Feminist, Foodie, Filmmaker — Ephron Did It All, And Wrote About It, Too
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
When writers die, it's hard to know if their work will live on. I'm always amazed at what does or doesn't last –– what seems fresh as time passes, or what takes on that dreaded sepia tint even just a year or two later.
When Nora Ephron died in June of 2012, she left behind a big, diverse body of work that spanned decades and genres. At various points in her life she was a reporter, a journalist, an essayist, a screenwriter, a novelist, a playwright, and even, briefly, a blogger. As her editor Robert Gottlieb writes in the introduction, this massive book was meant "to celebrate the richness of her work, the amazing arc of her career, and the place she had come to hold in the hearts of countless readers." Gottlieb and Ephron started to work on the book together, but somehow it didn't get done, and he wonders if it was because Ephron, knowing she was ill but telling very few people, began to see the book as "a memorial," which made her uncomfortable.
The Most of Nora Ephron gives you a close-up and thorough view of the writer, which seems a particularly important thing to do, because her death was met with such an emotional response. In New York Magazine, Frank Rich wrote eloquently of her generosity to younger writers who were just starting out, and of how good she was to him in all ways. "She continued to give me invaluable advice about everything," he wrote, "from career to restaurants, from what to read to what to think." Rich concludes that, in making her decision to keep her illness private, "For all the instructions she gave us and everyone else about life, she was teaching us something about dying, and we had no idea at the time she was doing so."
Many of Ephron's friends and fans were left to reminisce intensely about her, or to try and figure her out and sort of open her up like a Chinese puzzle box. This omnibus goes far in clarifying who Ephron was, not just as a sentimental favorite, but as a writer and thinker.
In her early days, she was a reporter at The New York Post, where "everyone smoked, but there were no ashtrays... The doors leading into the city room had insets of frosted glass, and they were so dusty that someone had written the word "Philthy" on them with a finger. I couldn't have cared less. I had spent almost half my life wanting to be a newspaper reporter, and now I had a shot at it." The Post actually published six editions a day back then. As Ephron writes, "I loved the city room. I loved the pack. I loved smoking and drinking Scotch and playing dollar poker ... I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines." According to her, "The greatest of the rewrite men at the Post was a woman named Helen Dudar. Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite."
Near the end of her life, when Ephron wrote "Lucky Guy," a play that starred Tom Hanks as the reporter Mike McAlary, who broke the Abner Louima police brutality case, she retained and re-created the potent, inky tang of newsroom life 50 years after her own stint there. McAlary is a driven figure, like Ephron eventually terminally ill, living for "the wood," which "is slang for the front-page headline. The type was so big they had to make the letters out of wood."
As intrepid as Ephron was, and happy to jump into the rumpled, guy's scrum of the newsroom, and, later on, the slicker's guy's world of magazine journalism, one thing you can't miss, reading this book, is the fact that she was very interested in women's lives. And sometimes that included her own.
In her 1972 essay, "A Few Words About Breasts," she writes, "I started with a 28 AA bra... An actual fitter took me into the dressing room and stood over me while I took off my blouse and tried the first one on. The little puffs stood out on my chest. 'Lean over,' said the fitter. (To this day, I am not sure what fitters in bra departments do except to tell you to lean over.)"
In our age of confession and the perpetual selfie, this essay seems funny, charming and knowing, but maybe not revolutionary. At the time it was published, however, during the Our Bodies, Ourselves 1970s, writers rarely wrote with such deep wit about their imperfections, their bodies, their sexual selves.
Her one novel, Heartburn, the painful and blisteringly funny account of the end of a marriage — based on Ephron's split from Carl Bernstein — retains its spine, rage and hilarity 30 years after it was published. A huge hit, it was seen as the perfect revenge delivery-system for having been publicly humiliated by her husband while she was pregnant with their second child. Though Heartburn is delectable as a roman a clef, part of its interest for readers is that you really sense you're getting a big dose of Ephron's actual life and thoughts and feelings. As she herself writes, "...it's a very funny book, but it wasn't funny at the time. I was insane with grief. My heart was broken. I was terrified about what was going to happen to my children and me."
Later, when she adapted Heartburn for the screen, Meryl Streep played the part of Rachel Samstat, food writer and Ephron doppelganger.
Nora Ephron let her women characters be vulnerable, but never destroyed. As she advised the graduating class of Wellesley College in 1996, "be the heroine of your own life, not the victim. Because you don't have the alibi my class had — this is one of the great achievements and mixed blessings you inherit: unlike us, you can't say nobody told you there were other options ... You won't be able to blame the deans, or the culture, or anyone else: you will have no one to blame but yourselves. Whoa!"
In her brilliant 1972 essay on the early years of feminism, she writes about a particularly vivid heroine: "Every so often, someone suggests that Gloria Steinem is only into the women's movement because it is currently the chic place to be; it always makes me smile, because she is about the only remotely chic thing connected with the movement."
Other sides of Ephron show up in this book as well, notably the foodie. Heartburn includes various recipes for dishes like bacon hash, potatoes Anna and Lillian Hellman's pot roast. And there are essays about "The Egg-White Omelette," and about a paragon of pastrami sandwiches, and Teflon. Everyone who really knew Nora Ephron was cooked for by her; and everyone else wished they had been.
I met Nora over 20 years ago, because the first film she directed, This Is My Life, starring Julie Kavner as a stand-up comedian trying to balance motherhood and career, was based on my novel. I was very pregnant with my first child, and Nora and her sister Delia, who co-wrote the script, invited me to join them to check out some female stand-up comics appearing at clubs around the city. I said I couldn't go; I had childbirth class that night. Nora said, "Here, I'll show you what they were going to teach you. (PANTING NOISES.)" Of course, I went with the Sisters Ephron to the comedy clubs, and later on to the set of the movie.
This Is My Life was not a commercial success, but it was loved by a lot of people who saw it, particularly women and girls, and I lucked out in that I got a long friendship out of it. Once, a long time ago, I went out to dinner with a group of people, including Nora, and there was a salad on the menu with candied walnuts in it. This was back when candied walnuts were a new phenomenon, and the only reason people wanted that salad was because of the walnuts. The waiter went around the table, and everyone ordered it. And then he got to Nora, and she asked for the salad too, with double walnuts.
It wouldn't have occurred to the rest of us to do that: to ask for a little more from life.
Nora was constantly handing out her own version of double walnuts. To her friends, to the writers she encouraged, and even to her readers and audiences, who wanted just a little more of her, though of course there was so much. It's staggering to think how much work she did, in all those media.
In order to get all of that done, you have to be fierce. According to her sister and frequent collaborator, Delia Ephron, whose new collection, Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc. includes two powerful essays about her sister: "Working with Nora in Hollywood was like traveling in an armored vehicle. Once she left a studio meeting and everyone fell on me, giving me all the script notes they didn't have the nerve to tell her."
That fierceness is in evidence in The Most of Nora Ephron, but it's tempered by some wistful moments. There's a short 2010 piece in the form of a list, called "What I will Miss," which includes items like "Shakespeare in the Park," and "Reading in bed," and "Dinner at home just the two of us," and "dinner with friends," and "Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives," and "Coming over the bridge to Manhattan," and "Pie."
Anyone who knows of Ephron's virtuosic career and reads that list will remember that she wasn't just this intrepid reporter and filmmaker and opinion-sayer and personage who was played onscreen by no less than Meryl Streep. She was also someone who lived, and who people who never met her felt like they knew. And that, I think, gives a clue as to why she will last. Because in the great rushing loneliness of the world, when a writer's voice makes you feel befriended, you want more of it even after the person is gone.