A Love Found & Lost, is found again on Facebook Some 35 Years Later
Anyone who has ever had one knows there is nothing quite like a perfect summer beach romance in the spring of life. But, like a great bottle of wine, once it is done it is done, its pleasures left only to memory.
Or so thought Gay Cioffi, who was happily surprised to find out she was wrong some 35 years after her three-week tryst with Mark Obenhaus faded with that Hamptons summer.
It was 1978 and Ms. Cioffi was spending the summer as an assistant in the artist Sheila Isham’s studio in Sagaponack, N.Y. She was 27 and had recently separated from her first husband. Every morning before work, she would go for a jog along Gibson Beach and return to the beach for the few hours before sunset.
In mid-July, a tall, handsome bearded fellow with the shaggy long hair of the era would come running in the opposite direction, and then appear again during her beach visits later in the day. That would be Mr. Obenhaus, then 32 and a documentary filmmaker who was also separated from his first wife; he was between projects and had extra time to spend at his shared beach house down the street from Ms. Isham’s studio.
“We would pass each other and smile and say ‘Hello,’ ” said Ms. Cioffi, now 62, speaking at their vacation home here by Accabonac Harbor in Springs, N.Y., just a few miles to the northeast of their first encounter.
After about a week of this, Mr. Obenhaus, now 67, set out to meet her. “My recollection was that I began to sort of notice a pattern and then I arranged my jogs to coincide with what I imagined to be her location,” he said.
Ms. Cioffi recalled, “He just walked up to me basically to say hello as I arrived.” And, “that was it,” she said. “I moved into Mark’s house that night.”
Neither describes what happened from there as particularly torrid. It was relaxed and easy and supremely enjoyable, a natural fit with no end to the conversation. They spent every waking hour that Ms. Cioffi was not working together, “just talking, talking, laughing,” said Ms. Cioffi, who kept a detailed journal.
There were unparalleled sunsets at Gibson Beach and rides in her Fiat, soundtrack provided by Steely Dan. Mr. Obenhaus had one of those new Polaroid SX-70 cameras, a bit of modern magic then, and it provided countless hours of entertainment.
And there was scintillating people-watching, including of two neighbors, just a couple of houses away: the writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein, who was then her husband. “That was the house in the neighborhood that everybody knew about,” Mr. Obenhaus said.
For both, there was the awareness that this was a rare point in time in which they could live simply at the beach, with no great strains from work, and get to know each other. “Those periods are kind of hard to construct in your life — they sort of happen to you — and this happened and so I was very available to her, and she to me,” Mr. Obenhaus said.
But the summer sun has a way of temporarily bleaching out life’s inevitable stains. In the real world it was not going to work. Much like a plot from an Ephron romantic comedy, Ms. Cioffi recalled writing in her journal, “I’ve met this perfect person, but the timing is all wrong, and I really need to be independent and figure some things out.”
She went to Washington, and began working at the arts-oriented Little Folks nursery school, in Georgetown, where she has worked for more than 30 years and is the director. He went back to work in New York making documentaries for PBS, its associated program “Frontline,” and Westinghouse Broadcasting. There were one or two get-togethers, and a single long-distance phone call, and then they lost touch.
“It is a little mysterious,” he said. “I do think the fact that we had both married young, we were not looking for our life partners.”
Ms. Cioffi went on to marry Mel Henry, also a filmmaker, in 1983. They had two children, Ryder Cioffi Henry and Mia Cioffi Henry. Also in 1983, Mr. Obenhaus married a classmate from his undergraduate days at Oberlin, Lynn Kohlman, a cover model and fashion executive. They had a son, Sam Obenhaus, who was born in 1986, the same year as Mia.
