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Nora Ephron and the art of self-narrative

The writer and film-maker poured her life into her journalism and romcoms. What can a new biography tell us that she can’t?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In 1976, when she was a columnist at Esquire magazine, Nora Ephron was in Vermont, working on a story about a professor who had been fired from Bennington College as a result of her “brave stand against tenure”. Ephron was not convinced.

“I go to Bennington and discover that she has in fact been fired because she’s been having an affair with a professor at Bennington, that they taught a class on Hawthorne together, and that they both wore matching T-shirts in class with scarlet As on them. What’s more, I learn that the faculty hated her from the very beginning because she had a party for them and served lukewarm lasagne and unthawed Sara Lee banana cake. I can’t get over this aspect of journalism. I can’t believe how real life never lets you down. I can’t understand why anyone would write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing.”

Here is Nora Ephron’s trademark wit, her instinct for life’s absurdities, her unsparing journalistic scepticism, her refusal to venerate women simply because feminism demands it, her belief that the truth makes more entertaining, impressionable material than anything you could invent. Hers is not so much a keen eye for detail, as a fundamental understanding that the detail is the story – that without these telling and often ridiculous specificities, there is no story at all.

[See also: Patricia Highsmith’s many vices]

Ephron was always willing to put her life into her work. In her first widely read Esquire column, “A Few Words About Breasts”, published in 1972, Ephron laments her small bust and concludes (with a refreshing lack of the guilty, performative soul-searching that blights the modern personal essay): “My girlfriends, the ones with nice big breasts, would go on endlessly about how their lives had been far more miserable than mine… I think they are full of shit.”

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In her autobiographical novel Heartburn, she took the most upsetting event in her life and turned it into a great work of comedy. Her husband, the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, had an affair while she was seven months pregnant; Ephron could see that the true indignity (and farce) of the story was not simply the affair, but that her husband and his mistress were – “are you ready for this?” – seeing the same therapist: “At the family rate!!” Her character traits show up in her enduring romantic comedies: Sally’s hyper-specific food orders in When Harry Met Sally… Annie’s straight-from-the-movies idea of love in Sleepless in Seattle and Kathleen’s devotion to Pride & Prejudice in You’ve Got Mail. The Sara Lee banana cake comes from her 2006 essay “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less”, written with insight, bathos – and, crucially, economy, being in fact a few hundred words shy of 3,500. In it, she expands on her mother’s and subsequently her own mantra, “Everything is copy”: “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”

All this is to say that the person who decides to put themselves forward as the chronicler of the life of Nora Ephron, and does not have the previous candidate’s qualifications of actually being Nora Ephron, has a hard task before them. Kristin Marguerite Doidge, a culture journalist, has taken up this challenge, with “the first comprehensive portrait” of Ephron. Doidge is, in her own words, an “aca-fan” – a fan as much as an academic. As such, her tone tends to flatten the complexity of Ephron’s career, which encompassed sentimentality in her films but also wry cynicism in her journalism. Doidge describes Ephron as “a woman who taught us how to live” and “that it’s never too late to go after your dreams”, a figure who “gives us hope”. Her book is an explicit “celebration” of Ephron’s life.

Ephron was born in New York City in 1941, the eldest of four daughters. Her parents were Jewish native New Yorkers and noted playwrights and screenwriters, who moved the family to Los Angeles when Ephron was five years old. (Ephron later wrote: “Happy laughing blond children surround me. All I can think is: what am I doing here?”) They were not warm parents, but they encouraged their children to write. At her high school’s “vocation day”, a female sports writer spoke and mentioned how few women were in journalism. Ephron realised “that I desperately wanted to be a journalist and that being a journalist was probably a good way to meet men”.

Ephron’s mother and father slid into alcoholism, and she moved back to the East Coast. At 17 she took up a place studying political science at Wellesley College outside Boston, where she worked on the student paper the Wellesley News, and in 1961 was accepted into a summer internship at the White House – it later became “horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House whom the president did not make a pass at”. After university, she moved back to her beloved New York City and found a job as a “mail girl” at Newsweek.

