[He was] “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”. -Heartburn
Boom. Just when you think there could be no worse insult to a philandering man who is indiscriminate with his sexual conquests than “he’ll screw anything that moves”, Nora Ephron comes up with a better zinger, being “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”. A Venetian blind doesn’t move unless you make it, which conjures up an image which is wholly unflattering.
Every time I read a Nora Ephron essay, book or watch one of her movies and I see or hear a witty line she created, I have two reactions. The first is to laugh, out loud, always, without fail. The second is ‘why didn’t I write that myself.’ Nothing proves that point more than the Venetian blind allegory. While Woody Allen can at times be too neurotic and self-indulgent in his phobias and hypochondria, Nora Ephron rarely crossed that line from witty observation to self-indulgent narcissism.
Everything is Copy is directed by her son Jacob Bernstein, who interviews all the important people in his mother’s life and got their input and insight on a woman who put all her stuff out there for public consumption but when it came to her final battle, her illness with leukemia, it was kept a secret until her final breath was drawn. This is in direct contradiction to her life’s mantra, passed down by her mother, Phoebe Ephron: “Everything is Copy”. Everything. You fall down face first in the middle of a fancy restaurant on a date in your ball gown and high heels with your legs splayed out barely risking your modesty? No problem, write about it. You tell the joke the way you want it to be told. You become the heroine of the joke and not its victim. This was her life’s philosophy outside of her writing career. You control your destiny by the way you choose to tell your story.
My mother wanted us to understand that the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next. – Nora Ephron
Her mother was from the generation which it made your life more bearable if you convert the tragedies in comedies. To understand Nora Ephron, one must understand the family whence she came. Nora Ephron was the eldest of four girls to Harry and Phoebe Ephron. Phoebe Ephron was one of the first women to consistently work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. According to Nora, she “had it all” before the phrase “having it all” was invented. Her mother was an intellectual, smart, funny, witty, an equal writing partner to their father, she raised children (with help – that was the whole point of becoming successful according to the acerbic Phoebe), she had a successful screenwriting career and earned good money. A rare feat in the 1940s and ’50s. And for Phoebe Ephron, she took “everything is copy” literally and she was dead serious about it. Your mother is drunk and fell down the stairs, use it. Your parents went from successful Hollywood screenwriters to being reclusive alcoholics – it’s perfectly good copy, use it. “Pick over the carcass” she’d tell her daughters.
One of Nora’s sisters Hallie Ephron recalled a story from her childhood: she really liked a mother of one of her friends, because her mother worked, she assumed everyone’s mother worked, so she asked her mother, “what does Mrs. _____ do?” Her mother’s response? “She does her nails.” And whoosh, in one fell swoop, Phoebe Ephron wiped the floors with that poor woman whose only crime was to not have a profession outside of the home. Nora’s other sister and often her writing partner Delia Ephron recalled the love story of their parents. After the first date, when Harry Ephron proposed marriage to Phoebe, her response was “let me read your work first.” All the girls loved that story and they loved telling it. The Ephrons were different and they were proud of it. Before coming to Hollywood, Harry Ephron was a playwright in New York, but he wasn’t successful, his plays weren’t selling. Phoebe Ephron got fed up and decided to write a play with her husband. It became a hit and on the back of that hit, they moved to Hollywood to have more lucrative screenwriting careers. Phoebe Ephron was proud of the fact that she helped make her husband’s work a hit and she wasn’t shy about it either. She owned it and demanded acknowledgement for it.
Sadly, the Ephrons succumbed to alcoholism. Nora and her sisters were not sure if it was because the work dried up then they drifted into alcoholism or was it the alcoholism which caused the work to dry up. Between the sisters, they believe that there were multiple vicious cycles at work which caused the premature demise of their parents, especially Phoebe Ephron. Phoebe Ephron, as a result of her alcoholism, became bedridden and delusional, her body wasting away to just a shadow of her former self. But even in her bedridden hallucinational state, in the rare moments when she was lucid, she told Nora, “You are a reporter, take notes.” Phoebe Ephron died in 1971, at the age of 57. The cause of death is cirrhosis of the liver, but the immediate cause of death was overdose of sleeping pills, administered by their father. Harry Ephron could no longer bear to see his wife like that anymore. Nora felt that this detail was too intimate and personal to make it into copy, but her youngest sister Amy Ephron didn’t think so. This was included in one of her novels.
Even after the death of their beloved eldest sister, you can see the sibling rivalry just bubbling underneath. Nora was the daughter that got the best of everything. She came of age when their parents were in their prime, professionally and health wise. Their mother read to Nora the most, which helped made Nora the writer that she was. She was the closest to Nora. She spent the most time conversing and imparting her own brand of wisdom and humor to Nora. She also read to Delia and Hallie some but by the time poor little Amy came along, their family’s fortunes were a shadow of its former grandeur. There were no more fun dinner parties and children’s birthday parties at the Ephron household. There was fear, uncertainty, the dark cloud of alcoholism brought on by their parents. Nora was 14 years old when their parents’ decline began, her youngest sister Amy was only 3 years old. Amy said as a result of what happened to their parents, each sister, in her own way, vowed to be survivors, no matter what. They will not crumble like their parents did. Amy and Delia both said they became resourceful because there was no other choice. None of the four sisters developed addiction issues, each one vowed and carried out in their own way on how they will be survivors. Nothing will take them down.
