Nora Ephron died last week, age 71, of acute myeloid leukemia. She was five months and one day younger than me. I mention that because it means we both lived through the sixties and seventies at exactly the same time. Anyone born later than 1960, which one hopes includes almost all Maclean’s readers or the magazine is in deep trouble and our ads will be for incontinence devices, cannot truly imagine the horror of early feminism with its consciousness-raising sessions. This was a field Ephron mined in her columns for Esquire.
Back in the seventies, every middle-class woman you knew worth her Bonnie Cashin outfit was in a group, usually to “improve” her marriage while finding herself. “Consciousness-raising was never devised for the explicit purpose of saving or wrecking marriages,” explained Ephron, who had joined up during her first marital grumblings, “though it happens to be quite good at the latter . . .” The stated purpose was “to develop personal sensitivity to the various levels and forms that oppression takes in our daily lives.” There were rules and guidelines. “It took ours just over two hours to break every one of the rules, and just over two months to abandon the guidelines altogether.” I knew one couple in Toronto who fled the Holocaust together, arriving finally in Toronto, where they built a highly successful coffee and pastry shop. The wife—dressed with impeccable taste and jewellery to match even while her husband was behind the counter—discovered just how exploited she was in her consciousness-raising sessions. They divorced.
Historical illiteracy is the current norm and I expect that’s why clothes that are about eight years old are called “vintage” and why today’s and yesterday’s generation know utterly f–k all about the world of their parents and grandparents. Ephron’s best essays are vintage, with references to Linda Lovelace and Eleanor Holmes Norton, Victor Navasky and Rose Mary Woods. She writes about the Loud family, stars of the first American TV reality show in 1973—when reality shows had the spiffier name of cinéma-vérité. You do not have to recognize these names to enjoy her writing; she had exceptional wit and did her research. I wish I had written any one of her essays especially “Dealing with the, uh, Problem,” which covered the birth of the feminine spray.
“There are a lot of men who manufacture the product,” writes Ephron, “who are so reluctant to talk straight about it that you can spend hours with them and not hear one anatomical phrase. They speak of ‘the problem.’ They speak of ‘the area where the problem exists.’ Every so often a hard-core word slides into the conversation. Vagina, maybe. Or sometimes from someone particularly scientific or candid, a vulva or two.” Who is buying this new product, asks Ephron? Secretaries and stewardesses, a clerk at a Manhattan pharmacy tells her. “It figures,” writes Ephron. “Scratch any trend no one you know is into and you will always find secretaries and stewardesses. They are also behind Dr. David Reuben, contemporary cards, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, waterbeds, Cold Duck, Rod McKuen and Minute Rice.”
She thought of herself as a small-l liberal but was incapable of political correctness. Her essay on the excellent travel writer James Morris’s book Conundrum, written after his sex change operation to Jan Morris, is merciless. This hit a particularly tender spot in my ego, since I had given the same book a rave review, pulling punches like mad because I really felt sorry for a chap who had given up his penis to become a middle-aged woman in sweater sets, pearls and frequent bursts of tears.
The difficulty in writing about Nora Ephron is all you want to do is quote her, read her. Or watch films she wrote/directed: When Harry Met Sally and its banner line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail. And I can’t possibly end this column without reference to her most singular achievement.
For every woman who has been hit with The Divorce, the one that condemns you to months and years of wailing inarticulately in dark rooms till your face looks like a smashed-in tomato absolutely guaranteed not to get him back, Ephron is our standard-bearer. Her novel Heartburn covers her marriage and divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein. The film starring Meryl Streep is, as New York Times critic Vincent Canby described it, a small masterpiece. Every time I watch it, I pray for the talent to do the same thing. Which reminds me. Tempus fugit, which Nora would never have written, but if I’m to face her in the hereafter, it’s time to ease off on the column writing and do some serious work.