What follows is one lady’s opinion about what Nora Ephron meant to ladies. For more from my two friends and former colleagues on this topic, check out The Daily Beast. For a trio of exquisite essays on Nora’s love of food, her sense of adventure, and her essential New York-iness, drop everything and go read V.F.’s David Kamp, Todd S. Purdum, and Jim Wolcott.
In 1962, after graduating from Wellesley, Nora Ephron got a job at Newsweek. It is a famous tale at that magazine that Nora had begun her career as a “mail girl” and “clipper,” the duties of which were to carve out relevant news clippings for the editors with a razor blade, under the ink-thwarting protection of some kind of fatigues-like smock. (You can see why a Seven Sisters education was required.) She was never promoted past the position of researcher, despite showing fierce reportorial talent—in The Good Girls Revolt, a wonderful forthcoming book from Lynn Povich about the women of Newsweek, Lynn describes how Nora once came back with a reported file on McGeorge Bundy that was passed around among the magazine’s senior editors “like samizdat, it was so brilliant.” Meanwhile, of the be-smocked clipping, Lynn quotes Nora that “[b]eing a clipper was a horrible job—and to make matters worse, I was good at it.”
Fortunately, for those of us who cherish the work Nora went on to do, Newsweek was not impressed by her razor wit or razor wielding. Off she soon sailed, to The New York Post, often credited in various bios as her first job. You know the rest. The movies and plays, the essays and novels, the bons mots and “Bon appetits!”—she herself did a pretty good Julia Child. And yet, even starting her career at a place that expressly banned female expression, her relationship with the feminist movement was complicated. As she wrote in the 70s, “I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict.” In a 2004 essay on 1975’s Crazy Salad, the peerless Jonathan Yardley put it like this:
At a moment in its history when [the women’s movement] was almost aggressively humorless, Ephron wrote about it with irreverence and a merciless eye for hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. Perhaps, after surpassingly turgid feminist tomes such as Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics,” readers were ready for a fresh, undogmatic, cheeky view of a subject about which too many people clearly had gotten entirely too solemn.
Ephron calls herself a feminist, but she scarcely prattles the party line… . She takes note of “a tendency throughout the movement to overindulge in confession, to elevate The Rap to a religious end in itself, to reach a point where self-knowledge dissolves into high-grade narcissism.” … Strictly toed party lines are for the apparatchiks of Stalinist Russia or Islamic radicals of today, not for organizations trying to advance their causes in a democracy as unruly and elastic as ours. “Movement platitudes” may come easily to those who mouth them, but they oversimplify the complex and comfort those who utter them at the expense of facing reality head-on.
In the movies, I like to think the manifestation of her point of view is in scenes like this one from You’ve Got Mail, in which Meg Ryan and Greg Kinnear (playing a wingnut political columnist for the New York Observer) are in a relationship-ending spat over how Seriously they take politics. After Frank blusteringly blurts to Kathleen that he could “never be with anyone who doesn’t take politics as seriously as I do,” Kathleen narrows her eyes. And in a suddenly more dulcet voice, she says: “I have something to tell you, Frank—I didn’t vote. In the last mayoral election, when Rudy Giuliani was running against Ruth Messinger, I went to get a manicure, and forgot to vote.”
Frank, flabbergasted: “Since when do you get manicures?!”
Kathleen: “Oh, I suppose you could never be with a woman who got manicures!”
As are many Nora Ephron lines to many women, “I went to get a manicure, and forgot to vote” is a shorthand-y catchphrase in my family—to mean a type of lightly undermining, feminine levity in the face of what we call “all the heavyocity.” Really, it’s perfect.
Nearly 50 years after Nora’s mail-girl days, I—as young Newsweek reporter in my own first job, saved narrowly from the fate of bar-cart pushing or khaki-smock-wearing by Lynn and Nora and their cohort—buzzed Nora’s apartment with two female colleagues, our purpose to interview her about Newsweek’s early-years ban on women writers for a story. Nora had suggested we do this over tea, so we brought cookies. Because she was Nora Ephron—she who cited her hand-whisked vinaigrette as a divorce antidote in Heartburn—there were much better cookies already waiting. We talked, we ate, and we heard her tales of the true “Mag Men” years, none of it with acerb. We chatted about the magazine’s progress, and its shortcomings. We dwelled, maybe, on the shortcomings. Nora studied us as we talked—and in a cool and blithe, “forgot to vote” way, issued advice I more or less imminently took: “So quit!”
I’m sure each of us interpreted her words differently. (A lady’s prerogative!) But in my mind, what she said meant this: In feminism and in writing and in life, righteous indignation alone—divorced from action or a sense of the absurd—will not be cute for long. It will ripen, and it will rot. And who among us likes to clean up rot?
Meanwhile, on Newsweek’s side of things, it has always fascinated me that banning Nora Ephron from writing was internally regarded as sort of funny—a “joke’s on us!” tale of its history. To me, it still seems like the keenest kind of embarrassment. Like putting Michael Phelps on Team USA, for dressage. Like casting Scarlett Johansson in a Jayne Mansfield biopic—as her stylist. Or like having the world’s zestiest hand-whisked vinaigrette at the ready—and opting, instead, for a quivering and insipid dollop of Lite Ranch.