The XX Factor

Growing Up With Nora Ephron

Ephron in 2010. 

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

When I was in high school in the 1970s, I would steal my parents’ copy of Esquire before they could get it, turn to the table of contents, and reconfirm my fervent desire to be Nora Ephron. Ephron had a column in the magazine and wrote regularly about media and women. She was a feminist when that was a bold thing to be, and her work was a rebuke to those who liked to claim feminists had no sense of humor. She was already famous and becoming more so—I used to see her on talk shows and think how glamorous her life sounded, and that I would like a glamorous life like that. But what really thrilled me was Ephron on the page. Oh, that inimitable voice: sly, dry, witty, devastating, personal, hilarious.

Of course the point of worshipping Nora Ephron was not to be her second-rate imitator, but to try to learn from her the art of writing sentences that could come from only one person. Even so, for my entire career, I’ve tried to develop my own voice with her voice in my head as an inspiration, a wheel-greaser. When I’m stuck trying to write, I’ll pick up one of the volumes of her collections hoping some of that Ephron magic can nudge my own words out. And even though journalism is the most ephemeral of arts, her pieces haven’t aged. Here’s the introduction to Wallflower at the Orgy from 1970: “Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me.” She goes on to explain that being a journalist is like being a wallflower at the orgy, “standing on the side taking notes on it all.”

Just as I was applying to college in 1972, Ephron wrote of her class of 1962 reunion at Wellesley, and how irrelevant the college—which had decided not to go co-ed—seemed: “This college is about as meaningful to the educational process in America as a perfume factory is to the national economy. And all of us care, which makes us all idiots for wasting a minute thinking about the place.” I ended up going to Wellesley, and Ephron’s critique hung heavily over my years there, although I was also buoyed to think that we wrote for the same college newspaper, maybe even sat at the same desk. In 1996, Ephron—who had a complicated, affectionate relationship with the college—gave the commencement address. Since just this week the question of whether women can have it all is much in the news as ever, I’ll quote her wise remarks on just that subject: “Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. … It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

I came to Washington right after my own graduation, struggling to get my career started at the same time that Ephron was having her Washington years, later immortalized in the most delicious of revenge novels, Heartburn, about the dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. I ended up going to some dinner parties where she and Carl were also guests, and there I was, trading conversation with my idol. My goal was to seem sophisticated and confident, so of course I acted like an immature ninny. How understandable it would have been for Ephron to turn away from such a silly girl. But she treated me gently, and as if I were an equal. We talked about our different experiences at Wellesley, she told me not to get discouraged when journalism seemed hard. She said she was now writing screenplays and talked about how anxiety provoking it was to start a new career.

Although she continued her journalism her entire life, she wasn’t always on the sidelines. That second career in Hollywood became hugely successful, first as a screenwriter (Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally), then as one of a handful of women directors whose name could sell a movie. When Julie & Julia came out in 2009, a dual story about Julia Child and a blogger who was a Child acolyte, I, as an Ephron acolyte, decided to create another generation of fans and took my then 13-year-old daughter. I was worried about her being bored with the Child story, about an awkward middle-aged woman who has a passion for her husband and discovers a passion for food. But she, too, fell under the Ephron spell. I noted that while Ephron was always the woman with the perfect line, as a director, she had mastered silence. Think of the moment when Julia (played by Meryl Streep), who has been unable to have children, finds out in a letter that her sister is pregnant. Ephron knew words so well that she knew when none were necessary.

In one of those squishy, inspirational ways, I credit Ephron for my career choice. But late in the game, she became directly responsible for the job I now have. When Margo Howard, who had been writing Dear Prudence, decided to leave Slate, there was an opening and I wanted to fill it. I put my name forward, but Slate’s top editors wisely thought having Nora Ephron become Prudie would be the ultimate coup. Ephron pondered the offer, then passed—I got the job. A few years later, there, in my inbox, was an email from Nora Ephron with the subject “You.” It was a note telling me how much she was enjoying me as Dear Prudence and remembering we had met 30 years before. And suddenly, it was as if I was that high school girl, with my copy of Esquire, reading Nora Ephron in bed and wondering if I would ever be a journalist. And in some glorious time-travel twist, Nora Ephron herself was saying I would be.

When she wrote her phenomenal best-seller, I Feel Bad About My Neck (what a gift for titles she had), Ephron made aging one of her great topics. In her hilarious essay, “On Maintenance,” she writes about how after a certain point it is a full-time job to make yourself look as if you haven’t reached a certain point. She observed that eight hours a week devoted to maintenance is what kept her from looking like a bag lady: “Eight hours a week and counting. By the time I reach my seventies, I’m sure it will take at least twice as long. The only consolation I have in any of this is that when I’m very old and virtually unemployable, I will at least have something to do. Assuming, of course, that I haven’t spent all my money doing it.” Nora Ephron just died at 71. Oh, Nora, how I wish you would have been able to tell us what it’s like to get very old.