I love Nora Ephron. I love Nora Ephron as I love all characters, real and fictional, that represent some potential future version of myself. In the world in which I become Marianela Ephron, I am funny and brave and quick-witted and everyone does what I say. I write about all of the verboten stuff in my life and dare people to judge me for it. They can’t. I walk away laughing.
To hear her friends and family tell it in Everything Is Copy, the 2015 documentary about Nora’s life directed by Jacob Bernstein, the son she had with Carl Bernstein (yes, the Watergate journalist), that’s more or less how Nora lived her life. She was raised the eldest of four daughters by parents who moved to Los Angeles from New York City to become screenwriters.
During her teenage years, things in the family got ugly — her parents both struggled with alcoholism, and their careers began to decline at the same time as their health. Her mother, Phoebe, eventually died of cirrhosis. To hear her friends and family tell it, Nora’s writing was a way of regaining control of her life.
“Everything is copy,” an adage handed down by her mother, meant to Nora that as long as you were telling the story, you got the last laugh. To use her metaphor: you might have slipped on a banana peel, people might have laughed at you, but if you told the story of slipping on the banana peel, you were in control. The laugh was yours. You were the hero of the story.
And the laugh was indeed Nora’s. She got married, got divorced. She got married again, to Carl Bernstein, and moved to DC. He cheated on her while she was pregnant with their second child; she got on a plane, eight months pregnant, and left him. Four years later, she published the novel Heartburn, which follows the events of her life almost exactly and was made into a movie in 1986, with Meryl Streep as the Nora-adjacent character and Jack Nicholson as the Bernstein-adjacent character. The book is better than the movie. (Sorry, Meryl, but you are simply too Presbyterian to play Nora Ephron.)
In New York after leaving DC, she landed at the house of Robert Gottlieb, her editor at Alfred Knopf. According to Mike Nichols, who directed Ephron’s films Silkwood and Heartburn, she “cried for six months and she wrote it funny. And because she wrote it funny, she won.”
She turned her own life into material because that’s how she knew to get through it, especially the awful things. The sole exception to this rule was the leukemia that eventually killed her. Almost no one knew she was sick. She just didn’t tell anyone, and although Jacob Bernstein told a journalist that was because she didn’t want her career to implode, I have to guess that it also had something to do with the challenge of going from “made it alive to the other side of the worst, laughed all the way there” to “will not make it nor laugh through to the other side of death.”
Ephron used her work and talents to, at least, get through the worst of her life and, at best, entertain the rest of us. Meagan Day has written that Ephron’s 1998 film You’ve Got Mail is a kind of touchstone of the thoroughly neoliberalized 1990s, and she’s right. Politically, it’s absolutely an ode to the triumph of the capitalist order and the end of history. It paints leftists as naive children. Tom Hanks’s character, Joe Fox, lies basically the whole movie and ruthlessly puts the woman he’s in love with out of business — but true love conquers all, supposedly, even the slow decimation of our most sacred and beloved institutions by the free market.
But there’s a shred of humanity even amid all the deal-cutting, in the form of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan’s character) pushing back against Joe’s insistence that “it’s not personal; it’s business.” “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal,” she tells him. Of course, that claim translates to absolutely nothing other than a confirmation of her own sense of moral superiority and her belief that she, as an individual, will get through this hardship.
Perhaps the same could be said for Ephron and her insistences, her laughing at life, her pushing back on what most people expected of women in her writing and in the way she lived her life. Once there was a hardship she knew for sure that she wouldn’t make it through, there was no reason to write about it.
But up until that point, she knew she’d make it through whatever misfortune. For most people today, two alcoholic parents, one dying of cirrhosis, two divorces, two children, would all amount to a one-way ticket to financial ruin. Because Nora was financially stable at this point, these disasters didn’t produce hysterical misery — just ordinary unhappiness. The knowledge that no matter what, she would not be driven to ruin allowed her to make such unhappiness into art, to write her way through it.
Her ability to turn her troubles into laughter, and her subsequent success, depended on the material security she was given as a young person, then as a young worker (she worked at the New York Post at a time when the Newspaper Guild was particularly strong, striking for 114 days in 1962 and then again for 140 in 1965), and even as a young mother, being able to land at her editor’s house after leaving her husband. We’re not talking about being born into exorbitant wealth here — just having our most basic needs covered, so we can live a dignified, fulfilling life.
I probably won’t ever become Marianela Ephron. But someone should. More than one person. There’s lots of them running around, I bet. And they shouldn’t have to rely on the luck of being born into financial stability in a horrifically unequal society to make the rest of us laugh, or cry, or reflect on our own personal tragedies. Maybe if our society supported such artists, they too would be able to write through it all.