Nora Ephron, Humanist and Loyal Friend
I first met Nora Ephron in the early 1960s through our mutual friend Milton Gwirtzman, adviser to various Kennedys. Nora had been working as a White House intern—the only one, she later wrote, that JFK never tried to hit on. At the time I was trying to convert Monocle—a “leisurely quarterly” (it came out twice a year) of political satire that some friends and I had started as students at Yale Law School—from a hobby to a business.
Came the New York newspaper strike of 1962–63, and we decided to put out parody issues of the striking papers. We persuaded Nora, by then working at a lowly job at the Newsweek clip desk (she gave her job description as “coolie”), to write a parody of Leonard Lyons’s New York Post column. She hilariously captured his style, which in Nora’s rendition consisted of serial name-dropping attached to pointless stories. When the Pest (get it?), a perfect visual replica of the paper, appeared, the editors at the Post wanted to sue, but Dorothy Schiff, the owner, said if they can parody us they can write for us, and one week into a two-week tryout, they hired Nora.
Nora’s mother, Phoebe, famously advised her to remember that all of life is copy. Speaking of copy, what is left to write about this talented, witty, warm person after the hundreds of thousands of words celebrating her books, movies, articles, words and spirit when she died a few weeks ago, other than that they are all going to be with us for some time to come?
Although Ephron once called her work “froth,” Katha Pollitt demonstrates in her obit on our website that beneath the urbane, witty, casual surface, Nora’s feminist and other humanist values always asserted themselves. And those of us lucky enough to count her as a friend have our stories. Here are three you may not have heard:
§ When she was still a fledgling reporter at the Post, she wrote a quickie paperback taking on America’s No. 1 talk-show host, Johnny Carson. One day Nora phoned my wife, Annie Navasky, complaining that “they are all so afraid of Johnny Carson that nobody is willing to be acknowledged as having anything to do with this book.” Annie—who had had nothing to do with the book—being Annie, said, “I’d love to be acknowledged” and then forgot about it. Until the day a copy of the book arrived with its dedication: “To Annie Navasky, because she wants to be acknowledged.”
§ Appearing on a talk-show, Nora listened to the other guests telling of the dangers of insider trading and interjected, “Oh, please. It’s not so easy to be an inside trader. I’ve been trying to be one all my life.” Now it can be told: when in 1995, after many years as The Nation’s editor, I became publisher, one of the ways we raised new capital was to set up a Circle of 100—$5,000-per-unit investors. I promised them that when they lost their money, they would get a pro rata tax write-off for their investment. Nora heard about our plan from Nation insiders and sent a check for $5,000, becoming one of the first members of the Circle. That was as close to insider trading as she ever got.
§ If you haven’t already figured it out, Nora was a loyal friend. So it was no surprise that she cast some of her more presentable friends, like The Nation’s deadline poet, Calvin Trillin, as extras in her movies. I never had that distinction, but one day I got a call from her asking if it would be OK if she gave one of the characters in a movie she was making my surname attached to a different first name. No problem, I said, and shortly thereafter You’ve Got Mail opened at our neighborhood theater, with Greg Kinnear playing a character named Frank Navasky.
I never told Nora this, but later that week we made a reservation in the name of Navasky at a restaurant we had been patronizing anonymously for years, where they had never so much as given us a drink on the house. This time when we arrived, the maître d’ grandly announced that he was picking up the tab in our honor. Thank you, Nora.
And thank you for casting us in your life.
Read Katha Pollitt's remembrance of Nora Ephron, Writer, Filmmaker, Feminist, Wit.