Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nora Ephron

The Most Of Nora Ephron
(Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, 15 November 2013)

"A couple of years before Nora's death in 2012," Robert Gottlieb writes in his brief introduction to this collection, "she and I sat down to begin putting together the table of contents for this book. Then other things got in the way - her play, 'Lucky Guy'; a movie script she was working on - and it was set aside. Perhaps, too, knowing how ill she was, she began to see the book as a memorial and that made her uncomfortable - she never said. But although I was aware of her dire medical situation, the original impulse behind the book was not to memorialize 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 so many readers."

Ephron - I knew her very slightly and liked her very much - died in June of last year at the age of 71, though it's awfully difficult to picture her as that old. She had been diagnosed six years earlier with acute myeloid leukemia but died after contracting pneumonia, an infection to which leukemia patients are susceptible and against which many of them have little resistance. Apparently she faced her illness with the same humor and grit she brought to any undertaking, but she never wrote directly about it, at least not for public consumption. There are hints of her condition in the last pieces here, "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss," but it's telling that these were published in November 2010, nearly two years before her death; I assume that her final months were spent polishing "Lucky Guy," which opened on Broadway this year and is enjoying what looks to be a long run.

The combination of her preoccupation with the play and her reluctance to become deeply involved in the organization of this collection left that task largely in the hands of Gottlieb, whose long and noteworthy career at Knopf included editing most of her previous books. "I think I know what she would have wanted this book to be," he says, "and her family allowed me to shape it." The result is not an omnium gatherum - more on that in a moment - but "a portrait of a writer, a log of a writer's career, and an unofficial - and unintended - report on feminism in her time." We see her here as "a reporter, a profilist, a novelist, a screenwriter, a playwright, a memoirist, and a (wicked) blogger - blogging came along just in time for her to lash out fiercely at the bad old days of Bush/Cheney."

"The Most of Nora Ephron" has nine sections. "The Journalist" includes her funny and affectionate memoir of her apprenticeship at the New York Post and, among others, her devastating takedown of Theodore H. White, maestro of the "Making of the President" books. "The Advocate" is notable for her commencement address to the Class of 1996 at Wellesley College, her alma mater. "The Profiler: Some Women" has pieces about Dorothy Parker, Jan Morris, Helen Gurley Brown and others. "The Novelist," "The Playwright" and "The Screenwriter" include, respectively, "Heartburn," "Lucky Guy" and "When Harry Met Sally." "The Foodie" takes on Gourmet magazine and the "Food Establishment," the section's two highlights. "The Blogger" covers a number of pieces she wrote in the previous decade for the Huffington Post. Finally, "Personal" will please her most devoted readers because it includes two of her most famous pieces, "A Few Words About Breasts" and "I Feel Bad About My Neck."

I mention the Wellesley address not merely because it is very good as such things go but because it gives us a clue to where she was as this collection was being assembled. She told the new graduates, "This is something ... I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn't know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever." Amen. She continued:

"We have a game we play when we're waiting for tables in restaurants, where you have to write the five things that describe yourself on a piece of paper. When I was your age, I would have put: ambitious, Wellesley graduate, daughter, Democrat, single. Ten years later not one of those things turned up on my list: journalist, feminist, New Yorker, divorced, funny. Today not one of those five things turns up on my list: writer, director, mother, sister, happy."

That was more than 17 years ago. It would be nice to know what the five things would have been in, say, 2010, but they surely would have included aging, the subject that comes to the fore in her later work, and probably there would have been some hint of her illness and her awareness of her mortality. She touches directly on aging and obliquely on mortality in "I Feel Bad About My Neck," "I Remember Nothing" and "The O Word" - the first being about the physical changes, none of them for the better, that affect all of us of both sexes as we grow older; the second about the irritating memory lapses to which we geriatrics are susceptible; the third simply about getting on in years, the "O Word" being, of course, "old."

In her life as in many others, the trend can be tracked from young, ambitious and unencumbered, to middle-aged, settled and responsible, to aging, regretful, resigned. Gottlieb, who is now more than 10 years older than Ephron was when she died, seems to have made his selections for this volume with the last of these outlooks in mind, though probably he did so instinctively rather than deliberately. Whatever the explanation for it, "The Most of Nora Ephron" tends to emphasize the serious side of her and play down the funny side, just as she eliminated "funny" after her second round of listmaking. This is fine, but it means that this book, in which, according to its dust wrapper, "everything you could possibly want from Nora Ephron is here," is by no means as inclusive as readers who know her work well would expect. Most notably and grievously, it reduces to little more than token representation her first three books of journalism: "Wallflower at the Orgy" (1970), "Crazy Salad" (1975) and "Scribble Scribble" (1978).

No doubt my bias is strongly influenced by my own long career in journalism and my fondness for mordant wit, but I think these are Ephron's best books. Nearly a decade ago, writing about "Crazy Salad" in my Second Reading series, I said: "At the time Ephron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood's gain was journalism's loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that." Nothing in "The Most of Nora Ephron" persuades me that I was wrong. Everything in this volume is all good for the simple reason that she wrote it, but too much is missing and some of what's included is less durable than Gottlieb obviously believes it to be. Though Ephron's wit is much on display in the 24 blog posts herein published, their evanescence is palpable, and by the same token the absence of some of the best pieces from those first three books is equally so.

Thus we do have her withering piece from "Scribble Scribble" about Dorothy Schiff, owner of the New York Post for part of Ephron's stay there, but we do not have "People Magazine," "Brendan Gill and The New Yorker" or "The Sperling Breakfast," each a small classic, from the same book. We have "The Food Establishment" from "Wallflower at the Orgy" but not "The Fountainhead Revisited" or "A Rhinestone in a Trash Can and 'The Love Machine' Phenomenon of J. Susann," from the same. We have "A Few Words About Breasts" and "Dorothy Parker" from "Crazy Salad," but not "Rose Mary Woods - the Lady or the Tiger" or "Crazy Ladies II," her remarkably empathetic snapshot of Martha Mitchell, also from the same.  Yes, I know, a book can only be so long, and choices have to be made. Some good choices went into the making of "The Most of Nora Ephron," and people who love her work will want to have it on their shelves. But be grateful that those first three books are all still in print, because when it comes to Nora Ephron, they are the sine qua non.

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