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A woman who loved women

I’m no longer sure how I first came upon a copy of Nora Ephron’s “Wallflower at the Orgy,” but I strongly suspect I picked it up from a bargain books bin.

I didn’t know what to expect, but from the very first essay (written for a column on media in the magazine Esquire), I was smitten. Not just by Ephron’s style and wit, but also by the title of the book, which, she explained, was an allusion to the role that the media play. The media, she said, would be wallflowers even at an orgy, standing off to one side, observing and reporting, even as everybody else in the room was getting it on.

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It hit me like a thunderbolt. Of course, that’s what we journalists were—are! We’re forever observing, watching other people, recording what they say, taking notes, standing apart from the central action. Sometimes, I reflected, being a journalist makes you an observer even of your own life. I am forever holding back, keeping a part of me alert and aware even in the most emotionally involving events, making sure I record even my own feelings just so I could write about them, maybe not right away but in some future essay or column or book that is forever languishing in any writer’s subconscious.

And that is why I have loved Nora Ephron since. Her observations—trenchant and unafraid—of the New York media scene validated my own thoughts and suspicions about the profession I found myself in. Her sharp wit and fearless skewering of even the biggest icons of American society gave me a boldness I didn’t feel at the start, permission to call attention to the nakedness of self-proclaimed emperors. And her honest and truly funny reflections about her own life—her marriage, her family, her children—made me feel a certain kinship, a friendship that I’m sure she never in her life suspected.

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But how could you not laugh at what Ephron wrote? Writing about the end of her marriage and the deceptions involved in the process, she remembers her future mother-in-law helpfully giving her some advice (after glancing at her flat chest). “My dear, when you make love, make sure that you’re on top so my son thinks you have large breasts,” she sagely uttered.

And in the same book (“Heartburn,” which she turned into a movie), she remembers finding out that her soon-to-be-ex-husband had plotted with his girlfriend on getting their older boy from her and raising him together. She was, by the way, pregnant with her second boy when Carl Bernstein (of Watergate fame) embarked on the affair with the wife of the British ambassador.

But as obituaries noted, Ephron wasn’t about self-pity. Instead she skewered her barely-disguised husband (describing him as “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”) and his girlfriend (likened to a “giraffe”) not just in the book but more importantly in a movie of the same title.

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“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” she told graduates of her alma mater Wellesley in 1996. And indeed, in her life, Ephron was determined to come out the heroine, most especially by marrying in 1987 screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (“Goodfellas”) a few years after her highly publicized divorce from Bernstein. (“The secret to life? Marry an Italian,” she wrote.)

Ephron was best known, though, for writing and directing movies, most of which centered on women and their forays into the world in search of love, relationships, careers, causes—not always in that order, and not always with the full menu.

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And not always in words. Who can forget the scene in the film “When Harry Met Sally” when Billy Crystal (Harry) tells Meg Ryan (Sally) that he can always tell when a woman is having an orgasm, and Ryan starts moaning, groaning and twitching in the middle of a busy diner, so much so that one elderly female customer tells the waiter: “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Or that scene in “Sleepless in Seattle” when Rita Wilson (wife of Tom Hanks but playing his best friend’s wife) waxes nostalgic and teary-eyed about the movie “An Affair to Remember” (with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) and Hanks and the best friend start getting weepy about “The Dirty Dozen”?

Lisa Belkin, a columnist at the on-line newspaper The Huffington Post (where Ephron also wrote a column), paid tribute to Ephron thus: “[M]ost of all, she opened doors. By putting the female experience on the screen and on the page, she made it visible, and worthy, and she elevated it to the level of art. She took ‘women’s topics’—romance, relationships, food, motherhood, clothes, hair, friendship, aging, looking young—and declared that they were not only worthy of conversation, but they could draw at the box office, which is the only language Hollywood understands.”

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Still, even her frothiest rom-coms were not just, to use local parlance, “kilig” vehicles. “You’ve Got Mail” was ostensibly about a pair of feuding owners of bookstores (one a small, intimate neighborhood gathering place, the other a giant chain) who find romance via e-mail. But it was also about the world of books, and about the people who love them, and about how life can sometimes imitate art (in books), and how art can also be about life.

Her last movie was “Julie and Julia,” about pioneering chef and TV celebrity Julia Child, and Julie, who embarks on a project to cook one dish a day from Child’s massive cookbook: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The movie is not just about two parallel lives and French cooking, but also about following your dream and sticking to it, even if it means cooking fine cuisine in a tiny apartment kitchen or learning to prepare coq au vin from scratch.

Nora Ephron loved women, and believed enough in them to tell their stories.

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TAGS: featured column, Movies, Nora Ephron, women, writing
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