How Nora Ephron Influenced Me As A Writer
Nora Ephron died. I’m still in shock. I didn’t even know she’d been suffering from leukemia. I absolutely adored her, though she never knew it. She was only 71.
One of her books was the bestselling novel, Heartburn, about the breakup of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, who cheated on Ephron when she was hugely pregnant with their second child. It might not sound funny, but it is. Trust me. Because that was Nora Ephron’s gift, her ability to make comedy out of tragedy and her ability to move on.
Although I loved her films, particularly When Harry Met Sally, I am not going to talk about her film legacy here. I am going to talk about her legacy as a woman writer, and what she meant to a generation of us who grew up on her stories and wanted to be just like her. I am going to try and do this without getting maudlin and ponderous. But it’s going to be hard. Because I’m just so damn sad.
I first read Nora Ephron in the 1970s, when she was writing for Esquire and New York magazine. I can’t tell you how revolutionary her voice and attitude were to me then, as I am sure it was for dozens of other starry-eyed young women journalists. Wow, I thought, you could actually publish an essay about having small breasts? You could actually write essays about the women’s movement and consciousness-raising? (This was the 1970s, remember.)
In the 70s, it was every journalist’s dream to write for Esquire, but most of the writers writing for Esquire were men. Yet Nora Ephron had done it. And best of all, she had done it by being funny and by writing about women. I still have my worn paperback copy of Crazy Salad, a collection of her columns from those years. Some of the pages are missing, but I don’t care. And don’t tell me I can always order a new copy on Amazon or download one on my Kindle. I don’t want a new copy.
One of the things I loved about Ephron was her self-deprecating humor. She had a way of taking the most mundane subjects--her neck, apartment hunting in New York, her obsession with “funny lady” Dorothy Parker--and turning them into the most hilarious stories. But she never took herself seriously.
This was one of her biggest gifts to a generation of women writers. Nora Ephron told us we could be funny. She told us we could be ourselves. She even made politics funny, which is not an easy thing to do. I’m not sure she knew she was telling us these things. She was too busy in her own life, writing screenplays, directing films, writing books, cooking and enjoying life in New York, the city she loved so deeply she wrote that she could never live anywhere else.
Ephron married three times, but when her marriages broke up she didn’t dwell on it. Not only did she not dwell on it, she made copy out of it—as her screenwriting mother had instructed her to always do.
Here is Ephron on her love affair with Bill Clinton:
As for Bill, I have to be honest: He did not love me. In fact, I never even crossed his mind. Not once. But in the beginning that didn’t stop me. I loved him, I believed in him, and I didn’t even think he was a liar. Of course, I knew he’d lied about his thing with Gennifer, but at the time I believed that lies of that sort didn’t count. How stupid was that?
One of my favorite political pieces of hers stems from when she covered the 1972 Democratic Convention and chronicled Betty Freidan’s “irrational hatred” of Gloria Steinem. Although Ephron was always an unapologetic feminist—even during the 90s when it was about as popular as disco–she wasn’t above criticizing the women’s movement for its sometimes ridiculous obsession with purity and rules. But she also never lost her faith in the women’s movement, or wavered in her political beliefs. She was a firm supporter of abortion, and unapologetic about that too.
I have one of her books sitting next to my laptop right now. It was published in 2006 and it’s called I Feel Bad About My Neck. Need I say more? Ephron wrote the book when she was in her early 60s, confronting the indignities of aging. It in are chapters like “I Hate My Purse,” “The Story of My Life in 3,500 words or less,“ and “On Maintenance.”
A few lines from "What I Wish I'd Known":
Never marry a man you wouldn't want to be divorced from.
The plane is not going to crash.
The empty nest is underrated.
Write everything down.
I always wanted to meet Nora Ephron, but clearly that's not in the cards. I can only imagine how her sisters, Delia, Amy and Hallie, and her two sons and her husband, the journalist and author Nicholas Pelligi, whom she met in a restaurant, of course, because she was passionate about food, feel about losing her. Her long love of cooking is what led her to direct and write the film, Julie and Julia (or is it Julia and Julie? I can never remember) about cookbook author and chef Julia Child, the woman responsible for making French cuisine popular in America. Now everything French is bad, of course. Pommes frites. I’m sure Nora Ephron would have had something witty to say about that.
But she’s gone.
Here’s something she wrote about aging, from the chapter called Considering the Alternative in I Hate My Neck. I wonder if when she wrote this, did she know she didn’t have long?
My friend Judy died last year. She was the person I told everything to. She was my best friend, my extra sister, my true mother, sometimes even my daughter, she was all these things, and one day she called up to say, the weirdest thing has happened, there’s a lump on my tongue. Less than a year later, she was dead. She was sixty-six years old. She had no interest in dying, right to the end. She died horribly. And now she’s gone I think of her every day, sometimes six or seven times a day. …
It’s June now; this is the month one or the other of us would make corn-bread pudding, a ridiculous recipe we both loved that’s made with corn-bread mix and canned cream corn. She made hers with sour cream, and I made mine without. "Hi, hon," she would say when she called. "Hi, doll." "Hello, my darling."I don't think she ever called me, or anyone else she knew, by their actual name....
She is my phantom limb, and I can't believe I am here without her.
God will I miss Nora Ephron.