Nora Ephron died today. I didn’t even know she was sick. I guess this is terrible news, but not — Ephron got her threescore and ten, plus one (that means she was 71, for those of you who don’t speak Bible), and to be frank, she wasn’t writing as well as she once did, although Ephron on a bad day was better than most people on their very very best.
My bestie Deb once wrote a column that named Ephron as her role model, in the same way that Ephron named Dorothy Parker as her own. As it turned out, we both — Deb and I — had our chance to sit at her feet, however briefly, and warm ourselves in her glow.
I’ve said here before that Ephron wrote great essays as a young woman, stuff that I read and reread and re-reread, internalizing them and turning her phrases over and over, secreting my own nacre over them until they became stepping stones to my own voice as a writer. I’m serious: I’m the writer I am in part because Nora Ephron was the writer she was, not the greatest ever, but a voice I envied and aped — casual, funny, smart, confessional. I wanted to be her, and while I couldn’t be the 1941-born Jewish daughter of screenwriter/playwrights in Los Angeles, imitating her for a while helped me become the 1957-born Catholic daughter of a couple of ordinary parents, with whatever voice that became.
This stuff is important. I can’t quite explain why.
Her essays for Esquire and New York, compiled in “Crazy Salad” and “Scribble, Scribble” are what I’ll remember her for. Her essay on the development of the first vaginal deodorant was genius, as were the ones on the Pillsbury Bake-Off, consciousness-raising and working for the New York Post, among many others. That’s the Nora I wanted to be.
Later she made her way to Hollywood, and that’s what most of the obits I’ve seen so far have in the lead — her scripts for “Silkwood” and “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail” and others. To be sure, she wrote some great movies, but her direction was always sort of meh and many of the films she’s best known for were likewise. She was always about making a living, and you make more money as a screenwriter and director than as a magazine essayist. But one thing that always struck me? How those early essays kept popping up in her later work. I watched “Julie & Julia” and caught many lines that I’d read decades previous in her pieces about cooking.
She came back to them, in an even lighter way. “I Feel Bad About My Neck” was a collection so slight it would blow away in a breeze, but it was still fun to read. (I think I did so, standing up, in a Border’s outlet.) It was her first collection in years, and if it wasn’t “Crazy Salad, Redux,” it was like sitting down with an old friend and discovering she still had it, that she could make jokes about lettuce and cookbooks and why dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with serum cholesterol.
She could be maddening; she moved in elite circles, and wrote about their “problems” in ways that suggested aggravated cluelessness. There was a piece about being a resident of the Apthorp, an upper west side apartment building that was rent-stabilized when Ephron moved in, in the 1970s, and eventually squeezed tenants like her out. I remember she said she had a five-bedroom — five bedrooms! — apartment for some ridiculous price, and oh what a tragedy it was to lose it. Cry me a river, etc. (A five-bedroom apartment in the Apthorp today? Nearly $15 million.)
But this is all water under the bridge now. Something you might not know about her: She had a listed phone number, and she answered her own phone. One year, Robert James Waller, the author of “The Bridges of Madison County,” was supposed to speak in Fort Wayne, and I planned to cover it. I reread Nora’s essay, “Mush,” about Rod McKuen, and then I called her and asked if she had any thoughts or advice or, y’know, what am I doing calling Nora Ephron? Mistake mistake mistakemistakemistake. She laughed and we chatted about Waller’s mush and its relation to McKuen’s mush, and she said I couldn’t quote her but that I should enjoy myself and write something good.
Waller cancelled, but it was hardly a wasted assignment. I talked to Nora.
Bloggage today? How about this? A jumping-off point for many things — not all things — Nora. And let’s leave it at that.