Nora Ephron poses for a photo at her home in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Nora Ephron died on Tuesday. It sounds silly to say so, but I had no idea she was anything like 71 (not old, as she told Charlie Rose—old is 80. But still). She wrote two bestselling books about aging, but to me she was ageless—a brilliant, elegant, hilarious woman at the top of her creative powers since forever—since before I used to proofread her Esquire column, back in the early ’70s, which was definitely the high point of that job.
As a writer and a filmmaker, she was charming, acerbic, shrewd and hilarious. She was honest about things women often keep quiet about. She wrote about having small breasts and wishing she didn’t. She gave the last word on fake orgasms in the immortal scene of Meg Ryan in the deli in When Harry Met Sally. In a triumphant example of making literary lemonade out of a big fat extra-bitter lemon, she wrote Heartburn, a deliciously vengeful roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein (the husband “was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” and left the heroine for a woman who looked “like a giraffe, with big feet”), sprinkled it with recipes (she might have been the first writer to do this) and saw herself played in the movies by Meryl Streep. In the New York Times, where her obit was front-page news, you can see a photo of the real-life pain that produced the barbed wit: Nora at a party at Tavern on the Green, looking sad and pensive, as behind her Carl lifts a wineglass while an unidentified woman perches on his lap.
Nora Ephron wrote about her own life and women’s lives in a way that was passionate and brave and also very, very funny. Her success, indeed her very existence disproved so many canards—women not funny? Movies about women can’t succeed? Rom-coms must humiliate the female lead? I love it that Julie and Julia used cooking as a way to talk about finding one’s passion for meaningful work, for mastery and challenge and expertise. When is that quest for the work one is meant to do in the world presented as something for women? When is the accommodating spouse the man? When do we see the work and life of one woman nourishing the work and life of another, as Julia Child inspires the young blogger Julie Powell? Some criticize Ephron’s movies as fantasies for the comfy classes, but there was more to them that that: they were clever, urbane, worldly-wise and put women at the center—which in today’s Hollywood is practically a revolutionary act. And what’s wrong, anyway, with the fantasy of running a sweet independent bookstore like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail? That happens to be my own personal daydream. Besides, movies are all about fantasies, and when the fantasy is in men’s heads (I am a pudgy layabout, but beautiful women adore me! Ooh look, it’s Batman!), that’s supposed to be what America is all about. As Ephron pithily said, for the men who run Hollywood, “A movie about a woman’s cure for cancer is less interesting than a movie about a man with a hangnail.”
Nora wrote that as a girl she wanted to be the only woman at the table of wits, like Dorothy Parker, but she was no queen bee: her life was full of women friends and colleagues. “Nora was as interested in other people as she was herself interesting,” the novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote me in an e-mail. “She was a real force in the world, and a great friend.” Still, professionally she was a feminist in a man’s world—two men’s worlds, actually, journalism and Hollywood. Maybe that was what produced her way of getting right to the point: neither world has a big attention span for ladybiz. In a roundup of responses to the question “Who Gets to Be a Feminist?” that kicked off Slate’s DoubleX blog, she wrote, “I know that I’m supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion.” Bada-bing! (How prolix my own answer, by comparison.) In a 1996 speech she told the graduates of her own alma mater, Wellesley, to be “not the victim of your life but the heroine.”
In every way, Nora Ephron was the heroine of her life. That’s feminism.