Nora Ephron, we are made of words

This article is published in issue 37 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 13 September 2022.

“I have spent most of my life discovering that my ambitions and fantasies, which I considered unique, turned out to be clichés,” wrote Nora Ephron in 1973 in Esquire. Ephron was then thirty-two and what she was referring to was the banal ambition of becoming Dorothy Parker, a writer whom she had hired as a model in her youth. She had first met her as a child, in pajamas, at one of her parents’ Hollywood parties as her screenwriters, and she had met her a second time when she was twenty. The memory was clear: Parker was described as a “thin and bubbly” woman. But her point wasn’t her encounters with the bon mot queen. “The point is the legend,” wrote Ephron. “I grew up there and I wanted her desperately. All I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker. The brilliant lady. The only woman at the table ». Unfortunately, after moving to Manhattan in 1962, Ephron realized that she was certainly not the only woman at the table who had a “problem with Dorothy Parker.” Every woman with a typewriter and a certain self-esteem believed she could be crowned as the new queen of the joke. Things got worse when Ephron began to delve into Parker’s work and she found that it was often ordinary, “really embarrassing” material. Reluctantly, then, she abandoned her childhood heroine.

Bewitched (2005).

Photo12 / 7e Art / Columbia Pictures / contrast

You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Since her passing on June 26, 2012, at the age of seventy-one, the writer capable of keen analysis and vitriolic observations has been transformed into an influencer, revered for her aesthetics and her arsenal of lifestyle advice. On TikTok, she memes as “Meg Ryan’s autumn” – star of Ephron’s hits like Harry, this is Sally, Insomnia of love And You’ve Got Mail – they celebrate the neat Oxford shirts, baggy khakis and thick wool sweaters made immortal on the screen. Housewives cling to the vinaigrette recipe from Affair of the Heart, her 1983 novel, not because it’s unique but because it’s Nora’s. Many of her admirers interpret the phrase “Everything is inspiration”, which Ephron attributed to her mother, as an encouragement to use everything that life offers you. But the phrase, considered the source, seems more solemn than encouraging. “I think my mom meant that when you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you,” Ephron once explained. “But when you say you slipped on a banana peel, the laugh is yours, so you become a hero rather than the victim.” Of course, only if you’re more fun telling than falling.

With John Travolta in Michael (1996).

© New Line Cinema / Courtesy Everett Collection

After graduating from Wellesley, Ephron went to New York with the goal of becoming a journalist. According to Kristin Marguerite Doidge, author of Nora Ephron: A Biography, she sorted the mail in the Newsweek newsroom and then immersed herself in reading at home. She “she Cuddled up on her corduroy sofa with a cup of tea and a paperback copy of the Golden notebook by Doris Lessing, ”writes Doidge. Ephron’s readings were not just for recreational purposes: she wanted to learn to absorb a text and improvise on it, to extract what she needed from it. This ability flourished during the 1962 newspaper strike, which shut down major city newspapers. Publisher Victor Navasky asked her if she was willing to write a parody of the gossip column Leonard Lyons kept in the New York Post. Ephron studied the column and reproduced the style with such skill that it attracted the attention of the Post editor, Dorothy Schiff, who commented: “If they can parody the Post, they can also write to it.” Ephron got his first official post as a journalist. She was a stubborn and obstinate journalist, but also the rising star of a profession that was changing skin, thanks to a wave of young talent who brought new verve. Ephron soon moved on to Esquire, where she wrote highly regarded essays on the media, feminism and having small breasts. Her mother Phoebe of her once suggested that she write as if she were sending a letter, “so, few formalities”; this advice, combined with her observation skills, has forged her characteristic voice. While some of her peers, such as Joan Didion or Susan Sontag, looked at the world and noted what they saw with cold detachment, in Ephron’s writing there was a feeling of conspiratorial intimacy, as if he were chatting with the reader in front of a slice of tart just served. Even when she was cruel – and she could be, after leaving the Post she whipped Schiff as “volubly feminine” – she was light, sparkling, precise, but never clumsy.

Nora Ephron with second husband Carl Bernstein.

