Need to Know: Nora Ephron

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I’ve always been a little bit jealous that Lena Dunham was lucky enough to share a friendship with Nora in the last years of her life. That she was able to have her as a mentor; to take burnt brownies to her Thanksgiving dinner and to have Nora tell her that one day they would make a good story. That she invited her out for lunch and gave her perfect Nora advice, the kind of no-nonsense, illuminating and generous tips that she dispensed to anyone who wishes to read her decades of published writing. A tiny bit (just the tiniest bit!) I resent Dunham because what she sometimes seems to express publically of the worst of her character (her petulant leading characters, the self-indulgent narcissism that has made her famous) seems so completely at odds with the practical, unflappable Nora I have come to know and love over the years. But at the heart of her personal essays, about a life of journalism, filmmaking, novel-writing, New York and the experience of being a modern woman, it’s clear that above all things she loved to spend her time with people of motivation and talent, and that she adored helping others live the kind of enchanted, effortless life that she determinedly created for herself. 

Off the top of my head, here are the things that I have learnt from Nora Ephron: 

1.    Don’t waffle. What stays with people are gems of expressive brilliance, delivered with wit and brevity
2.    There is nothing more valuable than having an apt recommendation for a restaurant, café, show or book.
3.    The rule of four. This relates to entertaining. You should always serve three dishes: a meat, a starch, some kind of vegetable, and then something completely unexpected. 
4.    Everything is copy
5.    Your luck will always change
6.    You can order more than one dessert

I’m one of the very unlucky people who has reached their mid-twenties without having been to New York, but thanks to Nora Ephron, I feel like I lived there for years, and only recently moved back. That’s the effect she has- her New York (much like Woody Allen’s New York), feels like a giant film set, filled with bagel-stores and delightful delicatessens that stock the cheese you love, and dinner parties filled with other writers who work for Vogue and New York Magazine. I am absolutely certain that Nora’s New York doesn’t exist in quite the same way as it does in her writing, but I’m fairly sure that any future trip will involve an itinerary of Ephron touchstones (the Amherst building, Zabar’s) as I seek to inhabit in some small way the very one-sided, imagined and eternally fulfilling friendship I have nurtured with Nora Ephron. 

Nora Ephron’s life can be mapped through her vast body of work. Though not one of her books is an autobiography in the strictest sense, one can piece together a life in letters through snippets in her personal essays, her fiction and her films.

Born in 1941 in New York to screenwriter parents, and transplanted to LA for her formative years, Ephron’s parents exposed their children to a rarefied world of Hollywood actors, writers and directors. They would host elaborate parties, and Ephron recalls in her essay collection I Remember Nothing the butter whipped high in bowls on the dining table, as famous directors swanned and her mother served expertly prepared dishes, whilst drinking and talking business- something that would become the basis for Nora’s unique blend of feminism, both irreverent and determined- but most of all inclusive. She decided that she wanted to become a journalist when a high school teacher explained to her that the opening line to a story about a class trip to a conference should read ‘there will be no school today. And her recollections of being a female reporter in New York in the ‘60s read like a romance novel about a journalism that now no longer exists in quite the same way. A world where you would sleep with an up and coming novelist and he’d offer you a copy of his most recent book on the way out the door of your one night stand (ok this probably still happens!) Where the old guard were very much still the centre of New York newspapers, and women were just beginning to break through a glass ceiling that had barely seen so much as a crack in its veneer. 

Though she attended the prestigious east coast women’s college Wellesley, she retained little affection for her time there- when women were trained to be ladies, to direct their ambition towards marrying ambitious men. Instead, as you can discover in almost every Nora Ephron novel, book of essays, or film set in her home city, New York became her great educator. It was a city that provided her with the opportunities to reach for multiple careers during her decades there. Over the course of her life she worked as a journalist, an essayist, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, a movie director and a blogger (in her later years when most aging writers might have given up and stuck to what they knew, Ephron continued to lust for new experiences- she wrote an article about an addiction to online scrabble in the last years of her life).

It was in New York where a satire she wrote lampooning the New York Post caught the editor's eye, and landed her a job there. It was New York where she penned an article about having small breasts for Esquire magazine and became a writer. And it was New York that she returned, divorced, with a newborn baby, to pen Heartburn, a thinly veiled recount of the breakup of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. In my opinion, this book is one of the greatest breakup stories ever told, and it you think about it, it maps the DNA for all Ephron’s future work. It’s hilarious, yet very droll and honest about the realities of life. Snippy, sharp and filled with Ephron’s unique ability to capture people’s ridiculousness in a sentence, yet also enduringly optimistic about the possibilities for the future. Also, food is central. The protagonist is a cookbook writer and the story is peppered with stories about food, and recipes that tie into the story. (It is my great wish to one day produce a blog in the style of The Julie and Julia Project chronicling the cooking of each of these recipes). And finally, it was in New York that she wrote her first film script, and persuaded a man to let her direct her first movie. 

