More than thirty years ago, jet setting beauty Caroline Cushing Graham travelled with her boyfriend David Frost to Los Angeles where he conducted his famous interview with Richard Nixon. Graham, a budding journalist, remained largely in the background, making sandwiches for the two heavyweights and sharing a drink with Nixon. Before long she was a high powered journalist herself, serving as an editor for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Today, Graham runs a marketing and media relations firm—and remains best friends with Frost, who, she insists, isn’t as big of a playboy as the film would have you believe.
In the movie, you and David first meet on the plane over to L.A. Of course in real life, you and David had been together for five years.
Yes—in fact, my first travel with David was to go with him to the Muhammad Ali fight in Zaire. That was my first date with David. He said would you like to go to Zaire, I’m going to be the host of the Rumble in the Jungle.
Do you feel that your relationship with David is accurately portrayed in the movie, or is it over-dramatized?
Well we had been together for five years before this so we knew each other pretty well, so I felt very much part of the team. You know, I was there for David, and I was very involved in getting the funds for the movie. But I had dinner with David every night, and the birthday party was quite, quite accurate. There wasn’t a ton of detail in the movie you know, so it was fair enough. I don’t think I’d have gotten him the cheeseburger though. I said to him recently, I’ll get you one, one of these days!
David and I are still best friends. We’ve always been friends, I’m friends with his wife too. But after the interviews were over, David went back to London and I happened to stay and took a job at the Herald Examiner as a reporter in downtown LA.
You being there solely for David must have put a strain on your relationship.
Well as the English say, you rise to the occasion. It wasn’t like we’d gone for summer holidays, though we were staying in Beverly Hills and there was a beautiful pool at the Hilton. But I was also there as a journalist, to hear the expert researchers and find out what they found out. Clay Felker, who is not portrayed in the movie but was there was a great friend of David’s and a great friend of mine—he was the former editor of New York magazine and he really knew all the journalists at the time and had a tremendous amount of input and was very influential. So were James Reston and Bob Zelnick, although they were not initially friends of mine. We had a huge group of people at the Hilton. I mean you would arrive somewhere with David and people would immediately know who you were. He was better known as a personality than they portray him in the film. David Frost Presents The Guinness Book of World Records were the first reality television shows, and I went with him to do a lot of those.
Nixon certainly thought you were all having one giant party.
His idea of us all having this fantastic time was certainly in his imagination. David traveled, he worked; when David does an interview he gets his hands dirty, he’s not a fancy guy. In the movie they show David driving, but we were always chauffeured because he was always making those notes, he always had that way with the clipboard, he always had ink all over his fingers. David was always absolutely covered in ink.
The script built up that David doesn’t feel like he did a good job with the first two interviews. My memory is that he felt he did a pretty good job on every interview, that each was a step to getting to the gold they were working on. I don’t think there was such a dramatic buildup as screenwriter made it, he was going to get something all along. We all knew he would do it, and never doubted that he would do very well.
I also feel that maybe in the movie David is a little too kind of playboy-ish, when really he’s a guy when he’s working he gets right into it. All the stuff about David’s girls is perhaps a bit of a stretch.
Are there pieces of the movie that are especially accurate?
How difficult it was to get the financing was absolutely true and eventually I do remember that the financing all got together somehow—the stress of getting programs together without money was very accurate.
All the sets and the costumes and the portrayal of the period and everyone debating was very accurate. I met with the costume designer and he had spent a lot of time making sure my character had nice clothes, and you know they did a lot of research and they did a really good job.
How involved were you in making the movie?
I didn’t speak to Peter Morgan before he wrote the play at all. And then when it went on in London, I contacted the theater and subsequently had dinner with Peter and went to see the play and met Michael and Frank. I did talk to Peter more about everything that had gone in Beverly Hills and the Laguna afterwards, because I’ve become friends with him. I met Ron Howard once, and had dinner with Rebecca Hall [who plays Caroline in the movie] once. She is a terrific actress, a very good Shakespearean actress. I couldn’t be happier or more that pleased that played me. I only wish I’d been as beautiful as she is.
Tell me about having drinks with Nixon.
As I remember Nixon, he had huge great head and was very clumsy and kept falling backwards. And he certainly had a roving eye for women. David and I and Nixon would have drinks together, three or four times. The end of the movie, which is the scene with caviar, and Nixon asked if we would like fine wine, and I said I loved fine wine—that was spot-on. He was always saying things like “Why you don’t marry that girl, she lives in Monte Carlo and you can live tax-free.”
It was very sad when we left and finally said good bye to Nixon. I thought his life ended up in loneliness and exile. At the time when we drove away there’d been so much that had gone on—so much excitement and anticipation. I wasn’t sympathetic, just sad to go on and say goodbye and realize Nixon’s life was nothing and we had a lot to look forward to and he’d already had his life.
Frost/Nixon must have stirred up some old emotions for you.
I certainly hadn’t really thought about Nixon interviews for a very long time. I think it’s quite exciting when you look at a part of your past that was wonderful, and I’m glad nobody forgot it even if we put it behind us, it was still something put in historical perspective, and by someone we didn’t even know at the time!
Sure, Peter embellished upon it, but it was a drama anyway—time was ticking on, money was needed, and research had to be done, David had to be prepared, and then he had to go on and do it. So you know to look back thirty years and say oh, wow, yeah that was interesting that was something I’m glad I was part of. Of course, I wasn’t part of the interviewing, I made sandwiches. But I went to the tapings and I had drinks with Nixon and I got to know him and I had a dialogue with him, so you know it was amazing saga if you like for English people to come over to America and do that.
Especially because it’s become such an instrumental part of American history.
One always hoped it would be and time has told that it definitely was. So in that I’m not the least bit fussed about the clothes I wear in the movie, or the handbags I carry. I never would have worn a strapless dress to meet Nixon, that’s for sure. But in the end they did a really god job, so I don’t have any issues at all.
Miriam Datskovsky is an associate editor at The Daily Beast. Her work has also appeared in Conde Nast Portfolio, New York magazine, and nymag.com.