Here is a question that only Nora Ephron can answer, but I’m having trouble reaching her.
Would she consider it the ultimate compliment or a supreme irritant that, since the shocking news of her death at 71 this week, women writers everywhere have been wringing their hands, beating their breasts and banging on about themselves and how they feel about Nora’s death and how her magnificent body of work – as a journalist, author, screenwriter and director – affected them personally?
I suspect she would feel a little bit of both. “Don’t you dare steal dying from me!” she might have rebuked us, at the same time acknowledging proudly that she, along with her more neurasthenic but equally disciplined fellow traveller, the writer Joan Didion, did more than any other women writers of their generation to open the floodgates for the personal pronoun in mainstream journalism.
And boy – or should I say, girl – did subsequent generations of female writers ever go for it, pouring out our stories of love, work, marriage, divorce and motherhood, not to mention menopause, stretchmarks and why we were mad at our husbands, using the “I” word with glorious abandon.
Women everywhere gobbled it up, grateful to Nora and her successors for ushering their own experiences and insights and feelings about their lives into the public sphere. “She was part of the DNA of our times,” marvelled George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America. Today, from blogs to tweets to mainstream media, the personal pronoun dominates. Ay I I!
I would argue she changed journalism as much or more than her famous ex-husband Carl Bernstein. He was half of the legendary reporting team that broke the Watergate story, but he was also, for most women, the unfaithful cad in Heartburn, Ms. Ephron’s roman à clef about the breakdown of their marriage, a man “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.”
She was tart, fiercely funny and impossible to stop reading. But she was wrong about some things. She once said the only real achievement of feminism was “the Dutch treat,” when in fact it was the great social revolution of her time.
And in work that wasn’t nearly as bracing as her earlier writing, she bemoaned her neck wattles and age-related memory lapses even though she was still great-looking and on top of her game. I went eagerly to see her stage play Love, Loss and What I Wore, and came away thinking sadly that it had pandered to the trite side of women.
But oh how I admired her. And how personally affronted I was by her death. Not only had she gone off and left us, but she kept her leukemia private for six long years. If she was every woman’s best friend, how could she have neglected to tell me?
So now that you know how I feel, let me segue to a list of seven wise life lessons that Nora Ephron taught us, whether we write about our lives or just try to live them the best way we can.
1. Laugh and the world will adore you.
There wasn’t anything, including wishing your husband were dead instead of cheating on you, that Nora Ephron couldn’t make into a funny moment. From her alcoholic screenwriter mother almost dying and then being revived (fact or fiction?) to the amount of sheer maintenance it takes to look good as you age, Ms. Ephron enchanted with a light comic touch. Amazingly, there was no undertone of self-pity or self-aggrandizement. She got it just right.
2. Live through it and then turn it into a cracking good story.
Whatever it was – her worries about being flat-chested, the foibles of her first and second marriages (the third, to Nicholas Pileggi, was a keeper) – she never stopped taking notes. Ms. Ephron knew how important the work was, and she never let anyone stop her from doing it.
She had no shame about repeating her best lines, like the one about a marriage ending “on account of veal Orloff.” I laughed every time, because it was shorthand for the rise of the foodie generation.
4. Say it with food.
She was always throwing recipes into her writing, and for good reason: She was a legendary cook. After watching Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep inhale pasta carbonara in the movie Heartburn, I still make it as a special treat.
5. Say it with Stanley Tucci!
Was any marriage more deliciously represented onscreen than the warm, happy and intimate one of Julia Child and her husband Paul in Julie and Julia, the delightful movie Ms. Ephron wrote and directed? Ms. Streep played Julia Child to flutey perfection, but Mr. Tucci as the husband was a revelation – so charming, attentive and loving toward his wife. Only a writer who knew the joys of a good long marriage could have brought to life its quotidian pleasures.
6. Know who you are.
Perhaps we wanted more – angst beneath the humour, deeper dirt, details about her now grown sons – but Ms. Ephron wasn’t about to give more of herself away. She held on to her private persona as a sparkling dinner companion, a great wife and an eternally savvy friend who knew where to go for a good haircut, the best delicatessen or a foot doctor in Rome. She enjoyed her personal life.
7. I’ll have what she’s having.
One of Hollywood’s funniest lines after Meg Ryan’s fake restaurant orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, but perfect, too, for those of us who benefitted from her work.
Nora, I will try every day to be as tart, good-humoured, hard-working, courageous and faithful to my craft and life as you were.