00:54 GMT, 2 September 2014
07:18 GMT, 2 September 2014
The late Nora Ephron was one of Hollywood’s wittiest and wisest screenwriters – and the Mail is exclusively serialising a new collection of her best work. Today, in our third and fourth extracts, she describes meeting JFK as a White House intern – before dispelling the myths surrounding dinner parties.
John F. Kennedy’s intern admitted to the Daily News yesterday: ‘I am the Mimi.’
Marion (Mimi) Fahnestock, now 60, called it a huge weight off her shoulders to finally reveal her affair with the dashing young president four decades ago.
‘The gift for me is that this allowed me to tell my two married daughters a secret that I’ve been holding for 41 years,’ she said.
‘It’s a huge relief. And now I will have no further comment on this subject. I request that the media respect my privacy and that of my family.’
I was an intern in the JFK White House. I was.
This is not one of those humor pieces where the writer pretends to some experience currently in the news in order to make an ‘amusing’ point.
It was 1961, and I was hired by Pierre Salinger to work in the White House press office, the very same place where Mimi Fahnestock was to work the following year.
Kennedy intern: Nora Ephron (pictured second from left with Robert Kennedy) was an intern for his brother JFK
And now that Mimi Fahnestock has been forced to come forward and admit that she had an affair with JFK, I might as well tell my story too.
I notice that all the articles about poor Mimi quote another woman in the press office, Barbara Gamarekian, who fingered Fahnestock in the oral history archives at the Kennedy Library. Gamarekian cattily pointed out, according to the newspapers, that Mimi ‘couldn’t type.’
Well, all I can say to that is: Ha. In fact: Double ha.
There were, when I worked there, six women in Pierre Salinger’s office. One of them was called Faddle (her best friend, Fiddle, worked for Kennedy), and her entire job, as far as I could tell, was autographing Pierre Salinger’s photographs.
Fiddle’s job was autographing Kennedy’s. Typing was not a skill that anyone seemed to need, and it certainly wasn’t necessary for interns like me (and Mimi, dare I say), because THERE WAS NO DESK FOR AN INTERN TO SIT AT AND THEREFORE NO TYPEWRITER TO TYPE ON.
Yes, I am still bitter about it! Because there I was, not just the only young woman in the White House who was unable to afford an endless succession of A-line sleeveless linen dresses just like Jackie’s, but also the only person in the press office with nowhere to sit.
And then, as now, I could type one hundred words a minute. Every eight-hour day there were theoretically forty-eight thousand words that weren’t being typed because I DIDN’T HAVE A DESK.
Encounter: They spoke, but Nora was never sure what he said as the helicopter outside was too loud
Also, I had a really bad permanent wave. This is an important fact for later in the story, when things heat up.
I met the president within minutes of going to ‘work’ in the White House. My first morning there, he flew to Annapolis to give the commencement address, and Salinger invited me to come along with the press pool in the press helicopter.
When I got back to the White House, Pierre took me in to meet Kennedy. He was the handsomest man I had ever seen. I don’t remember the details of our conversation, but perhaps they are included in Salinger’s reminiscences in the Kennedy Library.
Someday I will look them up. What I do remember is that the meeting was short, perhaps ten or fifteen seconds. After it, I went back to the press office and discovered what you, reader, already know: that there was no place for me to sit.
So I spent my summer internship lurking in the hall near the file cabinet. I read most of the things that were in the file cabinet, including some interesting memos that were marked ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Eyes Only.’
Right next to the file cabinet was the men’s room, and one day the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, inadvertently locked himself into it.
Had I not been nearby, he might be there still. From time to time I went into the Oval Office and watched the president be photographed with various foreign leaders. Sometimes, I am pretty sure, he noticed me watching him.
Which brings me to my crucial encounter with JFK, the one that no one at the Kennedy Library has come to ask me about.
Indiscreet: Maybe JFK had an inkling Nora would tell everyone she knew if he made a pass at her
It was a Friday afternoon, and because I had nowhere to sit (see above) and nothing to do (ditto), I decided to go out and watch the president leave by helicopter for a weekend in Hyannis Port. It was a beautiful day, and I stood out under the portico overlooking the Rose Garden, just outside the Oval Office. The helicopter landed. The noise was deafening.
The wind from the chopper blades was blowing hard (although my permanent wave kept my hair glued tightly to my head).
And then suddenly, instead of coming out of the living quarters, the president emerged from his office and walked right past me to get to the helicopter. He turned. He saw me. He recognized me.
The noise was deafening but he spoke to me. I couldn’t hear a thing, but I could read his lips, and I’m pretty sure what he said was ‘How are you coming along?’ But I wasn’t positive.
So I replied as best I could. ‘What?’ I said.
And that was it. He turned and went off to the helicopter, and I went back to standing around the White House until the summer was over.
I never saw him again.
Now that I have read the articles about Mimi Fahnestock, it has become horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the president did not make a pass at.
Perhaps it was my permanent wave, which was a truly unfortunate mistake.
Perhaps it was my wardrobe, which mostly consisted of multicolored Dynel dresses that looked like distilled Velveeta cheese.
Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish. Don’t laugh; think about it—think about that long, long list of women JFK slept with. Were any of them Jewish? I don’t think so.
On the other hand, perhaps nothing happened between us simply because JFK somehow sensed that discretion was not my middle name.
I mean, I assure you that if anything had gone on between the two of us, you would not have had to wait this long to find it out.