During the newspaper strike of 1963, Ephron’s friend Victor Navasky told her he was publishing parody editions of the papers – she took on Leonard Lyons’s famous New York Post gossip column. While Post staff were rattled, its publisher, Dorothy Schiff, was impressed. “If they can parody the Post, they can write for it. Hire her.” So began Ephron’s career as a reporter – covering everything from the Beatles’ arrival in the US in 1964 to the wedding of Lyndon B Johnson’s daughter Lynda in 1967. In the 1970s she took the job at Esquire, after the editor, Harold Hayes, offered her a film column, which she declined. Shocked, he asked: “Well, what is it you want to write about?!” “Women,” Ephron replied. It would remain her great subject. A committed feminist, she often wrote on women’s liberation, but was never reluctant to critique or find humour in the movement.

[See also: How did Netflix’s Persuasion get the novel so wrong?]

Navasky introduced Ephron to the humour writer Dan Greenberg – he and Ephron married in 1967. They threw endless dinner parties, where Ephron’s love of food and conversation shone. Later, Ephron summed up their six-year marriage in just two sentences: “My first husband is a perfectly nice person, although he’s pathologically attached to his cats. It’s 1972, the height of the women’s movement, and everyone is getting a divorce, even people whose husbands don’t have pathological attachments to their cats.” She was 32 when she met Bernstein, who had broken the Watergate story the previous year. They married in 1976. When Bernstein fell in love with another woman, it was 1979: their first child, Jacob, was a toddler, and Ephron was pregnant with their second, Max. Heartburn was published in 1983, and made into a film by Mike Nichols starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson in 1986.

By this time, Ephron already had some experience in the movies – her screenplay for another Streep film, Silkwood, won her an Oscar nomination. She would repeat that achievement with the script for When Harry Met Sally… in 1989. She began directing in the 1990s, finding another outlet for her detail-oriented approach with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Her final film was 2009’s Julie & Julia, in which Streep played one of Ephron’s culinary heroes, Julia Child. In 2006 Ephron was diagnosed with blood cancer, something she kept a secret even from close friends, and never wrote about. She died aged 71 in 2012. In her final years, she returned to prose – her collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing were both bestsellers.

Doidge’s biography relays all this in chatty, enthusiastic prose, and is full of admiration for its subject. But it can never surmount the fundamental obstacle that Ephron has already written it better. Take Ephron’s complaint about her White House internship: “THERE WAS NO DESK FOR AN INTERN TO SIT AT AND THEREFORE NO TYPEWRITER TO TYPE ON. Yes, I am still bitter about it!… I could type 100 words a minute. Every eight-hour day there were theoretically 48,000 words that weren’t being typed because I didn’t have a desk.” In Doidge’s paraphrase, this becomes: “Perhaps even more frustrating, interns didn’t have desks or typewriters, and that meant that by her estimate, some 48,000 words were going unwritten every single day she was there. It was painful.”

Nor does it fully fill in the gaps that Ephron (who often skipped to the funny parts) left in her life-writing – at 225 pages, this is not a “comprehensive” work. Doidge glosses over many aspects of Ephron’s story, such as her early years or domestic life, as well as some of the key contextual factors that influenced her (psychoanalysis is summed up as: “AKA therapy”). Doidge has conducted many interviews, but has understandably not secured the level of access of Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein, whose film Everything is Copy is repeatedly quoted from here. Later chapters read more like behind-the-scenes “oral histories” of her films than a chronicle of her experience.

A quote on the jacket of Nora Ephron: A Biography claims that it will “inspire the next generation of Ephron fans to pick up her writing, turn on her films, and dream another dream of what is possible in their lives”. Perhaps this reveals a chronic lack of imagination on my part, but I find it hard to envision someone reaching for this biography before streaming You’ve Got Mail or reading Heartburn. To borrow her words: I can’t understand why anyone would first read about Nora Ephron, when what she wrote about herself is so good.

Nora Ephron: A Biography
Kristin Marguerite Doidge
Chicago Review Press, 304pp, £28.99

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[See also: The book Pete Doherty didn’t write]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special