The Most of Nora Ephron begins with a series of essays that may surprise two distinct groups of readers: those who became admirers of Ephron’s work when she began to write bubbly Hollywood comedies and adopted the literary persona of the funny, wise best friend helping her gal pals surmount the indignities of age; and those who lost interest in her work at around the same time and had forgotten why they’d admired her in the first place. Included in the present volume—along with a novel, a screenplay, and a broad selection of nonfiction—are Ephron’s astute, acerbic, and occasionally caustic magazine articles from the 1970s, among them the intrepid “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”
Threatened with a libel suit, Esquire, to which Ephron was contributing a monthly column, had printed a retraction of, and an apology for, a profile portraying Lyndon Johnson’s speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, as a manipulative bully. The $12,500 that Goodwin (whose influential friends had risen to his defense) received from the magazine as a settlement was ten times the fee that the journalist, Bo Burlingham, was paid for the piece, which Ephron edited and believed in. In her essay, which Esquire declined to print, and which, in 1976, appeared in More, a journalism review, Ephron all but calls her editors a bunch of cowards toadying to powerful New York real estate interests, and concludes by offering her own apology—to Burlingham.
What’s striking is the outrage simmering beneath the characteristically “chatty and informal” surface of Ephron’s prose and the courage required to submit a column that could well have jeopardized her future at Esquire. Those who came to see her as a source of hope for the lovelorn (in her films, romance trumps everything from the crippling politesse of platonic friendship to corporate bookstore greed) and of sisterly commiseration with women feeling bad about their necks may be startled by the spectacle of Ephron’s younger self taking on an established men’s magazine.
Anger fuels a number of these essays, most often when Ephron writes about journalism, a subject about which she cared passionately. Amused by the myopic provincialism of the Palm Beach Social Pictorial, she was less enchanted by the tabloid laziness of the New York Post, where she labored briefly under the leadership of its “stingy,” “frothy and giddy” publisher, Dorothy Schiff:
It seems never to have crossed her mind that she might have a public obligation to produce a good newspaper. Gail Sheehy quite cleverly compared her with Scheherazade, but it would be more apt, I think, to compare her with Marie Antoinette. As in let them read schlock.
Ephron was also exasperated by the ways in which life is made harder for women, as it was at Newsweek, where she worked after graduating from Wellesley:
There were no mail boys at Newsweek, only mail girls. If you were a college graduate (like me) who had worked on your college newspaper (like me) and you were a girl (like me), they hired you as a mail girl. If you were a boy (unlike me) with exactly the same qualifications, they hired you as a reporter and sent you to a bureau somewhere in America.
In a commencement address to the Wellesley class of 1996, Ephron listed the insults that women should refuse to endure:
Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you…. The acquittal of O.J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you—whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.
Yet Ephron’s ire is everywhere tempered by her reluctance to risk being mistaken for one of those sad, sourpuss feminists, “indignant to the point of heavy-handedness.” She’s horrified by Betty Friedan’s angry acting-out at the 1972 convention of the National Women’s Political Caucus—“her influence within the movement has waned to the point that even when she is right (which she is occasionally, though usually for the wrong reasons), no one pays any attention to her.” She’s unnerved when Gloria Steinem weeps because George McGovern has reneged on a political promise. (“She is still crying, and I try to offer some reassuring words, something, but everything I say is wrong; I have never cried over anything remotely political in my life, and I honestly have no idea of what to say.”) And she’s appalled when Jan Morris admits that, after male-to-female sex change surgery, she voluntarily assumed the role of the helpless woman, unable to open bottles or lift heavy objects.
Who doesn’t admire humor, resilience, and strength? Who wouldn’t rather read a witty writer than be bored by a ponderous, self-pitying one? The problem is that Ephron’s reluctance to be identified with the weepers, the pathetic, and the weak—together with an almost compulsive desire to be charming and funny—begins to dilute her arguments and distort their logic. Reviewing a book on women’s health care, she notes, “The tendency in reviewing [Vaginal Politics]…is to stress the more outlandish and radical aspects of the health movement, but [Ellen] Frankfort’s real strength lies in her painstaking accumulation of political incidents.” Yet outlandishness is precisely what Ephron stresses, bookending her essay with passages about how extremists draw attention away from serious issues when they advise women to undermine patriarchal power by contemplating their cervixes. Commenting on Frankfort’s observation that many women are afraid to challenge their doctors or even to ask questions, Ephron remarks, “I have, I should point out, exactly the same fears about my lawyer, my accountant, and my maid. Generally speaking, none of us is terribly good at being an employer.”
