Slouching Toward Neck Trouble

Aspiring essayists tend to worship at the altar of Joan Didion. Her lyrical prose—with its rhythmic repetitions, its dramatic expressions of regret and longing caught in lockstep with the failings and farces of our culture—lures readers into a state of deeply romantic woe. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion writes in The White Album—a not-so-subtle suggestion to young writers that it isn’t merely important for them to spin their angst into dense, poetic passages; it’s necessary for their survival. In Didion’s hands, we are exquisitely aware of every tragic molecule that makes up our vast, bewildering universe.

Nora Ephron, very much by contrast, takes tragedy and bewilderment and spins them into rambling comedic reflections on mashed potatoes and infidelity and hating her purse. Maybe this is why Ephron and Didion are rarely acknowledged as contemporaries. But Ephron was just six and a half years younger than Didion, and both were self-assured female pioneers of New Journalism, even if Ephron had little interest in such a melodramatic accolade. (“I am not a new journalist,” she wrote, “whatever that is. I just sit here at the typewriter and bang away at the old forms.”)

Ephron, like Didion, got her start as a young writer in New York City, first as a reporter for the New York Post, then as a columnist for Esquire. Later, Ephron, like Didion, moved on to fiction, screenplays, and plays. Her impressive range of work is captured in The MOST of Nora Ephron (Knopf, $35), a weighty posthumous volume that includes not just Ephron’s journalism, magazine profiles, food writing, and blog entries from the Huffington Post, but also the novel Heartburn, the screenplay When Harry Met Sally . . . , the play Lucky Guy, and essays from her best-selling collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. And the more one peruses The MOST of Nora Ephron, the clearer it becomes that Nora Ephron is the Anti-Didion. Both are trailblazing Boomer-era best-selling writers, but both also illustrate with unusual force the rhythms of emotional confession and emotional withholding that have marked the golden age of journalistic writing by women that they shaped.

When everything fell to pieces for Didion—her husband of thirty-nine years died of a heart attack in 2003, and her daughter died of acute pancreatitis in 2005—her signature foreboding tone needed few adjustments. In The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Didion describes these losses in the same melodramatic yet detached style that she once used to describe Los Angeles’ pristine blue skies as “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” or to capture the uneasy course of a family holiday in Hawaii, taken “in lieu of filing for divorce.” Didion’s unmatched dexterity as a writer hasn’t changed, but something feels wrong for the first time. Closing her last two books, it’s hard not to implore of the book-jacket photo, “But, Joan, how do you actually feel about all of this?”

Ephron, on the other hand, tells us exactly how she feels every step of the way—whether she’s clashing with her former boss, New York Post owner Dorothy Schiff, or reflecting on cheesecake and pot roast and the futility of making egg rolls that aren’t even as good as cheap Chinese takeout. Ephron does all this in the plainest language, with the least fanfare and the greatest amount of humor she can manage. Here is how she describes, to a reporter from the New Yorker, her mother’s death by cirrhosis, which was aided by an overdose of sleeping pills administered by her father: “When that happened, I don’t know how to say this except . . . it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything.” Likewise, when Ephron discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein, was cheating on her while she was pregnant with her second child, she translated that nightmare into the surprisingly giddy best-selling novel Heartburn, which subsequently became a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

When life gave Ephron lemons, in other words, she made a giant vat of really good vodka-spiked lemonade and invited all of her friends and her friends’ friends over to share it, and gossip, and play charades. Whereas when life gave Joan Didion lemons, she stared at them for several months, and then crafted a haunting bit of prose about the lemon and orange groves that were razed and paved over to make Hollywood, in all of its sooty wretchedness—which is precisely what this mixed-up world does to everything that’s fresh and young and full of promise.

