A lot of us are feeling a sense of loss on hearing that Nora Ephron is dead at 71—not because we knew her, saw her movies or read all her writing—but because she came to represent something hard to define about an era that began with the first issue of Ms. in 1973 when Ephron was what was called a “mail girl” at Esquire, that continued through the glory dates of the modern women’s movement in the seventies and eighties, and seemed to come to some kind of blurred ending in the 1990’s but that continues with absurd arguing about women, work and children—the only questions being raised now,in 2012—absurd because there are much more interesting questions about power and money that never seem to get asked. Much easier to blather on about how hard it is to raise children and work—as though it ever was, or ever will be, easy—with no mention of the drastic problems we all face as long as we have no state-financed, affordable child care.
If Ephron ever engaged in this chit-chat, I am unaware of it, for an interesting pair of reasons: she seemed to learn, after writing the revolutionary “Silkwood”—not about the above issues but the much more crucial issues of underpaid work, and the power of organizing—that such work was unlikely to succeed further with a public trained to expect what we all like to call entertainment—that is, nothing that perplexes, disturbs or confuses.
Leaving feminism behind—although she was certainly a feminist, I doubt if she ever called herself one—she developed a truly inspired ability to weave her career from various materials&dmash;writing, directing, and becoming a certain kind of public person, the jester who delicately jabs at power&dmash;all the while succeeding where a lot of us are doomed to fail, because we won’t abandon our anger, our determination, our wicked attempts to blow up the structures that confine our lives.
In the U.S. today, and possibly in the rest of the world, the only way a woman can continue to be heard is to charm. My mother knew this, as did most of the women of her generation; otherwise, as my father often warned me, cryptically, one may be called a “belle dame sans merci”&dmash;that is, a beautiful woman without mercy (in this inaccurate translation of the final word).
To be without charm is to be seen as lacking mercy.
I think Ephron knew this, perhaps instinctively, perhaps as the wisest and best use she could possibly have made out of growing up a bright, ambitious Jewish girl, an outsider at Wellesley, an outsider at first in the world of male journalism but that rare one who learned to find her way in. “I Hate My Neck,” her penultimate book, is a graceful nod to what we all face as we grow older; her anger here is the merest dash of pepper, slightly seasoning her willingness to hate what the world says we must hate—the signs of our aging.
I have the greatest admiration for charm. It often goes with sharp intelligence, and an even sharper perception of what it takes to succeed: food as community rite (“Julia and Julia”); the confusions of relationships that yet manage to turn out right (“When Harry Met Sally”); and above all, the importance of rooting, and remaining rooted, in a certain area of New York literary and journalistic society, where giving great dinner parties and making great conversation are at least as important as any other form of work.
And when Ephron is compared to Dorothy Parker, it’s worth remembering that Parker died nearly forgotten and nearly penniless in a New York hotel; in a few of her poems—“A Certain Lady”, “A Dream Lies Dead”—she unsheathed her wit, which Ephron knew better than to do.
Well done, Nora Ephron. Those of us who are less skilled may feel a pang of jealousy, but it is the jealousy of bit players, serious and dedicated professionals, for the canny sister who knew how to make it to the stars.