In the language of now, Nora Ephron’s personal pieces, included in this rich, overstuffed new collection, are the kinds of selfies that don’t look fake and don’t make you sneer. If you cringe while reading “The Most of Nora Ephron,” it’s because what she has written is so painfully true.
Ephron, who died in June 2012, was that rare writer who could take on the torments of her own vanity, the ever-creasing telltale neck and the “compensatory dressing” in scarves to hide it, without seeming obnoxious. As an essayist, she dodged the gaping pitfalls of confessional memoir with assured charm, dead-on honesty, and wry humor.
She was Hollywood kept honest by New York, a cultural sophisticate driven by the gritty, truth-obsessed heart of a journalist.
There’s plenty of the neck-loathing, lifestyle-oriented Ephron in “The Most of Nora Ephron,” assembled by her longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb. She may be the Ephron that’s freshest in our collective memory, as her death at 71 came after her renewed success as author of the bestsellers “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman” in 2006 and “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections” in 2010. Almost all of the appreciations of her life and career after her passing made pointed references to her identity as a foodie, a social maven, and a woman who knew how to enjoy.
In those last books and in her Huffington Post blog entries, she took on dinner parties and aging with both a happy wife’s peacefulness and a philosopher’s weariness. She riffed on everything from the tragedy of the Teflon pan to the “The D Word” — divorce — and her annoyance at those who insist memories of pain fade quickly: “I don’t happen to agree. I remember the pain. What you really forget is love.” No Martha Stewart, she; Ephron seemed constitutionally unable to prettify or evade. Her more intimate pieces — she feels bad about her failing memory, redubbing “the Senior Moment” as “the Google moment” — are filled with unattractive, unchangeable, and universal realities.
As the older Ephron wrote about purses and egg-white omelettes, she consistently acknowledged their relative triviality. In a typically twisty and droll sentence, she explains: “I don’t want to confuse this with something actually important, like the war in Afghanistan, which it’s also time to put a halt to, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything about the war, whereas I have a shot at cutting down consumption of egg-white omelettes.”
But the revelation of this collection may be her early work, for those who haven’t read it — or haven’t read it for years. The recent essays are still worth revisiting, but the 1970s pieces sparkle with prescience and intense curiosity. Her distinctive voice, that mix of anthropologist and the sharer of impolitic confidences, was clear and intact from the start, as she turned her focus onto feminism of the 1970s, the Scotch-drenched news industry and its institutionalized sexism, and figures such as Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Helen Gurley Brown. Ephron did continue to write about politics later in her career, but these early pieces, so unusual for their time, are precious.
She had been a Newsweek mail girl and a New York Post reporter, and her affection for and cynicism about that milieu in a number of essays are compelling. (More recently, she revived her mixed feelings about old journalism in the play “Lucky Guy,” which is in the collection.) Anyone who has worked at a newspaper will probably feel the truth and sting of her damning 1975 profile of Dorothy Schiff, editor, publisher, and owner of the Post. “Her yellow onionskin memos would come down from the fifteenth floor,” Ephron writes of the out-of-touch and self-absorbed supreme commander, “and her editors, who operated under the delusion that their balls were in escrow, would dispatch reporters.”
The young Ephron was a savvy and expansive media critic, weighing the news value of the private lives of political figures long before that question was exploited by Ken Starr and today’s cruder media. When she wrote about a publication — the Palm Beach Social Pictorial, for example, or the newsletter of her D.C. apartment building — she simultaneously wrote about a place, its culture, and the times.
In her 1974 piece on Patricia Loud, matriarch of the family whose fractured lives were chronicled on PBS’s “An American Family,” Ephron shrewdly anticipates our current embrace of reality TV: “I think the American Public has an almost insatiable need to feel superior to people who appear to have everything, and the Louds were the perfect vehicle to fill that need.” Alas, TV critics continue to ponder that tricky aspect of human nature.
Also in 1974, Ephron shakes her head at Jan Morris’s nearly giddy, rose-colored chronicle of her sex change, “Conundrum,” and in the process she reveals the kind of gender awareness that too easily goes unnoticed in the liberal rush to embrace transgender people. In none of these pieces does she come off as a knee-jerk anything; her tone is sane, her thinking finely balanced. Her best gift may come down to this: She was a master of the art of common sense.
Gottlieb has arranged “The Most of Nora Ephron” according to facets of Ephron’s identity, including “The Journalist,” “The Advocate,” “The Playwright,” and “The Blogger.” There is a section called “The Novelist,” comprised of the only novel Ephron published, “Heartburn” (1983), here in its entirety and holding up beautifully as a spikey portrait of dealing with divorce and rejection.
There is also a section called “The Screenwriter,” which includes only one of her 14 or so scripts, “When Harry Met Sally…” Interestingly, it doesn’t feel at all contradictory that her signature movies, “When Harry Met Sally…” in particular, are built on mostly-happy endings, while her essays are so stubbornly unromanticized. As much as Harry and Sally are neurotic and irritating — especially as played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan — they wind up together on a love seat, not terribly unlike, say, Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Ephron’s arc as an American storyteller was various and unique; not too many writers move from journalism to directing and screenwriting, clinching three Oscar nominations along the way. But her career is definitely all of a piece, which “The Most of Nora Ephron” makes very clear. Her works are bound by her equitable sensibility, cool observational skills, and irresistible trains of thought. Unwaveringly, she made the most of what she saw.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.