Nora Ephron, who passed away on Tuesday, is best known for her romantic comedy classic films like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. These movies all end in “happily ever after,” with Meg Ryan meeting her soulmate and all being right and perfect with the universe.
But for me, the most important writing Ephron did was when she took the more complicated and painful topics of her real life and helped younger women learn how to handle life’s bumps with grace and humor. It was a true gift - one she offered freely to the world at large.
But, I confess, her writing often felt like a personal message being delivered to younger Jewish women like me with a passion for writing, insecurities about their looks, and worries about their future in the romance department. For many of us, she was the mentor we never met.
I’m pretty sure I first came across Ephron’s writing with a battered paperback of her magazine essays as a young girl looking for something to read at my grandmother’s house. I think it was Crazy Salad. Before the films and glitz, Ephron was a pioneer female journalist of the 1960’s and 70’s, blazing up the ladder of prestigious New York City publications, and best known for her writing in New York Magazine and Esquire.
Her best pieces were when she wrote with brutal honesty about topics that no women would talk about, except with their closest girlfriends. Anyone who believes that sharp first-person confessional writing was born in the age of blogging should go back and read those essays. The classic example being her 1972 essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” a piece about growing up flat-chested in which she recalls believing that no one would want to marry her because "I had no breasts. I would never have breasts.”
It turned out, of course, that three men would eventually want to marry her, all of them talented writers like herself. The biggest gift she gave to millions of women was her novel Heartburn, a thinly-disguised account of her marriage to Washington Post reporter and Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, where she related the tale of what it was like to be a betrayed woman in a high-profile couple.
The book follows the devastated food-writer heroine Rachel as she goes through all the stages of a cheated-on spouse with small children. It’s a sharp and pointed book - far better than the Hollywood movie version starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson (largely because, though the two screen legends try valiantly, they are unconvincing at playing Jewish characters). And it’s got some great recipes, too.
Ephron was quoted as saying that, 'I always thought during the pain of the marriage, that one day it would make a funny book.'
The fact that she was able to take public and private humiliation, heartbreak and loss, work through it, and turn it into something funny and successful, was nothing less than inspiring, and a great lesson - not only for aspiring young writers, as I was when I read it.
Her ensuing success as a screenwriter, and willingness to take the further step into the world of directing was, of course, the icing on the cake. Her mainstream hits were brilliant, even if they sometimes lacked the edge of sarcasm and nastiness that early Ephron fans treasured.
It was so appropriate that a former food writer should score her greatest film triumph with a movie like Julie and Julia - another tale of an unconventional woman, Julia Child, overcoming challenges in life and finding success.
Ephron's final offerings were her bestselling books of essays in which she once again turned something inherently unpleasant into something entertaining - aging.
As my generation faced middle age, we could giggle about her missives from old age, the book I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts About Being A Woman, in which she brings the same honesty to the indignities of growing old as she did to those of adolescence, continuing with that them in her final book last year, I Remember Nothing.
She may have remembered nothing, but we will remember Nora Ephron. It’s terribly sad to have lost her at age 71, when she certainly had so much more left to give us.
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