Jill Wine-Banks Reflects on Watergate, Self-Doubt, and Plans to Turn Memoir into a Movie Starring Katie Holmes

It’s been a whirlwind year for Jill Wine-Banks, from the release of her memoir to her canceled book tour because of the pandemic to the recent news that there are plans to turn her story into a movie.

Wine-Banks’ book “The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President” has been optioned by actress Katie Holmes who plans to star in and produce the movie.  

“I am ecstatic,” Wine-Banks said.

Holmes called her, and they had several conversations, Wine-Banks said.

“From both of our perspectives, I wanted to make sure it was in good hands, and she wanted to know what she was buying,” Wine-Banks said. “There is nothing more flattering than someone famous playing me.”

In a recent interview with Better, Wine-Banks discussed her career, finding her voice as an opinion writer, and the importance of sharing unflattering details of her life in her book. The Evanston resident also opened up about the self-doubt that lingers beneath the surface of the confidence she usually projects.

‘It changed my life’

Wine-Banks was a news junkie at an early age, but her ambitions to be a journalist took a detour when she strategized that a law degree would insure she landed a job in hard news and not the women’s page. She ultimately found her niche in law at Columbia Law School and a job in the organized crime section at the U.S. Department of Justice. Her position as Watergate special prosecutor under Archibald Cox sealed the deal.

Wine-Banks, the only female prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, is known not only for participating in the takedown of President Richard Nixon but she is also credited with a game-changing move at the trial.

Rose Mary Woods, the president’s secretary, testified that an 18-minute section of audiotape of Nixon was accidentally erased when she reached for the phone in her office while transcribing the tape. She was unable to demonstrate how that happened on the witness stand and explained that it worked in the office at the White House.

Wine-Banks, 30 at the time, called Woods’ bluff and asked to go to the office to recreate the scene. At the White House, photographer Ollie Atkins captured what became known as the “Rose Mary stretch,” in which she awkwardly reached across her desk for the phone while also keeping her foot on a pedal in a way that could have erased the tape.

The pose was so unwieldy it would have been nearly impossible to maintain long enough to erase the 18 minutes of missing tape, thus confirming Woods had lied. That was a pivotal moment in Wine-Banks’ life. 

Jill Wine Banks’ with Ben Veniste and Neal entering courthouse
Special Prosecutors Richard Ben-Veniste, Jill Wine-Banks, and Jim Neal entering the courthouse.

“It was a game changer in Watergate. It changed my career path and my husband, who I dated in high school, saw me in the newspaper,” Wine-Banks said. “So, when I say it changed my life, it changed my life. We reconnected and we married.”

Wine-Banks divorced her first husband and married Michael Banks, an antiques dealer, in 1980.

Wine-Banks also has a robust career providing legal analyst commentary on MSNBC. She hosts two podcasts, SistersinLaw along with Boston Globe columnist and former lawyer Kimberly Atkins and former U.S. Attorneys Barb McQuade and Joyce White Vance, and Intergenerational Politics, which will be produced by Politicon.

Work on the book began in about 2008 after Wine-Banks said she “theoretically retired” and met some friends in Italy. Her friends had been encouraging her for years to write her memoir and on this trip she was told with retirement there were no more excuses. She started writing right then — in longhand.

Wine-Banks joined an Evanston writing group and in 2016 was a resident at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest where she worked on her book.

Jill Wine Banks
Jill Wine-Banks

‘I had better luck than Nixon’

Wine-Banks’ story is more than that of a sharp lawyer successfully bringing down an American president. She details the sexism which prevailed at the time in the courtroom — being called “young lady” when others were referred to as “esteemed counsel.” She noted that the judge, referring to her back-and-forth with Woods, commented that “we have enough problems without two ladies getting into an argument.”

She also details the rampant sexism that followed her years later when she was the first female general counsel of the Army under President Jimmy Carter. She recalls at the Pentagon that the Army chief of staff once told her “You’re too cute to be general counsel.”

Causes for women became her passion. As women were integrated into the military, Wine-Banks urged the Pentagon to not only provide helmets and boots that fit women, and provide maternity uniforms, but she also championed to abolish WACs and MOS’s (military occupational specialty codes).

Ben-Veniste, Wine-Banks, and Jimmy Breslin
Ben-Veniste, Wine-Banks, and Jimmy Breslin

Her book includes details of her personal life, told with brutal honesty, including details of an unhappy first marriage and a seven-year affair with a man she met at the Department of Justice. The details provide a glimpse into the young attorney, different than the one the media portrayed at the time.

Wine-Banks recalled almost getting caught by her husband with her lover.

“When it came to covering up my misdeeds, I had better luck than Nixon,” she said. 

Friends and colleagues warned her about putting personal details in the book, but Wine-Banks disagreed.

“It makes me authentic,” she said. “I was powerful in court, but there was another side to me. I think a lot of women then and today are in bad marriages and blame themselves … that’s nonsense.”

Jill Wine Banks’ on tv

‘I don’t have the confidence that I put on’

Wine-Banks credits her friendship with Rita Dragonette, the award-winning public relations executive, as jumpstarting her current media career.

They had stayed close since their days at Ragdale, and Dragonette suggested Wine-Banks enroll in The OpEd Project to learn to write opinion pieces.

“She told me, now you have something to say.”

Wine-Banks took the course on a Sunday and by Tuesday she had her hook.

“(FBI Director James) Comey was fired,” she said.

Wine-Banks sent her opinion piece to the Chicago Tribune and got an immediate yes. When it published a few days later, her phone rang with multiple requests to appear on TV. The reaction gave her a jolt of confidence.

“It’s hard to believe, but you can tell from my book, I don’t have the confidence that I put on. There are always self-doubts,” she said.

More from Better:

Susan Berger is a freelance journalist in Chicago and writes frequently for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. She was a 2019 fellow with the National Press Foundation Fellowship to study vaccines and spent time learning from leading experts Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Willam Schaffner and others at the NIH. She was recently selected for a May 2021 fellowship with the CDC through the Association of Health Care Journalists. She also has written for the New York Times, Health Magazine, National Post, Agence France-Presse, and CBC. Susan has appeared on BBC World News, CNN, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV and on CBC Radio. A life-long North Shore resident she not only attended New Trier High School but won an Illinois Press Association Award in 2002 for her coverage of the decision to open New Trier West to freshman-only. Her work can be viewed at www.bergerreport.com and you can follow her on Twitter @Msjournalist.

  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate