Nora and Me (and Food)
The instant I said, "No, thank you," I knew my goose was cooked. When Nora Ephron offered me some chicken cooked by her own hands, right on the cusp of my interview with her, my middle-class-suburban girl response was to politely decline.
I knew it right away. Just as I knew that Ephron was a foodie, food maven, all the rest. Yes, I had prepared well for my interview with her for a book I was putting together on women screenwriters, but her food enthusiasms were common enough knowledge.
After I said thanks but no thanks, it was all downhill. Her face lengthened even more, and froze into irony. "Sit wherever you like," she said. "But wherever you sit, you won't be comfortable."
She got that part right.
No pain, no gain, and no matter. As every working journalist knows, when an interview goes too well, a certain frisson goes out the window. You like them, they like you, the quotes they give sound like Hallmark cards, and you really don't feel like zapping them later in your piece. Not even with something like the famous opener to Ephron's hatchet job on Dorothy Schiff, her former employer at the New York Post: "I feel very badly about what I'm going to do."
Viz. last summer's New Yorker interview with Ephron perfectly prior to Julie and Julia, Ari Levy's adoring "Nora Knows What to Do" (July 6 & 13). A Valentine, to understate the case, and one which even answered — would it be pre-answered? — the coming objection to Julie and Julia that the movie was out of balance, favoring the glam French segment with Julia and Paul Childs, not the grungy schlep urban setting in Queens, N.Y. with the young couple, half of which is Julie.
But for once it wasn't just me exhibiting awkwardness, as I stammered my way through my questions. There was the odd moment when the doorbell rang and it wasn't, as I was anticipating, Nick the husband or an assistant with galleys. Or even a sister, perhaps her frequent writing partner, Delia.
Ephron recovered right off and tartly too: "The inevitable dry cleaning."
All these gemütlich details crayoned in the picture when I later read her piece, first published in The New Yorker, as it turns out, about her residency in the Anthrop, the famous New York building maybe only second to the Dakota in real estate gravitas and media fame. (The Apthorp, best known for Beverly Sills, the Dakota, for John Lennon and Rosemary's Baby).
Ephron's ultimate departure from the Apthorp, where she had invited me to interview her, provided the topic for the longest piece in her best-selling 2008 essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman.
The apartment was mainly floral and country chintz as I remember (different from the Gallic high style described in Levy's piece which took place in her current upper East Side digs), quite comfortable, and maybe that triggered my bourgie, if overly polite, response. She must like being interviewed "at home." Another cue I missed.
She tried, though. She gave me a copy of her script for When Harry Met Sally with the clever inscription "Be kind." And when my book with the chapter on her was published (The Women Who Write the Movies, Birch Lane Press) and the publisher substituted a really piss-poor photograph of her to replace the one she had given me, because they lost the original, I never got a nasty note or a complaining phone call.
Maybe because Entertainment Weekly in its featurette on the book picked Ephron's quote to highlight: "It isn't entirely the boys keeping women writers out of the movie business. It's smart women realizing the real power is in directing."
Or maybe she never read the book at all.
That seems unlikely, as tout le media knows her penchant for details and perfectionism.
After the interview, the only other time I saw Ephron in living color was in the IRT subway, which runs along Manhattan's upper West Side. She and husband Nick Pileggi were holding hands. He was grinning, she not, and then I saw her nudge him a little and in my direction. (The imaginary voice was, "That's the one who did the book about me.")
We didn't say hello. It was another one of those awkward "I know that you know that I know but we're neither one of us going to say anything about it" moments.
My publisher went bankrupt shortly after the book came out, and there have been a number of women screenwriters since that time. (I'm glad I didn't have to try to find a common thread with Diablo Cody, the ex-stripper who broke through with Juno.) None of this any longer has anything to do with me, though I must say that in some quarters I'm a bibliographical listing as a kind of expert on Ephron.
Perhaps now I will be supplanted by Levy, who obviously really, really liked her. Check out the last sentence in his New Yorker piece which defends the more glamorous segments of Julie and Julia by saying how could it be otherwise, Ephron being the queen she is.
He must have liked a dish she had just taken out of the oven.