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Nora’s Secret

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My crush on Nora began before I even met her, when I read her breakthrough pieces in college and watched her on The Dick Cavett Show. For anyone who wanted nothing more in life than to migrate to New York and somehow find a way into journalism, she was the most accessible of role models. Plus funny, smart, sexy, knowing—the Jewish girl of a Jewish boy’s dreams. I eventually realized that I had actually fallen for Nora before I’d read her (and even before she was a ­writer)—when I was still an adolescent in Washington and the Broadway comedy Take Her, She’s Mine, by Nora’s parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, came to town on tour. The play told of a father’s trials when his independent-minded daughter goes off to college. The cute ingenue in the role of Mollie Michaelson (Joanna Pettet, to put a finer point on it) introduced me to a teenage Nora by barely fictionalized proxy.

To my astonishment, I met Nora shortly after I moved to New York in 1973. I shouldn’t have been astonished; I’d later learn that Nora had a knack for meeting everyone, or at least everyone in the many tiers of Manhattan’s intersecting journalistic, literary, show-business, and political hierarchies. The first time we had dinner, it was at an Irish joint on First Avenue in the Fifties shortly after her first marriage had ended. When the meal was over, she asked me and my girlfriend Gail, later to be my wife, to join her on a little walk. We ended up on a side street, and Nora pointed to a darkened townhouse. “Do you see that beautiful house?” she asked. “That’s how much I wanted to get out of my marriage—I gave up that house.” Though Nora was only eight years my senior, she exuded a mixture of intimacy, world­liness, and wit well beyond my ken or experience. She was like the perfect, non-camp hybrid of all the female New York characters that animated my romantic view of the city before I lived there: Eloise, Betty Comden, Lillian Hellman, Auntie Mame, Mary McCarthy, Elaine May, ­Gloria Steinem, and Amy, the hopelessly articulate and vulnerable bride-to-be who’d been originated by a striking Nora look-and-sound-alike (Beth Howland) in the 1970 Sondheim musical Company.

Before long, Nora would help Gail and me find an affordable walk-up apartment above hers in another house a block away. Not long after that, she would give me crucial career advice and encouragement, soon persuading me to take a job at her reportorial training ground, the old, dilapidated, pre-Murdoch New York Post, even though she had recently written a legendary Esquire column trashing the place. It turned out to be the right call, and anyway, it was almost impossible to resist any of Nora’s judgments. She held them all fervently, whether the subject was small or large. She was as vehement about the perfidy of egg-white omelettes as she was about the Clintons.

Two marriages (for each of us), two grown sons (for each of us), and nearly four decades later, Nora seemed very much the same person I met then. She continued to give me invaluable advice about everything, from career to restaurants, from what to read to what to think. She was a cheerleader for my boys. She dove into a supportive friendship with my second wife, Alex, when she entered my life two decades ago. Over the years Nora certainly attracted her critics and enemies like the rest of us. She didn’t get where she did without being tough or breaking some eggs (whites and yolks). But what strangers often adored about Nora was what those closer to her did, too: She was incredibly approachable, and she put it all out there, whether it be the neck she absolutely could not stand or the man who broke her heart.

As many of her eulogists have reminded us, Nora was fond of crediting her mother with this transparency. Phoebe Ephron’s oft-repeated maxim, “Everything is copy,” was not only a fixture of Nora’s childhood but her parents’ own professional guidepost. In Take Her, She’s Mine (1961), they appropriated Nora’s letters home from Wellesley. In Three’s a Family (1943), produced on Broadway when Nora was still a toddler, her earliest months of life were plundered for comic fodder. Both plays ran a year in New York and were made into movies.

Nora followed her parents’ example most notoriously with Heartburn, her roman à clef about her disastrous marriage to Carl Bernstein—also turned into a movie. (Over a 50-year period, between her parents’ work and her own, a fictive iteration of Nora has been played onstage or screen by actors as diverse as Streep, Pettet, Elizabeth Ashley, Meg Ryan, and, unlikely as it may sound, Sandra Dee.) In Nora’s nonfiction writing, everything was copy as well, whether her most embarrassing mishaps in family, career, cookery, and sex; her parents’ alcoholism; or her mother’s grotesque death brought on by cirrhosis at age 57. In real life, Nora was riveting in part because of her remarkable ability to seem fully there in every moment—always candid, always looking you in the eye, and always quick to press back with a raised eyebrow and an uptick in her vocal register if she suspected you were withholding any thought, feeling, or information of your own. Her life was an apparently open book, and not just in her books.


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