Every so often Mr. Obenhaus would stumble upon his stash of Polaroids of Ms. Cioffi. “I would just think of her just very, very warmly, and kind of wonder, ‘What happened to her?’ ”
Likewise, Ms. Cioffi, who had separated from her husband in 1998, would come upon her summer journal, or see Mr. Obenhaus’s credit on a documentary. Despite the fond memories, she assumed her romantic life was in the past. “I thought, ‘I’ve been married twice, I’ve been so lucky to find love and romance,’ ” she said. “I wasn’t looking for that again. That part of my life was basically over.”
In 2002, his wife’s breast cancer was discovered, followed by a diagnosis of brain cancer. She was celebrated as a portrait of endurance after writing a memoir that landed her on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Mr. Obenhaus saw her through five very hard years until her death in 2008.
“He took care of her devotedly for all of those years and then she died and he said to me, ‘I’ll never get married again,’ ” said Richard Brick, a close friend and longtime production partner. “And it was heartbreaking.”
Mr. Obenhaus went on with his work, writing a screenplay adaptation of the James Salter novel “Solo Faces,” and preparing a documentary about the history of aviation. But, in his free time, he set about renovating the family beach house in Springs.
Both were taken back to the summer of ’78 when they heard of Nora Ephron’s death in June 2012. “I’m reading about her always with the end result of thinking about Mark,” she said, recalling how she just could not get Mr. Obenhaus out of her mind during a Labor Day visit to Martha’s Vineyard.
When she returned home to Washington she listened to Steely Dan. Her 32-year-old niece Carly Cioffi, who lives with her, asked about the music. And so Ms. Cioffi told her the story about that summer in Sagaponack and Mr. Obenhaus. “She says, ‘You need to find this guy, you need to look him up, see if he’s on Facebook,’ and I say, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no,’ ” Ms. Cioffi recalled. “It is such a cliché to look up old boyfriends and then be disappointed, and it was so perfect; I don’t want to disturb what to me was this perfect memory.”
But Ms. Cioffi did find him on Facebook. His beard was gone, his shaggy brown hair was grayer, and his cheeks were more sunken, but she was again drawn to his blue eyes. She made a “friend request” and promptly panicked. But this lasted only for the four minutes that it took Mr. Obenhaus to respond: “So nice to see your name appear. I thought of you and that summer we met when Nora Ephron passed. I have a home not far from where we met and was at Gibson Beach this weekend. I hope we can catch up some day. Life is too short, as they say.”
Her profile photograph revealed her brown hair was now a grayish blond, her face was thinner, and Mr. Obenhaus “thought she looked beautiful, and I thought in my mind, ‘There’s a person who I had this great feeling for once,’ ” he said. “And, even though I’d been saying to others and myself, ‘Single from here on out, fella,’ um ...”
They engaged in a furious round of letter writing, via Facebook. Mr. Obenhaus, being a late-night person, would write into the wee hours so Ms. Cioffi would awake to one of his dispatches and write back in the early evening, being an early-to-bed person. This went on for about a week. Then Mr. Obenhaus asked if he could see her on a scheduled trip to Washington. She let two days pass with no response.
“There was just this feeling of not wanting to risk losing this magical memory,” she said. “But then it was like, ‘Of course, I’m going to have dinner with him, how can I resist?’ ”
They met at the Tabard Inn restaurant. “She came in and she looked at me in a certain way that’s very Gay-like, and I said, ‘This is it for me,’ ” he said. “I was totally smitten, completely smitten.”
He did everything he could to win her over immediately, reminiscing about the Polaroid and asking her to drive him past her nursery school on the way home from dinner, the true way to her heart (“I was putting the move on her,” he said). They were right back at it, talking and talking.
Yet she was more guarded, and there was only “an awkward hug” goodbye. When he got back to his hotel, he wrote Ms. Cioffi on Facebook that he had held something back, a Polaroid photo of her, propped up on a pillow in bed, facing the camera, which he attached to his message. Ms. Cioffi quickly responded with a picture of him in the same pose, from the same moment, which was stashed in her journal. Mr. Obenhaus wrote, “OMG, my head is exploding, who’s writing this script?” ...