He didn’t change even when his own life was at stake. Ephron wrote the first novel, Affairs of the heart, after discovering that her second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, was cheating on her while she was pregnant. She separated from her first husband, humorist Dan Greenburg, in 1974, and she married Bernstein two years later. Affair of the Heart is a barely veiled account of their divorce, and opens in medias res: “The first day I didn’t find it funny. I didn’t find it funny on the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. ” Rachel Samstat, her alter ego, is a cookbook writer who inserts original recipes into the text, but she is also a woman who analyzes the end of her couple, and does so with the unmistakable trait of Ephron. She once finds a Virginia Slims butt in her apartment and instantly realizes that her husband has been cheating on her. He justifies himself by saying he scrounged her to a colleague. “I told him that not even the girls in the office are naive enough to smoke Virginia Slims,” ​​writes Ephron. Relationships are full of codes and abbreviations, words spoken and unspoken. Untangling the knot of her pain, Ephron had stumbled upon the material most dear to her. Ephron’s films are abundantly literary – many of them are about reading and writing – and suggest that language is at the heart of love affairs. The example that immediately comes to mind is that of You’ve Got Mail, in which Kathleen (Meg Ryan), who runs a children’s bookstore, falls in love with Joe (Tom Hanks), the owner of a large bookstore chain that threatens her business. The two meet in a chat room and engage in a lively anonymous correspondence, exchanging observations and idiosyncrasies about their experiences in the city. “Don’t you love New York in the fall?” Writes Joe. “It makes me want to go shopping at the stationery. If I knew your name and address I would send you a bunch of freshly sharpened pencils. ‘ In another email, Kathleen writes: «I once read the story of a butterfly in the subway and today I saw one … She went up to 42nd and went down to 59th, where I assume she will have gone from Bloomingdale’s. to buy a hat that will turn out to be a mistake, like most hats ». These exchanges are intimate, sharp and a little clumsy, the kind of intelligent seduction at which Ephron excels. Of course, even in the golden age of e-mail, few wrote e-mails of this nature. But the magic of cinema in Ephron’s version is this: a world where words are so important that you can fall in love with your enemy just because he knows how to use them.

Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in Affairs of the heart (1986).

© Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Ephron’s novels are physically chaste but rhetorically hot. In Harry, this is Sally 1989, the film that made her famous, the protagonists, played by Meg Ryan (a talkative journalist) and Billy Crystal (a talkative political consultant), spend a decade talking to each other, delivering lengthy speeches as an extended form of foreplay. During a walk in the park, Sally tells Harry about her about a recurring erotic dream in which a faceless man tears off her clothes. By asking for a spicy sequel, Harry shows that he wants to read the monologue critically: ‘Is that all? Is a faceless guy ripping your clothes off the sexual fantasy you’ve had since you were twelve? Always the same?!”. Sally replies, “Well, sometimes I vary it a little…” “What do you mean?” Harry urges her. “Change clothes …” Sally replies. What makes the scene fun is not Sally’s dream, but the micro-adjustments she makes to it. Throughout the film, she chooses her words with extreme care, even when she orders a cake at the restaurant. Romance, here, is a man who tells a woman he likes her because of her exhaustive language, and not in spite of it. “I love you when it takes you an hour to order a sandwich,” says Harry in the film’s topical speech.

The idea of ​​being ecstatic about someone’s syntax recurs in Ephron’s work. In Insomnia of love 1993, Annie (Meg Ryan, again a reporter) hears Sam (Tom Hanks) recount in delicate and touching details about his deceased wife on a radio show. Although she just got engaged, she flies across the country to join him. Once again, the plot revolves around a letter: Annie writes to Sam, suggesting they meet at the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. Again the physicality of the relationship is almost absent: Sam and Annie appear together only in three short scenes. And again Ephron slyly handles courtship allegories, using the grammar of classic 1950s love movies to critique the genre. “You don’t want to be in love,” says her best friend, played by Rosie O’Donnell, to Annie. “You want to be in love in a movie!” Julie & Julia from 2009 is perhaps Ephron’s apparently most sentimental film, the one most attentive to the processes of writing and being read. Julia Child’s priority is to finish her book and the triumphant ending immortalizes Meryl Streep’s incredulous face as she opens the box with the first drafts of the book sent to her by the publisher. Julie Powell, in reading and revisiting Child’s work, immerses herself in an intriguing literary relationship that rekindles her dormant abilities. Since she reads, she suddenly can write, and since she knows how to write, she can be read, by her husband, by the public and by literary agents. When she finds readers, she finds peace. One of the best pieces written by Ephron is a profile of the director of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley Brown published on Esquire in 1970. At the end of the article, Ephron recalls when she was freelancing and Brown assigned her a piece asking her to insert a sentence about women being allowed to bathe during their menstrual period. Ephron considered that addition absurd. “I hung up, convinced I had seen right into Helen Gurley Brown’s soul. Straight into the madness, into the lack of taste that her critics have so often accused her of, ”she writes. “But I was wrong. In reality it wasn’t like that at all. ” Ephron realizes that she must meet Brown on her own ground, using Brown’s vocabulary to advise women on how to live. “She’s just worried that somewhere out there is a girl who hasn’t had a bath on her period since she was a teenager, who doesn’t realize she can become anything, anything she wants, to become Helen Gurley Brown, saint. sky! And don’t you see it? You’re just trying to help. ‘ You read Brown the way Brown asks to be read. Isn’t it romantic?

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Nora Ephron, we are made of words