Edited by Robert Gottlieb, who has contributed an affectionate and generous introduction, the book is divided by genre and subject matter to reflect the various sorts of writing at which Ephron excelled. At first, one might wish the contents had been arranged chronologically, enabling the reader to track the ways in which Ephron’s literary voice changed and developed over time. But gradually one realizes that her work didn’t change all that much. From her first columns to the last essays she wrote before her death in 2012, she remained herself: smart, observant, and determined to maintain, at any cost, the perspective of an optimist who absorbs life’s hard lessons, laughs—and moves on.
Among the blog posts from late in Ephron’s career are essays that one wishes had become as famous and widely reprinted as the one she wrote decades earlier about having small breasts. “What Did You Do in the War?” (2007) is a strong condemnation of the failure to pressure our government into doing something about the Guantánamo prison after “five years of our holding and torturing prisoners without bail and without the rights of habeus corpus.” She is critical of Hillary Clinton, whom she’d formerly supported: “When she tells a big lie…I can lose hours trying to figure out why. I mean, why? Was it one of those things that she’d said so often that she’d come to believe it?… I have no idea what the answer is to any of this because I’m not a liar and she is.”
After hearing Condoleezza Rice address a 2006 State Department dinner, Ephron writes, “The woman is still with us, more powerful and more disconnected from reality than ever…. She still believes that democracy is a feasible goal in Iraq.” But her critique of the secretary of state’s self-deception and of its catastrophic consequences is undermined when Ephron uses the occasion to test the thesis of Christopher Hitchens’s Vanity Fair piece “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”
“What Condi is really good at,” writes Ephron,
is making nice, which is the opposite of being funny. I’ve always believed that women of my generation (and hers) were literally trained to make nice. It wasn’t really important for us to have opinions of our own; instead, we were supposed to preside over dinner parties, and when two men at the table disagreed violently with each other, we were supposed to step in and point out the remarkable similarities between their opposing positions.
The passage may remind us of how often Ephron herself employs wit and charm to “make nice,” to blunt the edge of her criticism, and to suggest that a situation may not be as dire as it seems. Gifted with a natural brightness of spirit and the ability to see the humor in things, Ephron could hardly have been expected to dismantle these virtues (the way she suggests that Jan Morris willingly divested herself of her upper-body strength) because women are discouraged from taking things too seriously and encouraged to be pleasant. Attuned to the subtle nuances of language and of gender politics, Ephron surely noticed that her male colleagues felt less obliged to shoulder “the burden of being amusing,” to make it clear that they got the joke, even if the joke was on them.
The tone of her play, Lucky Guy, set mostly in New York tabloid newsrooms, is unlike anything else in the anthology. There’s humor, the jokes are rapid-fire, but nowhere do we find the mildly self-deprecating warmth with which Ephron beguiled her readers. Asked to take on an extra assignment, the female journalist in Lucky Guy responds with her tag line, “Fuck you, kiss my ass.” No one who has read this far in The Most of Nora Ephron will imagine that Louise Imerman was meant to be a stand-in for the playwright. Ephron wasn’t interested in being the angry, prickly girl reporter; she wanted to be the popular one whom the guys invited out for a drink after work.
The reluctance to be seen as an object of pity must have posed a particular challenge when Ephron sat down to write a roman à clef about having been dumped by her husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein, for another woman. Again, the solution was humor. Published in 1983, Heartburn was immensely popular, especially with readers grateful to Ephron for helping them see the fun side of sexual betrayal.
