I didn’t know Nora Ephron, but that isn’t stopping me from taking her death—yesterday, of leukemia—very personally. Just a couple of weeks ago, after all, she’d been in my car, talking about her career at the New York Post, her incipient bald spot (she called it “my Aruba,” and you really have to hear her explain why), and that travesty known as the egg-white omelet. She sounded feisty and funny and thoroughly, you know, alive.
OK, she wasn’t physically in my car. But her voice was there, reading her most recent collection of essays, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, an audiobook I’d checked out from the library. I listened to all three discs, and then I listened to them again. And I remembered, again, how much Nora Ephron has meant to me.
Most of the tributes to Ephron have focused on her hugely successful movies. I’m sorry to say—which is, by the way, a phrase I associate with Ephron, as is “by the way”—that I remain a grumpy skeptic. Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and When Harry Met Sally are too slick and schmaltzy for my taste, with heavy-handed soundtrack cues telling you exactly what to think and when to weep.
It was her journalism and essays that made me an Ephron fan, beginning with pieces in Esquire like “A Few Words About Breasts” (whose slam-bam ending was shamelessly swiped by Lionel Shriver in her novel So Much for That) and continuing through her sharp-eyed, hilarious work for The New Yorker and Huffington Post, some of which was collected in I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006) and I Remember Nothing (2011). Here was a woman who could be smart and funny on deadline. I loved her ear for the rhythm of a sentence and her eye for everyday nuttiness and sadness. I wanted to learn from her. I wanted to imitate her. I wanted to be her.
Except, probably, for the miserable marriage to that two-timing bum Carl Bernstein. Which, of course, she turned into a best-selling novel and hit movie, both called Heartburn. Take that, Watergate Boy.
You can listen here to an excerpt from the title essay of I Remember Nothing. (Thank you, Amazon.) And here—because you know how much I love umlauts—is an excerpt from one of my favorite recent Ephron essays for The New Yorker, a Stieg Larsson parody called “The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut”:
Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what.Etc.
“Please,” he said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.”
He was cradling an iBook in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head.
“I can’t really go on without an umlaut,” he said. “We’re in Sweden.”
But it wasn’t all wit on wry for Ephron. Read or listen to “Pentimento,” her essay about Lillian Hellman, in I Remember Nothing, to see how Ephron could illuminate the contradictions of a legendary personality and eulogize the painful end of a long friendship.
The New Yorker’s Ariel Levy, who interviewed Ephron for a 2009 profile in the magazine, has written a graceful remembrance. The New York Timesobituary, by Charles McGrath, is comprehensive and revealing. (I’d forgotten all about Ephron’s directing debut, This Is My Life, which flopped.)
Then there’s NPR’s tribute, which combines a report by Neda Ulaby (whose name would no doubt have tickled Nora Ephron no end) with an intro and outro by “Morning Edition” anchor Renee Montagne. In the outro, at about 3:23, Montagne flubs the title of Ephron’s final essay collection, calling it I Can’t Remember Anything.
I wish Nora Ephron were here. She’d have the perfect comeback.