Nora Ephron’s Character
The famed screenwriter, who died Tuesday at 71, single-handedly invented a new kind of woman
I confess I’m at a loss here. Usually, when a writer has a block, it’s because she’s genuinely baffled; because she’s subconsciously holding herself back until she knows what to say. The bizarre holding pen of expression in which I find myself now is the opposite: I have too much to say about Nora Ephron, too much sorrow to express; too much confusion about what has happened, and when, and why; too much shock at the end of a life that even at 71 seems to have been cut tragically short.
More than anything, I want to get right to the point, because I have a feeling she would have wanted it that way.
But that’s the trouble with writing about these sorts of things. They tend to catch you out, sneak up on you from behind. Especially with someone like Nora Ephron, who clearly went to such great pains to make sure that no one would be ready for the eventuality of her no longer being on the planet, particularly when it was apparent to her much sooner than it was to us. Perhaps, for this most clear-eyed of writers, this is exactly as she intended: If she wasn’t prepared, why on earth should we be?
You can get the research anywhere. You can read the list of books and films so numerous and culturally ubiquitous that they boggle the mind. You can recount the immortal scenes that seemed to pass unimpeded from her imagination into the cultural subconscious. But you can read the obituary-as-résumé anywhere. What it won’t tell you is that Ephron almost single-handedly invented a certain kind of person. Or, if we’re being frank, a certain kind a woman—a woman who could be unsentimental, but desperately romantic; a woman whose primary attractions were not necessarily her looks (although she knew, urbanely, how to make the best of these) but the sharpness of her wit and the breadth of her ambition; a woman who turned self-deprecation into empowerment; who could do everything on earth and made it look easy—yet never lose sight of the fact that it was really, really hard.
If a flash mob of middle-aged women formed tonight to fake an enormous collective orgasm at Katz’s Deli, there would be no more fitting tribute. If we could all learn to chop onions in the manner of Meryl Streep as Julia Child, or throw a pie into the face of our philandering journalist husbands in the manner of Meryl Streep as Rachel Samstat, or weep over the hospital scene from An Affair to Remember in the manner of an oddly heterosexual Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle—well, maybe then we’d scratch the surface of mourning properly for Ephron.
Her favorite musical was My Fair Lady. It fits: To the women who loved her, she was both Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Expert teacher and eager student, she made us feel like us, in all our messy, capable, idiosyncratic, hilarious glory. She taught us how to be ourselves. In the process, she made us into her heroines. It’s only right that she should be ours.
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In his Bech books, the great novelist of American WASPdom parsed the allure and otherness of Jewish writers