Being Nora Ephron

Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Nora Ephron, New York City, 2005

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…

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