Although Didion’s and Ephron’s actual writing couldn’t be more different—so different that it feels like comparing apples and atom bombs—each writer presents, in her own way, a compelling case study in the power of attitude. Where Didion viewed happiness as something so ineffably fragile that you couldn’t squeeze it too tightly without breaking it, for Ephron happiness boiled down to a series of concrete upper-middle-class choices: whether you decide to serve elaborate foods or more rustic fare at a dinner party, whether you opt for a pedicure or a face-lift, whether you elect to bleach your upper lip or get your hair highlighted. Where Didion’s voice might be described as aloof, Ephron assumed the role of the reader’s best friend, giving advice on everything from clothing (“Don’t buy anything that is 100 percent wool”) to husband selection (“Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from”) to bikini waxing (“I dealt with the pain by using the breathing exercises I learned in Lamaze classes. I recommend them highly, although not for childbirth, for which they are virtually useless”).

Ephron began blogging for the Huffington Post in 2005, but in truth she was a blogger before blogs even existed. Because unlike Didion, who treats each word like a portentous object in a Joseph Cornell box, Ephron rambles along with sloppy irreverence, scattering unnecessary words as she goes. (“I feel that I should tell you a little about myself before letting the book begin,” she wrote in the introduction to Wallflower at the Orgy, a 1970 collection of magazine pieces.) This gabby style functioned surprisingly well throughout her career. “I am in Helen Gurley Brown’s office because I am interviewing her, a euphemism for what in fact involves sitting on her couch and listening while she volunteers answers to a number of questions I would never ask,” Ephron wrote in a 1970 magazine profile. “What she is like in bed, for example. Very good. Whether she enjoys sex. Very much. Always has.” Ephron was obviously fascinated by eccentric female characters, both in her magazine pieces and in her dramatic writing. She knew how to capture every quirk, and she knew just when to cast the slightest shadow of doubt. Of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, she wrote in 1973, “She listens raptly, smiles on cue, laughs a split second after the audience laughs. Perhaps she is actually amused.” Her wit and inability to pull punches make her profiles—of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman and Pat Loud, among others—the most memorable nonfiction of this new collection.

Didion’s preoccupation with the cultural tides might naturally seem to dwarf Ephron’s concern with the mundane dilemmas that haunt urban aristocrats—why bother with egg-white omelets, exactly? how would we live without Teflon?—but Ephron was just as skilled at identifying the ever-changing mood around her. Who else but Ephron could express the fickle tastes of the Manhattan bourgeoisie through their shifting opinions of salad? “This was right around the time endive was discovered, which was followed by arugula, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisée, which was followed by the three M’s—mesclun, mâche, and microgreens—and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the last forty years from the point of view of lettuce.”

After her death from acute myeloid leukemia in 2012, many obituaries seemed to skim over Ephron’s contributions to the evolving voice of modern journalism and filmmaking and speed right to her celebrity friendships, her famous failed marriage to Bernstein, or the oft-repeated fact that she got her hair blown out by a hairdresser twice a week. In the New York Times, the same pages where Norman Mailer “loomed over American letters” and Gore Vidal was “versatile” and “an Augustan figure,” Ephron was merely “an essayist and a humorist” who went on to become a wildly successful filmmaker, one who had lots of friends and just adored pie.

Ephron was even longtime friends with Didion. It’s oddly easy to imagine the two of them together, Ephron making cheerful attempts to draw Didion out while Didion silently picks the sunflower seeds out of her salad. It’s a scene Ephron herself would have captured beautifully in a screenplay: two women of letters, at lunch together—not that Ephron would ever have put it that way. Instead, she would have described them as two old friends, dressed in mandarin collars to hide their “turkey necks,” like some “white ladies’ version of the Joy Luck Club.” Ephron’s fun-house lens distilled accomplishments and disappointments alike into excuses to laugh. She took comfort in the little things and held fast to the notion that every terrible experience might someday redeem itself by making a really funny story.

Which is a pretty resilient and enviable perspective—albeit one that doesn’t tend to get you called “a woman of letters.” No matter. Nora Ephron really was too preoccupied with pie to care either way.

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).