At one point in the novel its heroine, Rachel Samstat, is asked why she needs to make everything into a joke. She replies, “I don’t have to make everything into a joke. I have to make everything into a story.” The evasiveness of Rachel’s response (she’s not just turning experience into a story, but into a funny story) appears to have haunted Ephron. Worried that she may have “done what I usually do—hidden the anger, covered the pain, pretended it wasn’t there for the sake of the story,” Rachel revisits the question in the novel’s final pages, though now it’s the kindly therapist, rather than the therapy group’s most hostile participant, who poses the question.
Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a joke?”
So I told her why:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
If our only choice is between laughing at Rachel and pitying her, Heartburn precludes the second option, but in doing so raises questions: When does humor function as a substitute for psychological depth? What is lost when a fictional character’s pain is instantly dissipated by a joke? If we can’t feel sorry for Rachel, we run the risk of not feeling anything at all. We understand that she has been wounded by her husband’s infidelity, but the speed with which Ephron throws her heroine the life preserver of a wicked retort may suggest that what has been sacrificed is not merely plausibility, but emotional truth.
Consider the scene in which Rachel, suspicious of her husband, searches through his desk: “I pulled out the American Express Bills. (What did masochistic women do before the invention of the credit card?) I went through the receipts: the Marriott Hotel in Alexandria, the Plaza Hotel in New York, the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. And the flowers—so many flowers.”
Once the line about female masochism and credit card receipts occurred to Ephron, it must have been hard to resist including it in the novel. But are we really meant to believe that it would occur to a woman—even tough, funny Rachel Samstat—who has just found hard evidence that her husband has fallen in love with someone else? Even if we assume that the line has been added “much much later” by Rachel, describing her experience in retrospect, it still diminishes the power of the scene.
In her 2010 essay “The D Word,” Ephron tells the same story very differently:
I opened the drawer and there was the evidence—a book of children’s stories she’d given him, with an incredibly stupid inscription about their enduring love. I wrote about all this in a novel called Heartburn, and 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. I felt gas-lighted, and idiotic, and completely mortified. I wondered if I was going to become one of those divorced women who’s forced to move with her children to Connecticut and is never heard from again….
Now I think, Of course.
I think, Who can possibly be faithful when they’re young?
I think, Stuff happens….
And I survived. My religion is Get Over It. I turned it into a rollicking story. I wrote a novel. I bought a house with the money from the novel.
So an admission of grief and heartbreak leads directly to a joke about Connecticut, and from there into testimony from the church of Get Over It, advice that is surely easier to follow when one’s suffering can be recycled into real estate.
Most of us have, at some point, attempted to weaken the sting of a painful memory by turning it into an entertaining anecdote. Reading Heartburn and many of the essays collected here, we can observe Ephron shaping her life into stories that could be told over dinner without ruining the party. In “The Mink Coat” (1975), the potentially grisly tale of Ephron’s mother—a successful Hollywood screenwriter who nosedived into death from alcoholism at the age of fifty-seven—becomes a semicomic narrative about Ephron struggling with her sister over a fur coat and trying to verify a family legend: Did Ephron’s mother really throw the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross out of the house for making a nasty remark about her failings as a parent?
In fact Ephron could write very movingly; an essay about old age contains a touching passage about how she came to dislike geese, whose southward flight over Long Island was a mournful harbinger of autumn, and began to love the hummingbirds in Los Angeles, “because they’re so busy getting the most out of life.” She wrote eloquently about food, a job for which common sense and wit (as opposed to the competitiveness, pretentiousness, and crunchy piety that dominate so much contemporary food-talk) seem like perfect qualifications. And she was brilliant at turning a phrase, at coming up with wry, quotable, more or less accurate takes on a cultural moment:
There have always been many things you can do short of actually ending a bad marriage—buying a house, having an affair, and having a baby are the most common, I suppose—but in the early 1970s there were at least two more. You could go into consciousness raising and spend an evening a week talking over cheese to seven other women whose marriages were equally unhappy. And you could sit down with your husband and thrash everything out in a wildly irrelevant fashion by drawing up a list of household duties and dividing them up all over again.
