassador Peter Jay, 42. According to the diplomatic circuit, Margaret and Peter (now a scholar at Washington’s Brookings Institution and member of the Economist’s staff) have a “relaxed” marriage. Margaret, a onetime BBC producer, is now consultant to National Public Radio. Her friendship with the ambitious Bernstein, who next month moves into television as ABC’s Washington bureau chief, was discovered by Nora last summer. Carl assured her it was unimportant. Yet it is hard to gull a bird-dog reporter. Last month Nora faced Carl with what she determined to be the facts. Says a friend of Nora’s: “He had the affair in the last stages of her pregnancy. She figured if that is what he is like now, what will he be like later?”
Friends of the couple say that Carl continued to see other women even when they were dating. At one point Nora broke off the relationship. “She’s a fidelity queen and expects it the other way too,” says a source. “Carl finally made a pledge that he wasn’t going to fool around. For five years he didn’t, which was pretty good, considering he was a major womanizer.”
“Carl’s behavior is childish,” adds a less loyal friend. “But he hasn’t got a chance. He has even been blamed for the premature baby.” In fact, associates report that Carl is a proud father and say that, after visiting Nora in the hospital, he would drop by Elaine’s, a New York hangout of the literati, to brag about his new son, born November 16. He joked he would name him Early Bernstein, but settled on Max instead. “Nora could forgive him,” says a close friend. “But she is down and broken up by it. She went a little crazy over the whole thing.”
The eldest of four girls, Nora was born in Manhattan. Her parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, were successful playwrights and screenwriters who moved to the Coast. There she attended Beverly Hills High, went on to Wellesley (’62) and eventually became a reporter for the New York Post. Her collected works have filled four books, including Crazy Salad and one on the media, Scribble Scribble. Ever quick to write about her own experiences, she did a New York Times article, “Having a Baby after 35,” in which she wrote about Lamaze classes she attended with Carl. Recently she finished the screenplay for Susan Isaacs’ witty best-seller, Compromising Positions, for Warner Bros. Meanwhile Carl, 35, the college dropout son of a leftist lawyer, is struggling with a memoir about his own family.
As for Margaret Jay, a British newsman reports that she doesn’t deny her liaison with Carl, but she certainly isn’t leaving her husband. “I think this illustrates the difference between us British and you Americans,” he continues. “We have our little affairs—but we certainly don’t wreck our marriages.” Carl’s friends question whether he can handle it all. “He has gotten in over his head,” says one. “The Jays are old-timers, and Nora’s no dummy—she grew up in Hollywood. Carl is basically a street kid who doesn’t know how to play in the big leagues. He thinks you can have everything you want.” But he hasn’t been denied very much lately, and no one is betting against a Bernstein-Ephron reconciliation.