Anyway, that’s my story. I might as well go public with it, although I have told it to pretty much everyone I have ever met in the last forty-two years. And now, like Mimi Fahnestock, I will have no further comment on this subject. I request that the media respect my privacy and that of my family.
Keep everything cold, layer on the condiments, and never accept a dinner invitation in California: Nora Ephron’s advice how to do a soirée
When I started out cooking, my biggest fear was that nothing would come out at the same time as anything else.
This proved to be a ridiculous fear, but it took me years to realize that you can keep food warm for quite a long time without really harming it in any way.
There is an awful lot of mumbo-jumbo in cookbooks that completely terrifies you—cookbook writers always insisting that you must serve something right away and that you can’t possibly reheat things—but with the possible exception of mashed potatoes, most everything you cook can be kept warm for a while without any serious consequences.
And even mashed potatoes can sit covered with foil in a 300-degree oven for a while without losing a whole lot. Just make sure you have the oven turned on in advance.
Don’t fret: Nora Ephron, director of Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep, said the supermarket is just fine
Of course, a thing you can do if this is at all worrisome to you is to plan a dinner where everything isn’t hot.
This is one of the things that’s so great about the ham dinner theory—the ham doesn’t have to be hot, and just about everything served with it doesn’t have to be hot.
On the other hand, I almost never serve anything like roast beef or leg of lamb for a large number of people, because there’s no way that the meat won’t be cold by the time you serve everyone. And roast beef is just not as good when it’s cold.
So what am I saying here? I think what I’m saying is that you should try to relax about having people over. I have friends who are nervous hostesses, and it just contaminates the entire mood of the evening.
They are always rushing from the room to check things and have a wild look in their eyes when they return from the kitchen.
Another thing I’m saying is, try to make things easy for yourself. Don’t overreach. Don’t ever cook a meal that has more than one complicated item on the menu.
Try to plan menus where most things can be done in advance and where all you have to do is reheat the main dish and cook the pasta (or potatoes or rice) just before dinner.
I am also a big believer in buying delicious things that you are either truthful about (because if people love what they’re eating, they have a huge amount of respect for you for simply finding good food) or, of course, passing them off as something you made.
Fried chicken, for example, is something I cannot make as well as several take-out places in New York and Los Angeles, including a supermarket on Santa Monica Boulevard.
So I just buy it and serve it, along with things I make to go with it, like monkey bread. I believe in the Rule of Four.
Most dinners consist of three things — a meat or fish, a starch, and a vegetable. I think you must always have a fourth — applesauce, or cornsticks, or chutney, or biscuits, or tiny little baked apples, or monkey bread.
Not that you should pay attention to these rules of mine; you have to find your own way to entertain.
But even if you’re just serving spaghetti and a salad, I’d try to do something with bread—with garlic or rosemary or oregano—to give the meal just a little extra taste.
I try to be very loose about lots of things, but what I mostly believe is that when you have people to dinner, it should be fun, and part of the fun should be in what you eat.
Drag it out: Never have fish – it’s over too quickly. A good curry or roast will keep people there for ages
It’s sad when you go to someone’s house and they serve something—like a piece of fish, for example—that’s so straightforward that you finish eating dinner in about three minutes.
This, actually, is one of my main objections to fish: it’s just too easy to eat, and therefore you should never serve it. People like to play with their food (which is why I go on serving curry and lots of condiments to people years after curry ceased to be chic).
They like lots of different tastes.
Your hope always is that your guests will go back for seconds and won’t have any trouble staying late and making you believe it was worth it to go to the trouble to have them to your home.
I have learned over the years that: It is never fun if people in monkey suits serve dinner by going around the table and passing the food. This is why I always just put the food out on a table and let everyone help themselves.
It is absolutely essential to have a round table.
If you have people to dinner and make good food and then put your guests at a long rectangular table where people can’t hear what’s going on at the other end of the table and are pretty much trapped talking to the person on either side of themselves . . . well, what is the point?
The perfect round table is a sixty-inch round, which serves ten people comfortably, but a fifty-two-inch round, which serves eight people, is also nice, and a forty-eight- or forty-two-inch round, which will serve six, is also nice.
Any round table is nicer than any table with corners.
People like to have a seating plan. They get very nervous when there isn’t one.
This doesn’t mean you have to have place cards (although place cards are nice, especially if you use odd things to make them out of, like postcards or something), but it does mean you should have a plan.
And it also means you should keep an eye on what’s happening before dinner, and if two of your guests that you’d planned to seat together spend the entire cocktail hour talking to one another, change the seating plan and separate them.
Or tell them before dinner that you’ve seated them together at dinner so they can mix with other people beforehand.
A thing I like to do when I have a big round table of twelve people, or two round tables, is change the seats just before dessert. This is a wonderful thing to do because everyone has new people to talk to.
It is very easy to seat a small dinner at a round table. It’s just a question of math most of the time. The rules are: don’t seat anyone next to the person they came with or live with or go with or don’t speak to.
It’s nice to seat boy/girl, but I have a friend who seats boy/girl/girl/boy/boy/girl, etc., so that everyone is seated next to one boy and one girl.
In California, of course, they never break up couples at dinner for fear of what might happen if someone’s husband were seated next to someone else’s very young girlfriend; but dinners with couples seated next to one another are always deadly dull, which is why there are almost no good dinner parties in the entire state of California.
- These are both unabridged extracts from The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron, to be published by Transworld on 11 September, price £20. To order a copy go to mailbookshop.co.uk, p&p free for a limited time only.