This happened in thousands of households, with identical results: thousands of husbands agreed to clear the table. They cleared the table and then looked around as if they deserved a medal. They cleared the table and then hoped they would never again be asked to do another thing. They cleared the table and hoped the whole thing would go away. And it did. The women’s movement went away, and so, in many cases, did their wives. Their wives went out into the world, free at last, single again, and discovered the horrible truth: that they were sellers in a buyers’ market, and that the major concrete achievement of the women’s movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat.
In “Fantasies” (1972), Ephron transforms yet another wounding incident into engaging copy. She was assigned to interview Philippe Halsman, a photographer known for taking pictures of celebrities jumping, portraits intended to reveal something or other about their subjects. Several times, Halsman instructed Ephron to jump. Each time she jumped the same way, because she thought that was what he was asking her to do. Finally, he told her, rather nastily, that she would never write a novel. “Because you only have one jump in you.”
Presumably, the joke was on Halsman, since people are still reading Heartburn with pleasure and only rarely looking at Halsman’s portrait of Richard Nixon attempting to overcome gravity. Yet Halsman’s analysis was, in its way, accurate: regardless of how many genres Ephron mastered, despite how fluently she wrote, there was that singular jump: gracious, agreeable, giving her readers what she thought they wanted—an image of her funny, resilient self that was meant to be simultaneously revealing and flattering.
In a postscript (originally a preface) to the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally, Ephron explains how the film began as a collaborative effort involving Ephron, the director Rob Reiner, and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman. Though what most people remember best about the movie are the public conversations about how adorable Meg Ryan looked faking an orgasm in a deli, and about how some men apparently had no idea that women deceived their lovers in this particular way, Ephron considers the film to have been about something more consequential: the fundamental differences between the sexes.
She is candid about how closely Harry and Sally resemble their creators:
So I began with a Harry, based on Rob. And because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me. I’m not precisely chirpy, but I am the sort of person who is fine, I’m just fine, everything’s fine…. Sally loves control—and I’m sorry to say that I do too. And inevitably, Sally’s need to control her environment is connected to food…. Well along in the process—third or fourth draft or so—Rob and Andy and I were ordering lunch for the fifth day in a row, and for the fifth day in a row my lunch order—for an avocado and bacon sandwich—consisted of an endless series of parenthetical remarks. I wanted the mayonnaise on the side. I wanted the bread toasted and slightly burnt. I wanted the bacon crisp. “I just like it the way I like it,” I said, defensively, when the pattern was pointed out to me—and the line went into the script.
“Cheerful” and “idiotically optimistic” are adjectives rarely used to describe writers. But they do explain certain things about Ephron’s work. She saw her writing as a reflection of herself and insisted that the reflection—the image—be cheerful and optimistic.
There is a beautiful essay in which Rebecca West speculates about how much greater an artist Charlotte Brontë might have been had she not been hobbled by the pressure of supporting her siblings. In part, West was writing about her own handicaps: the fear of penury, the toll exacted by a long, ultimately unhappy love affair, the consequences of giving birth to an illegitimate son. But every writer has her own obstacles and distractions, her version of the dissolute Branwell Brontë and the ailing sisters who must be saved from the poorhouse.
For Nora Ephron that limitation may well have been the job of being Nora Ephron: a responsibility that too often kept her from writing as well as she did when she was writing at her best, that prevented her from risking more, from more consistently expressing strong opinions and emotions without immediately diving for cover beneath the palliative joke. No sane person would fault Nora Ephron for not having been Dostoevsky. But had she been less self-protective, more demanding of herself and her readers, her work might have exhibited more of the tough-minded and uncompromising honesty, depth, and grace we continue to value in the essays of Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Mavis Gallant.
Nora Ephron gave her fans a great deal of pleasure, of company and comfort. She made them feel less alone. As Gottlieb writes in his introduction:
Her readers not only felt that they knew her but that she knew them…. She had become a model, an ideal, or at the very least, an example—she was telling them things about herself that were also about them, and giving them permission to think these things and feel these things.
Such readers will admire their literary heroine even more when, thanks to The Most of Nora Ephron, they discover, or are reminded, of the brave positions she took, and of how far her preoccupations and her writing ranged beyond the awkward ballet of grumpy-boy-meets-chirpy-girl, and the ways in which the lives of women have been forever changed by hair dye.