An Appreciation: Nora Ephron was like a super-cool aunt
Nora Ephron, the writer of 'Wallflower at the Orgy,' 'Crazy Salad Plus Nine,' 'Heartburn' and movies including 'When Harry Met Sally,' was a fun inspiration.
Nora Ephron once wrote that when she was young, all she wanted to do "in this world was come to New York and be Dorothy Parker." Which is funny because when I was young, all I wanted to do was come to New York and be Nora Ephron.
I wanted to be Nora Ephron because she was intellectual and funny, biting yet in the end sympathetic, because she traveled in rarefied circles on both coasts yet still managed to seem gorgeously accessible. During her half-century career, she wrote all sorts of stories (and later screenplays) about all manner of things — politics and dinner parties, the National Organization for Women and purses, divorce and romance, Helen Gurley Brown and Ayn Rand, troublesome friendships and aging — but it was never so much what she was writing about as how. From the moment her career began in the 1960s, she was a clear and consistent voice in the nascent genre of cultural journalism.
She may have got there kicking and screaming — in the 1980 preface to "Wallflower at the Orgy" (Bantam, 1970), she discussed her discomfort, as a reporter, with using the first person, fearing that "the image of the journalist as wallflower at the orgy has been replaced by the journalist as life of the party." But intentionally or not, the writing Ephron did in the late '60s and early '70s for magazines like Esquire changed the way we thought about reporting and essay writing alike.
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The queen of the humorous aside — "Atlas Shrugged," she says in the story about Rand, is a book that cannot be put down so it probably should not be picked up — she earned readers' trust not just by presenting detailed and excellently observed portraits of people, places and themes but by reacting to them with a delicious tone of jaded optimism, a raised eyebrow and a twinkle that echoed in columns as diverse as the now-defunct Hers in the New York Times and Candace Bushnell's original Sex and the City pieces.
She was a New Yorker by choice whose devotion to Manhattan was second only to Woody Allen's, with a showbiz childhood that allowed her to see everything as both meaningful and entertainment, a feminist who covered the changing roles of women with neither cynicism nor zealotry. When I worked at Ms. magazine, all the young second-wavers had matching, well-thumbed copies of "Crazy Salad Plus Nine," in which Ephron fondly, but ruthlessly, dissected Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Smeal and all those jostling vaunted mothers of the revolution, not so much cutting them down to size as making sure everyone understood that the women's movement was about actual women.
Including Ephron, whose persona was more like the super-cool aunt, the one who quickly scanned the room and nailed the crowd to the floor with a few well-placed sentences. She was literary enough to take the title of "Crazy Salad" from a Yeats quote but proletariat enough to be the foodie who took down Gourmet magazine — "the pictures are so reverent I almost feel I ought to pray to them."
Forget all these young chicks and their revenge albums; when Ephron had an incredibly messy and high-profile divorce from journalist and national hero Carl Bernstein, she wrote a book about it. Not only did "Heartburn" give us one of the most insightful moments of 20th century popular fiction — "If I throw this pie at him, I thought to myself, he will never love me. And then it hit me; he doesn't love me … I picked up the pie … and threw it" — it also included recipes.
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"Heartburn" was then made into a movie. Back in Hollywood, Ephron brought her balancing act of smart mouth / soft heart to the screen, revolutionizing the romantic comedy with "When Harry Met Sally"and then "Sleepless in Seattle." In the second, she used the film "An Affair to Remember" as a cultural touchstone from which the action emerges; these days, it would be just as easy to use "When Harry Met Sally" in a similar way, something Mindy Kaling actually does in the pilot of her new show "The Mindy Project."
And Ephron never stopped working. If some of her work became increasingly insular — e.g. her lament in the New Yorker over losing her rent-controlled flat in the posh Apthorp — and her final collection left much to be desired, she still managed, while approaching her eighth decade, to write not just "I Feel Bad About My Neck," a hilarious collection of essays about aging, but to also write and direct the delightful"Julie and Julia,"reminding everyone, once again, that women can be funny and classy, wry and sentimental, discerning and popular.