Nora Ephron’s Secret Heart
When Nora Ephron died in 2012, many who wrote to mourn her passing gave the impression of feeling they had lost someone close to them—regardless of whether or not they had known her personally. Nowhere was that feeling more common than in New York. Though she was the child of a pair of Hollywood screenwriters, grew up in Beverly Hills, and later directed eight of her own scripts, Ephron moved back to Manhattan after graduating from college and stayed there for most of the rest of her life. For New Yorkers of her generation—she was born in 1941—her essays and films, like those of Woody Allen, were a touchstone of identity and urban-nationalist pride.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the fact that she had spent virtually all her childhood and youth in Hollywood, Ephron romanticized New York unashamedly, describing it late in life as “the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live.” For that reason, preternaturally alert though she was to phoniness of all kinds, she could be fooled by New Yorkers who took themselves at their own outsized evaluation, never more so than in Lucky Guy, her posthumously produced 2013 play about the rowdy world of tabloid journalism. Having gotten her own start at the New York Post a half century earlier, she portrayed that world on stage with a starry-eyed cartoonishness that was at times embarrassing.
Ephron’s roseate view of New York and its discontents is on display throughout The Most of Nora Ephron, a newly published anthology of her writings(Knopf, 576 pages). Edited by her friend Robert Gottlieb, it contains the scripts of Lucky Guy and When Harry Met Sally (1989), her most popular film, plus the complete text of Heartburn (1983), her only novel—as well as a generous, somewhat indiscriminately chosen selection of her essays, articles, and blog posts. Rarely does she suggest therein that New York is anything other than a veritable paradise on earth, at least for those who have the financial wherewithal, as she did, to enjoy it to the fullest. Nor does she betray much sympathy for anyone who deviates from the standard-issue left-liberal politics that have done so much to ravage the city of her dreams.
At the same time, Ephron was always capable of writing with genuine independence of mind, an independence underlined by the sharp sense of humor for which she was so widely admired. Some of the early journalism that is preserved in the first part of The Most of Nora Ephron is unexpectedly impressive in its willingness to spit and roast such then sacred cows as Theodore H. White, the author of the Making of the President series of portentous pop-history tomes, or to suggest (as early as 1972!) that feminism had reached “a point where self-knowledge dissolves into high-grade narcissism.”
Ephron believed that this aspect of her work was a function of her temperament. As she explained in the introduction to Wallflower at the Orgy (1970), her first essay collection:
People who are drawn to journalism are usually people who, because of their cynicism or emotional detachment or reserve or whatever, are incapable of being anything but witnesses to events. Something prevents them from becoming involved, committed, and allows them to remain separate. What separates me from what I write about is, I suspect, a sense of the absurd that makes it difficult for me to take many things terribly seriously.
It is this sense of the absurd that is the hallmark of her best journalism. Even when she indulged in the cutely self-reflexive asides (“What I’m going to do here is write something about Dorothy Schiff, and the reason I feel bad about it is that a few months ago, I managed to patch things up with her and now I’m going to blow it”) that were one of her trademarks, her knack for tart portraiture seldom failed her.
For this reason, it seems regrettable in retrospect that she soon moved away from reportage to concentrate on the personal essays to which the bulk of The Most of Nora Ephron is devoted. As a rule, Ephron was no more capable of taking herself seriously than she was capable of taking, say, Helen Gurley Brown seriously. While her ironic detachment is no small part of her charm, it usually prevented her from writing about herself with anything more than charm, even as she grew older and found it hard to accept her physical decline:
Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can’t stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking? Don’t they have necks? Aren’t they tired of compensatory dressing? Don’t they mind that 90 percent of the clothes they might otherwise buy have to be eliminated simply because of the necklines?
Nor did she dig more deeply in her films, the most successful of which were the sweetly engaging romantic comedies like When Harry Met Sally...In these movies, she took great care, as she would later do in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998), not to rock the boat of optimism. To be sure, she could be both amusing and realistic about Hollywood, never more so than in the afterword (included in The Most of Nora Ephron) to the published screenplay of When Harry Met Sally....One of the shrewdest things ever written about the radically collaborative art of commercial filmmaking, it suggests that she had few illusions about the enduring significance of her films: “Movies generally start out belonging to the writer and end up belonging to the director…sometimes you get a movie that you’re happy with. It’s my experience that this happens very rarely.”
That was why Ephron started directing her own scripts. As she later said, “One of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.” But even after she took control of her films, she never sought to transcend the limitations of the lightweight genre in which she worked, which suited her preference for skating atop the surface of life.
