A sharp wit and a sassy attitude

Nora Ephron had effortless style and her steeliness was as impressive as her slick observations. Marjorie Brennan is charmed by a collection of her impressive work.

The Most of Nora Ephron

Doubleday, €18; Kindle, £6.99

BEFORE Candace Bushnell or Caitlin Moran, before Tina Fey wisecracked her way into people’s hearts, and a long, long time before Lena Dunham bagged a $3.7m book deal for an advice manual for the modern girl, there was Nora Ephron.

Two years after her death, the loss of the peerless Ephron still reverberates. She was successful as a journalist, columnist, novelist, screenwriter, film director, producer and playwright, mastering every genre and making the CVs of today’s multi-taskers look anaemic. But she will be best remembered for writing When Harry Met Sally, which, 25 years on, remains the gold standard for romantic comedies, tirelessly copied but never equalled, and for directing the hugely successful Sleepless in Seattle, when female directors were almost non-existent (this situation hasn’t improved much). However, Ephron’s writing talent had previously been showcased in many forums and across all genres in the decades.

Ephron had begun to plan this new anthology, The Most of Nora Ephron, with her editor, Robert Gottlieb, a couple of years before her death. As Gottlieb says in the introduction: “The original impulse behind the book was not to memorialise, but to celebrate the richness of her work, the amazing arc of her career, and the place she had come to hold in the hearts of countless readers.” Unfortunately, it became a posthumous celebration of her work, but one that is valuable in reminding us of her greatness and allowing us lament the loss of a highly original voice and fascinating character.

At the start of the book is a love letter to journalism — and New York. She began her career at Newsweek, where she had hoped to become a writer, but “I was quickly assured that women didn’t become writers at Newsweek”. Instead, they gave her a job as a mail girl. She quickly rose to become a researcher, but eventually found her vocation at The New York Post. She captures the heyday of New York newspapers so astutely, and with such charm, that it makes for quite a poignant read now the media landscape has been so significantly altered: “I loved the Post. Of course, it was a zoo. The editor was a sexual predator. The managing editor was a lunatic. Sometimes, it seemed like half the staff were drunk. But I loved my job. In my first year there, I learned how to write, which I barely knew before I began. The editors and copy editors brought me along. They actually nurtured me ... When news broke, reporters in the street would phone in the details from pay phones and rewrite men would write the stories. The city room was right next to the press room, and the noise — of reporters typing, pressmen linotyping, wire machines clacking, and presses rolling — was a journalistic fantasy.”

Ephron worked at the Post for five years, then became a highly-regarded magazine writer, carving out a reputation with searching profiles — the piece on Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown, in this anthology is a great example: “There is very little that has happened to Helen Gurley Brown that she has not managed to extricate a rule from. Or learn a lesson from. Or make a maxim from.” Also included are witty columns that testify to her powers of observation (try the title, alone, of one of her collections, Wallflower At The Orgy, for instance).

Her analysis of George W Bush’s pleading with history is both scathing and accurate (“I kept America safe, apart from this one time . . . This is Bush’s legacy — a series of stunning alibis.”)

One of Ephron’s trademark lines was actually uttered by her writer mother: ‘everything is copy’. Ephron took the aperçu to heart. When her second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, cheated on her (while she was pregnant with their second child), she didn’t indulge herself in a pity party. Instead, she channelled her pain into the superb and coruscating Heartburn, a thinly-veiled account of their marriage and a razor-sharp exercise in revenge porn, 40 years before the term became fashionable. Even her recipes work, apparently, though I have yet to make her famous pasta sauce, which features in Heartburn.

As the journalist Frank Rich so eloquently put it in a profile of Ephron after her death, she had a spirit that was “alive to every vicissitude of the culture, down to the ephemeral trivia”. This anthology pulses with that spirit, and is evident in her blogs for the Huffington Post, which demonstrate how she had not lost her edge. In one she wrote of how she had known the true identity of the infamous ‘Deep Throat’, a central figure in the Watergate scandal, for years: “For many years I have lived with the secret of Deep Throat’s identity. It has been hell, and I have dealt with the situation by telling pretty much anyone who asked me, including total strangers, who Deep Throat was. Not for nothing is indiscretion my middle name.”

The danger with paying tribute to a writer’s smooth readability is that the craft can be taken for granted. Not so here, though: one of the gems of this book is a frank afterword she wrote when her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally was published in book form — she dissects the process by which she and movie director, Rob Reiner, refined elements of the script and discarded others. She is also generously open about the collaborative effort, describing how actors Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal chipped in with suggestions. Ephron credits Ryan with the iconic scene in which Sally fakes an orgasm in a delicatessen, while Crystal came up with the much-quoted, much-parodied “I’ll have what she’s having” (there are many funnier lines in the movie). Also running like a seam throughout the film is her own experience; her observations of the dating scene inform When Harry Met Sally like dispatches from the frontline of the single life.

There was substance beneath Ephron’s effortless style, however, and her steeliness was as impressive as the slick observations. The book doesn’t dwell, for instance, on the time she fell out with legendary screenwriter William Goldman, over the draft of All The President’s Men that she co-wrote with Bernstein (a draft in which, according to Goldman, Bernstein was “catnip to the ladies”). Robert Redford, who starred in the movie, backed the Bernstein-Ephron draft and Goldman took umbrage, though everyone made up years later.

This anthology would be one of my desert island books (how can you resist a sub-heading like ‘If I Can Just Get Back To New York, I’ll Be Fine’), but anyone who enjoys sharp, insightful and witty writing will find plenty to entertain and admire here. And as a female role model, Ephron is up there with the best. Her writing was sharp, sassy and sophisticated, just like her. She had a prolific talent for one-liners: “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from”. One of my favourites is contained in her celebrated 1996 commencement address to the students of Wellesley college, in Boston, which features in this anthology: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” a rule she practiced rather than preached. And I would advise anyone rushing out to buy (or, more likely, download) Dunham’s book to read this first. As advice to young women goes you’re not going to do any better than this: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone is reading this, go right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.” Amen to that, Nora.


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