She felt bad, famously, about her neck and her breasts, or lack thereof (“If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person”), about Teflon, the war in Iraq, Bill Clinton, and the unchecked quadrumvirate in Washington she called the Fab Four: Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush (“It’s true what he said. We misunderestimated him”). She loved her kids, her husband, hot pastrami sandwiches from Langer’s Deli in L.A., Shakespeare in the Park, reading, and Manhattan. She was a playwright, a screenwriter, a director, a reporter, columnist, novelist, essayist and blogger with a voice by turns – and sometimes simultaneously – thoughtful, angry, bemused, and very, very, funny. The Most of Nora Ephron gives you a taste of all: the serious, the furious, the hilarious. It is 558 pages long, and it is entirely possible to pick it up for a browse and not stop till you’ve read the thing through. Anyone who knows anything about Nora Ephron knows how she started at Newsweek in the mailroom because “girls” (she was 21) didn’t write (“This was unjust but it was 1962, so it was the way things were”); how “everything is copy,” her mother said, “take notes”; how she married Carl Bernstein and he cheated and she made a novel/movie of it and threw a pie in his face, not in that order, of course; how the famous line in When Harry Met Sally (you know the one) was delivered by director Rob Reiner’s mother, Estelle; and, finally, how Ephron died last summer, unexpectedly and shockingly, at the age of 71.
She was not ordinary, no; not if by ordinary you mean “like you and me.” There was the $27-million (U.S.) estate she left behind, for one thing, not to mention the $100,000 invitation-only memorial service, which 800 people attended. Then too there was the Hollywood childhood, growing up (“Dark. Tall. Gangly”) in Beverly Hills, one of four daughters of screenwriters/playwrights Phoebe and Henry Ephron, champagne socialists of the first order who by 1943, according to a memoir Henry published in 1977, were earning today’s equivalent of $10,000 – a week – yet who subscribed mightily to the scriptures of the Holy Left. (“We learned to believe in Lucy Stone, the New Deal, Norman Thomas, and Edward R. Murrow,” Ephron wrote in 2010. “We were taught that organized religion was the root of all evil and that Adlai Stevenson was God.”) She moved in circles nine-tenths of us would never have had the chance of glimpsing, let alone entering; a list of people she met but couldn’t remember (because, as we know, she remembered nothing) includes – includes: that means there are more – Eleanor Roosevelt, Ethel Merman, Cary Grant, Benny Goodman and Dorothy Parker.
So, ordinary? No. Privileged? Beyond a doubt. And yet: we didn’t care, because she was funny. In venues as diverse as Oprah magazine and the op-ed page of the New York Times, on topics as divergent as the Palm Beach Social Pictorial and the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina (“How is it possible that the president is off on vacation and the vice president is, too? Not that it matters that much if the president is on vacation; on some level, the president is always on vacation. But where was Cheney?”), she won us over with that voice – understated, accessible, humorous, confessional. She made us laugh; she made us think she was just like us.
Of food she wrote, “It’s the only thing I’m an expert on,” but no one believed that for a minute. Or rather, no one believed she believed it. Or that, believing it, she would let it stop her formulating, and airing, an opinion, several opinions. (“Was there anyone in the world with more opinions?” her sister Delia said at the memorial service. “The planet is practically opinionless now.”) On truth: “There’s no such thing.” On objectivity: “I don’t believe in it.” On dinner parties: “It is absolutely essential to have a round table.” On the U.S. war in Iraq: “If there was ever a case of misplaced testosterone, this was it.” On cholesterol: “Let me explain this: You can eat all sorts of things that are high in dietary cholesterol … and they have NO EFFECT WHATSOEVER on your cholesterol count. NONE. WHATSOEVER. DID YOU HEAR ME?”
She was, let us not be nice about this, one tough broad (“My religion is Get Over It”), a self-confessed control freak with a monolithic will and a superabundant faith in the pull-up-your-socks philosophy of life management. (“I’m a big believer in that. And in denial, which is the opposite of self-knowledge.”) Sympathy you might – might – get from her; just as likely you would not. (“She was the last person I’d call if I needed a shoulder to cry on,” her sister Hallie wrote in an article last spring. “She’d say, ‘Deal with it.’”) It doesn’t matter. You start reading, and you can’t stop.
The Most is billed as “a whopping big celebration of the work of the late, great Nora Ephron.” It is that. It comprises a selection of articles from 1968 to 2010, previously published in her six collections; her novel Heartburn; the screenplay of When Harry Met Sally; and the typescript of her (posthumous) play, Lucky Guy. I wish they’d chosen better pieces from her earlier career, and I’m not convinced of the wisdom of including the entire WHMS screenplay, though the afterword is worthwhile. I really wish they’d indicated which publications the articles ran in.
Must-reads: Maintenance, The Six Stages of E-mail, Parenting in Three Stages, What I Wish I’d Known, I Feel Bad About My Neck (the last paragraph especially). Oh, and: Condi’s Diary, Reflections on Reading the Results of President Bush’s Annual Physical Examination, Serial Monogamy: A Memoir. Heartburn, the whole thing. And her profile of Helen Gurley Brown. And her commencement speech to the Wellesley Class of ’96. And A Million Little Embellishments. And The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less. And … and … and …
Kathleen Byrne is a Toronto-based writer and editor.