The book and subsequent movie Heartburn was what brought Nora Ephron into mainstream popular culture. Prior to that she was working as a journalist and essayist. She was very successful as an essayist, but her renown was confined to the New York literary and journalism circle. Heartburn is a very very thinly veiled account at the demise of her second marriage to Carl Bernstein. Carl Bernstein, prior to his manifestation as the unfaithful husband Mark in heartburn who was capable of “having sex with a Venetian blind”, was THE Carl Bernstein of the Watergate reporting. He and Bob Woodward, with their thorough and exhaustive investigating, brought down the president of the United States. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting and Bernstein was riding a career high. He was well liked, well loved and well regarded amongst his peers.
Carl and Nora met at a mutual friend’s party. They fell passionately in love and got married. Nora even made the move to Washington DC as that is where Carl was based. She hated DC, calling it as a place where “ideas went to die.” But armed with love and youthful enthusiasm, she went with her man. They settled in a beautiful house in the DC suburbs and the first of her two sons, Jacob, came soon after. When Jacob was a toddler, she got pregnant again with her second son Max. It was when she was seven-and-a-half months pregnant with Max she found out her husband had been having an affair with their mutual friend Margaret Jay, a British politician. She was enraged. She decided right then and there they would divorce. There would be none of that new-age crap of talking it over and giving the marriage a post mortem to see where they had gone wrong. It was very clear who is in the wrong, Carl Bernstein. And Nora Ephron, as a feminist, will not allow herself to be crapped on like that, even if she were barefoot and pregnant and she has another toddler to take care of. She called her friend Liz Smith to put out the announcement that they are to divorce. She moved back to New York and stayed with a friend for a few months, had her baby and then she got to work on her typewriter and wrote her roman a clef Heartburn. It was in that book she described Mark, the faithless husband (or aka Carl Bernstein) as a cheater, who was terrible at cheating as he charged everything to their credit card instead of using cash. And she reserved the worst vitriol for ‘Thelma’ – the mistress (aka Margaret Jay).
…Thelma Rice a fairly tall person, with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed.
Thelma’s face also resembled a “giraffe”.
When she wrote this book, she achieved many aims. Firstly, the money, she needed money as she was now supporting two little children. Secondly, for all the women who had been scorned and publicly cuckolded, she gave them a voice and their revenge. Thirdly, She took revenge on her ex-husband, who went from a well respected journalist who exposed Watergate to someone who can’t keep it in his pants, who is capable of fornicating with a Venetian blind and threw her overboard for someone who looked like a giraffe. The best part of all of this, it was funny. It was funny in a very cruel way. You can’t help but laugh even though you feel really bad for laughing. Even a sympathetic reader will cringe at the book and that was its intended effect. Did Carl Bernstein or even Margaret Jay deserve this public excoriating? Probably not, but Nora Ephron gave zero fucks. She started the ‘I Give Zero Fucks’ club with that book. When the movie came out, there was a debate raging on who was the worse parent. Carl for cheating his pregnant wife or Nora for telling her children exactly what he’d done and making a public mockery of her children’s father. Again, she gave zero fucks what people thought.
Whereas some women burned their husband’s clothes, boiled their mistress’s pet bunny, emptied his bank account, she went one step further: she used her poison pen and wrote all of this down for posterity. Carl Bernstein became a laughingstock. He knew people whispered about him when he attended prestigious conferences and he hated it. Especially when he found out a Hollywood film was going to be made starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep as the leads with Mike Nichols directing, he laid down his demands for the terms of their divorce. ‘Mark’ or Carl Bernstein is to only be portrayed as a dedicated and loving father and he wanted joint custody of the boys. Nora Ephron agreed to those terms and the movie was made. The movie wasn’t a hit like the book was but it set Nora on the path to becoming a screenwriter and movie director.
Heartburn also served another purpose and that is to avenge the betrayal of her mother, Phoebe Ephron. In the declining years of the Ephrons’ marriage, Henry Ephron began having affairs. Phoebe knew about it but he did the typical gas-lighting game. Making her seem drunk, paranoid and crazy and that she was imagining all of this and making it up. Even the children were convinced their mother was crazy and she’d had too much to drink. Hallie said in the film, “it was so cruel of him to not admit it”, so that her mom seemed like the one that’s crazy. I think, in no small part, writing this book, she also tried to avenge her mother for being betrayed by her father.
Nora Ephron was a feminist, she identified as one but she wasn’t a feminist that checked any boxes. She found the bra-burning feminists too serious and boring. They’ve got to lighten up and just take it easy. But she was also strongly opposed to the Helen Gurley Brown’s type of feminism, which is for women to present a facade of confidence at all times and a woman must look after herself. If she wants to attract and keep a man, she better do what’s necessary. She was something in between. Feminism with a sense of humor. Nora Ephron had anxiety about her breast size, she wanted that great rack but she’s not willing to degrade herself to go get it. She wants to be seen as pretty and smart, not just smart “In my sex fantasy, no one loved me for my mind.”
In the end a truce was reached with her ex-husband Carl Bernstein. They were able to functionally co-parent and both Jacob and Max Bernstein are close to their father. She married for a third time to Nicholas Pileggi (screenwriter for Goodfellas and Casino) and it was a long and happy marriage which lasted until her death. He was the kind of man she always wanted, faithful, kind and supported her in all of her endeavors. In her last book of essays, I Remember Nothing, though made no mention of her illness, she made a list of things she would miss if she were to die and at the top was her two boys, her husband Nick and a slew of other things and in true Nora Ephron fashion ended it with “pie.”
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”