The Most of Nora Ephron
555 pages, $35
By Margaret Sullivan
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Nora Ephron started out writing about her breasts (too small) and finished up writing about her neck (too wrinkled). In between, she took on infidelity, Richard Nixon, feminism and food – from the wonders of Lillian Hellman’s pot roast to the horrors of egg-white omelettes to a Key Lime Pie you might throw in a philandering husband’s face.
Because she had a great gift, the gift of always being engaging, the subject matter hardly mattered. She could make anything and everything interesting. She was funny, sharp, heartrending, honest. The combination of Ephron’s conversational tone, her brilliant mind and her wicked wit made her, as a writer, much more than popular; she was beloved.
As the editor of this expansive and delightful anthology, Robert Gottlieb, wrote in its introduction, Ephron’s many fans took personally what she wrote: “Her readers not only felt that they knew her but that she knew them.” She became, he wrote, “a figure – someone whose influence and authority transcended her individual achievements, extraordinary as they were.”
It’s true, and that’s part of why so many of those readers felt so crushed when she died early last year. They took Nora Ephron very much to heart, and her death of leukemia at 71 felt like that of a family member or a close friend.
So this big doorstop of a book is a treasure. It’s hefty for a reason, as a “Best of the Beatles” collection would need to be. It includes her novel, “Heartburn,” later made into a movie, and the script of her play about the New York City tabloids, “Lucky Guy,” produced on Broadway after she died.
But that’s not all.
Here is her funny, charming and sharp-edged commencement address to the young women in the Wellesley College Class of 1996 (“I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there”) and the full screenplay for “When Harry Met Sally,” complete with every winning line (“I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible”).
Ephron’s introduction for the published version of that screenplay is included here, too, a particular boon for those who love the movie. It describes the collaboration among Ephron and producers Rob Reiner and Andy Scheinman, and how that resulted in the depressive Harry character, played by Billy Crystal and formed largely by Reiner. She writes: “Harry honestly believes that he is a better person than Sally because he has what Sally generously calls a dark side.” He loves his depression, writes Ephron, and is “thrilled to be the prince of darkness, the master of the worst-case scenario.” Thus does such dour speculation as this arise in the movie (from Harry to Sally, on her move to New York City): “Suppose nothing happens to you. Suppose you live there your whole life, and nothing happens. You never meet anyone, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway.”
And though the Sally character, played by Meg Ryan, was based on Ephron herself, that grim prediction never came to pass. She once wrote of New York City, where she lived most of her life, after a childhood in California: “I thought it was going to be the most magical, fraught-with-possibility place; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to know. And I turned out to be right.”
The collection also includes her early writing as a media columnist for Esquire magazine in the 1970s. These more serious, more heavily reported pieces show us an Ephron that was all but lost in later years, when she was far more likely to write about dyeing her hair than the death of a president (“The Assassination Reporters”). It’s important to remember that Ephron was no lightweight. She was no latter-day Erma Bombeck, all domestic fluff and silliness. This was, after all, the writer who co-wrote “Silkwood” with Alice Arlen. That screenplay is not included, but the early pieces of journalism that are gathered here show Ephron’s more serious, gritty, cerebral side, one that is every bit as important as the lighter one that produced her musings on Teflon. That grittier side was for me, much missed in later years.
For those who are familiar with nearly all Nora Ephron’s work, perhaps even in a slightly obsessive way, this volume pulls some of the best of it together in a most attractive, thoughtful way. But we may envy those readers who approach it only knowing her movies (“You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle” are among the best loved) or her late-life lamentations about fading memory or wattled neck. For there is much to discover here, much to enjoy, to laugh over, to admire, to share with a friend.
And if you should feel a bit sad, knowing that Ephron’s was a life cut short, it’s comforting to hold this big, beautiful collection in your hands and realize how lucky we are to have all these riches to remember her by.
Margaret Sullivan is the former editor-in-chief of The Buffalo News and the current public editor of the New York Times.