Kneaded into her devotion to New York was a deep affection for food. As many wrote at the time of her death, she was a foodie before the concept even existed, much less the word. Not only was she friends with the most influential food critics, cookbook writers and chefs in New York, she delighted in domesticity- executing chic dinner parties and producing elaborate meals straight out of the pages of Julia Child’s cookbooks. It’s so interesting to me that to Ephron’s generation, cooking was woven inextricably into the complexities and contradictions of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘60s, whereas to mine, it almost feels like a status symbol (like wearing expensive gym clothes and constantly exercising). Ephron writes in I Feel Bad About My Neck: ‘we all began to cook in a wildly neurotic and competitive way. We were looking for applause, we were constantly performing, we were desperate to be all things to all people.’ To me this sounds strangely familiar to the self-conscious millennial approach to the domestic. We may be posting buckwheat pancakes on our blogs and acai bowls on our instagrams, but doesn’t it have that same sense of competitive energy- and a complex desire to align the new ideals of womanhood with traditional ones, and even just to brag to our friends about having it all? Finally, to the day she died, she gave perfect recommendations for everything from the best pastrami sandwich to the best new restaurant with glee. She delighted in discussing food and visiting new places first, but even when criticizing, she was never mean spirited. 

Nora Ephron could produce copy out of anything. In Ephron’s work, food becomes characterization, metaphor, plot. Food is a way of being in the world, interacting with others, expressing one’s self. She once told Maureen Dowd that the head of 20th Century Fox let her direct her first movie because she expertly ordered him the cabbage borscht at the Russian Tea Room in New York. She also found her way into the boys club of the new journalism movement through food, covering the Pillsbury bakeoff for Esquire and everything from feminism to the deliciousness of butter in her essays and columns.  

That was another thing about her. Everything she ever did felt inclusive. Whether she was writing about her own life (which despite its dramas, was for the most part glamorous and populated with New York intellectuals, cultural tastemakers and literati), or writing about others, you always feel that she is on your side. She’s the whip-smart friend whose opinion you consider above all others, your confidant, your mentor. In her address at Wellesley, she instructed the graduating class to ‘be the heroines’ of their own lives, not the victims. She sharply reminds them that they don’t have the excuse that the women of her generation had- that they weren’t told that they had other options. She was a woman with a canny gift for making lemonade from lemons- her  husband left her when she was seven months pregnant! But in living a life in which every dark day becomes copy, she tells us all that living a successful life is essentially a case of putting in the effort, and good PR. Take control of your story and make it yours.  

I came to know Nora Ephron first through her most famous (and quoted) movie When Harry Met Sally. Raised on a diet of teen wish-fulfillment scripts (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That), it felt very grown up and completely different to the dramas I had consumed at that point of teenage-hood. The character’s problems were at their heart, themselves, not others around them, and this was the first introduction to me (although I couldn’t have put it into words) of the subject of female self-actualisation. Sally seemed to me to be a dame  from the ‘golden age of Hollywood’ transplanted into the ‘90s. Though the prudish aspect of her character can appear clichéd… at the end of the day she was a modern, successful woman with gumption who was equally as neurotic and flawed and wining as the male lead- and she didn’t apologise for any of it. I loved her for it. After that, a friend lent me her essays, and I worked my way through Wallflower at the Orgy, and Crazy Salad, and Heartburn, and I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing. I rented Silkwood, and re-watched Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, both films I have hazy childhood memories of watching with my mum on Saturday night as a kid, and found new appreciation for their totally authentic and witty brand of romantic comedy.  Finally, I completely fell in love with Julie & Julia, which I don’t think did spectacularly at the box office, but provides, if nothing else, the most heartfelt and beautiful rendering of Julia Child, by one home cook to another. 

I go to Nora for advice when I feel like I’ve forgotten how to be the kind of woman I want to be. I have a cutout of her New York Times obituary, sent to me by a friend who was in the city that day. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk. On twitter following her death, someone wrote that Ephron proved you could “care about feminism, food and fashion with the same eye.” It’s so nice to remember that. We’re so lucky that she left us so many opportunities to be reminded of it. 

By Bianca on