All this indicates that Ephron, like most screenwriters and journalists, was primarily concerned with the passing moment, and that the appeal of her work was thus by definition transient. But on one notable occasion she managed to produce an extended piece of writing that is both wonderfully clever and joltingly candid about her own sorrows—candid in a way that may well prove to be of lasting interest.
Heartburn, Ephron’s savagely comic account of the collapse of a marriage, is a “novel” only in the sense that its surface details are fictionalized. As she tacitly acknowledges in The Most of Nora Ephron, it is in fact the closest possible thing to a memoir, the story of how Washington journalist Carl Bernstein, to whom she was married from 1976 to 1980, had an affair with another woman while Ephron was pregnant with their second son, after which she divorced him.
Heartburn was and is generally regarded as a piece of “chick lit” avant la lettre, witty but inconsequential. In fact, it is a book of considerable force, one whose dramatic tension arises in part from Ephron’s characteristic technique of joking about serious matters. Here, though, the jokes cut as close to the knuckle as they can get. As she later admitted, Bernstein’s unfaithfulness made her “insane with grief,” and Heartburn, paradoxically enough, is never funnier than when she acknowledges that agonizing fact:
“I want him to stop seeing her. I want him to say he never really loved her. I want him to say he must have been crazy. I want her to die. I want him to die, too.”
“I thought you said you wanted him back,” said Ellis.
“I do,” I said, “but I want him back dead.”
Not only does Ephron speak frankly about what Bernstein did to her and how she felt about it, but she is no less frank in Heartburn about other elements of her life that figure less straightforwardly in her essays, in particular her complex and emotionally equivocal relationship with Phoebe Ephron, her mother. Phoebe, whose motto was “Everything is copy,” did not scruple to base one of the characters in Take Her, She’s Mine, the 1961 play she wrote with her husband and longtime collaborator, Henry, on their 22-year-old daughter. Ephron returned the favor in spades with Heartburn, in which she portrays Phoebe as “a washout at hard-core mothering,” going on to say that “what she was good at were clever remarks that made you feel immensely sophisticated and adult and, if you thought about it at all, foolish for having wanted anything so mundane as some actual nurturing.”
Might Ephron have done better to set aside the near-transparent veil of the roman à clef and instead write a memoir? Perhaps, but there is no point in arguing the question, since it is evident from her other writings that she would never have been willing to do so. Moreover, her decision to tell her story in the form of a novel was profitable in other ways. For one thing, the relentlessly facetious tone that can cloy in her essays is used to excellent dramatic effect in Heartburn, in which Ephron turns herself into Rachel Samstat, a fictional character who shares with her creator a reluctance to unmask herself before the reading public.
Hence the book’s climactic scene, in which Rachel’s psychotherapist asks her, “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?” To which Rachel replies, admitting the truth behind the pose:
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.
True though that confession also was of Ephron herself, it is more effective when put into the mouth of a fictional character, thereby distancing it in a way that avoids becoming awkwardly over-personal.
As always with Ephron, the book’s cleverness can exasperate, and Heartburn is also full of sententiously essayistic passages that impede the flow of the narrative, often at crucial moments. Yet for every moment of coy excess, there are a half dozen passages in which Ephron is content to tell the unadorned truth about her pain, knowing that its effect will be more moving—and funnier—than the best of jokes:
When will I ever learn? When will I ever understand that what’s astonishing about the number of men who remain faithful is not that it’s so small but that there are any of them at all?
Ephron never wrote anything else as good as Heartburn, but many, if not most, novelists have only one book in them, the story of their life. And in Heartburn she appears to have said everything that she had to say about the most important thing that would ever happen to her. After that, nothing was left to write but fluffy screenplays and comments on the passing scene. Indeed, she later went so far as to deprecate her suffering, claiming that “I turned it into a rollicking story. I wrote a novel. I bought a house with the money from the novel.”
And so she did: Ephron told the story, bought a house, and remarried, this time happily. But no one who reads Heartburn at all attentively can doubt that Bernstein’s heartless betrayal was no laughing matter. It hurt her so much, in fact, that she was moved to write a book in which she set aside her pose of wisecracking detachment and admitted to the world that she, too, was capable of being grievously wounded by the callous cruelty of an untrue spouse.
The result was a book that is, I think, good enough to last. And so far as posterity is concerned, one book of lasting value is enough to make up for a dozen ephemeral ones.