The best mail girl ever
When Nora Ephron graduated from college in 1962, she applied for a job as a writer at Newsweek, was told women weren’t allowed to be writers there, and settled for mail girl. I used that story as a kind of centerpiece in a book I wrote about American women because it reminded me of one of those old movies about a Broadway musical with pompous stars played by actors you’ve never heard of, plus Judy Garland in the back of the chorus.
We talked about the grand saga of how the bad old days gave way to the women’s movement one afternoon while she was cooking lunch in the apartment on the East Side where she lived with her husband, Nick Pileggi. (She famously said that the secret to life was marrying an Italian, but, obviously, she meant the secret was marrying Nick.) When she worked as an intern at the White House, she recalled, she took a man who was her then-fiance on a tour of the White House “past one fabulous room named after what color it was painted after another,” until at the end he looked at her and said: “No wife of mine is going to work in a place like this.”
The whole world is going to remember Nora for her books and essays and scripts and blogs and, of course, movie directing. A rather hefty chunk of the world is going to remember her as a dear friend, because she had armies and armies of friends. Really, you are talking Normandy Invasion of friendship. (Are there still going to be book parties in New York? It seems inconceivable. Nora defined New York book parties. She was really more the point than the actual books.)
I’m pretty sure she would also want somebody to point out that she was an ardent feminist. She could get a little wry about the more self-obsessed aspects of the movement at its height, like the meetings where everyone was required to bring mirrors and examine their private parts. (“It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge,” she wrote.) But she was a proud defender of the cause, supporter of younger women’s careers, and fearless in an industry that was not particularly welcoming of women in the director’s chair. Also, since she was so glamorous and stupendously witty, she was an excellent life lesson for some of the people who have been insisting for the last 90 years that feminists are dour and wear unattractive shoes.
Nora was a sort of universal organizer, giver of dinner parties, cheerleader of new projects. A while back, she co-founded the One-Time-Only Book Club, which gathered at her apartment to discuss “The Golden Notebook,” which most of us had been under the impression was one of our all-time favorites, until we read it for the first time in 30 years. The One-Time-Only Book Club actually did meet a second time, when we disagreed about “Mrs. Dalloway” and I thought Nora seemed a little frail. But she never said anything about being sick. I can’t, looking back, ever remember her complaining about any physical issue that could not be described with a joke, or at a minimum, deep irony.
Things I learned from Nora: The best restaurant in New York for calf’s liver. The way to behave when you’re in charge and you think other people might not really believe you know what you’re doing, even though you really do. The fact that John Edwards was having an affair. (“Look at how flushed his face is,” she said, pointing to a YouTube posting of the presidential candidate and his videographer chatting on a campaign flight.)
She was a master of multiple art forms. She was a fierce and loyal friend. In her later essays, she became her generation’s brilliant, brutal and funny chronicler of the aging of the pre-boomers. She totally transformed my opinion on the appropriate size of spoons.
Once, years ago, we made a list of things to worry about. Her No. 1 was George W. Bush. I mentioned global warming. “Not a middle-aged issue,” she said.
I was in Texas when she died, remembering that she had once made a movie in Austin and her entire crew got sick from an allergic reaction to cedar pollen. On the way into Dallas, my driver swerved to avoid another car and sort of flung me into the front seat. It was not very much of an accident at all, but I suddenly burst into a fit of loud weeping, scaring the poor man half to death. Nora could have turned this into a life lesson with an eminently quotable and totally true moral. Sniffling, I wondered what it would have been. Big girls don’t cry? The tendency of second- and third-string mourners to attempt to turn the grieving process into a story that’s all about them? She was so practical. It would probably have been about the critical importance of wearing seat belts.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.