We don’t get the full story here, and now that Ephron has passed away, this collection is as close as we’re ever going to get to an autobiography. The facts are all here: the glamorous Beverly Hills childhood where Dorothy Parker or Lillian Ross might stop by her parents’ house for drinks, the girl-reporter-in-the-city years, the disastrous dissolution of her marriage to Carl Bernstein. For me, the only real highlight of this arrangement came when Ephron’s 1972 think piece on attending her 10-year Wellesley College reunion flowed into her 1996 Wellesley commencement address, followed by her tart and amusing 1970 profile of Helen Gurley Brown, creating a neat little feminist trifecta.
Of course, Ephron was also a director – and in the end she will probably be best remembered for commercially successful romantic comedies like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” – but as Robert Gottlieb points out in his brief introduction to the book, the Oprah-bumped, million-plus success of her 2006 essay collection, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” ushered in a new stage of her career. “Her honesty and directness, and her unerring prescience, had made her a figure – someone whose influence and authority transcended her individual achievements, extraordinary as they were.” Seems to me the word Gottlieb’s actually searching for here is essentially what Lena Dunham is – that is, a personality. But in the post-Kardashian era, that word seems to function mostly as a synonym for “talentless,” and that’s obviously not the case here.
For the record, I’m not sure if people still read “The Golden Notebook.” I had to read it for a class at Columbia in the early 1990s, and I’m ashamed to say I remember virtually nothing about it. But I first read “Heartburn” in the summer of 1986 – the summer the movie came out – and upon rereading it now, more than 25 years later, I’m ashamed to say I remembered virtually everything about it. The key lime pie triumphantly thrown in the face of the cheating ex. The trips back and forth on the Eastern Shuttle. It’s not a great first novel. It’s just a voice, chattering away about a subject that happened to be preoccupying me that summer: not infidelity or what it would be like to be married to Carl Bernstein. No, the subject that was preoccupying me that summer was what it would be like to be a sophisticated, adult female who lived in New York City. C., but given that I was heading off to Columbia that fall, the New York parts made an indelible dent in my psyche. Thanks to Nora Ephron, I thought New York was going to be all doorman buildings and group therapy. I was wrong. But my 18-year-old self is still grateful to her for showing me what it was like out there on the other side.
To this day, I routinely meet people who cling vehemently to their original 1989 assessment of “When Harry Met Sally…“ as wannabe, watered-down Woody Allen. Chew on this, people: In the nearly 25 years since then, Hollywood has failed to make a better, smarter romantic comedy. The once great screwball genre has just shriveled up and died. “Nobody knows what happens to sex after liberation,” Ephron wrote in a 1972 essay called “Fantasies,” which ranks as one of the best in the book.
As a culture, we romanticize difficult people. And we especially romanticize difficult writers. But by all accounts, her own included, Ephron was cheerful and good at life. “I care that there’s a war in Indochina, and I demonstrate against it,” she writes in the collection’s opening essay – the introduction to her 1970 book “Wallflower at the Orgy. “And I care that there’s a women’s liberation movement, and I demonstrate for it. But I also go to movies incessantly, and have my hair done once a week, and cook dinner every night, and spend hours in front of the mirror trying to make my eyes look symmetrical, and I care about those things too. Much of my life goes irrelevantly on, in spite of larger events. I suppose that has something to do with my hopelessly midcult nature, and something to do with my Hollywood childhood. But all that, as the man said, is a story for another time.”