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Nora Ephron—An Appreciation

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Author M. G. Lord knew Nora Ephron socially, but appreciated her most through Ephrons essays. She writes about why theyve had only the best influence on her own writing.

Nora Ephron taught me the difference between wit and snark—long before snark slithered out from its dark hole and infected the national dialogue.

Nora was classy, in the way that wit is classy. Often she mocked herself in order to mock deserving targets. In a piece pegged to the 25th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, for example, she confessed that in high school, she had skipped over the book’s passages about egoism and altruism and fallen hard for its architect hero: “I spent the next year hoping I would meet a gaunt, orange-haired architect who would rape me. Or, failing that, an architect who would rape me. Or failing that, an architect.”

To her shock, however, in a college seminar, she discovered that the book was not, in fact, a celebration of sex or buildings but rather a polemic against the welfare state. And she reached this inevitable conclusion. Rand’s work, she declared, “is better read when one is young enough to miss the point.”

In her professional life, however, Nora rarely missed the point. In 2008, for instance, she was far too clever to be manipulated by the Slate editors who invited her—and other women writers—to define “feminist.” What they sought was a loose interpretation that might permit the word to be applied to Sarah Palin, the gun-toting, anti-choice fundamentalist whom G.O.P. Presidential Candidate John McCain had selected as his running mate.

What Nora gave them was this: “I know that I’m supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion.”

Although I encountered Nora socially over the last three decades—we had several friends in common—I mostly knew her through her work. And, happily, she knew me through mine. I will never forget the night she crossed the room at a party to tell me how much she had liked my book, Forever Barbie—never mind that this occurred long after the book was published. In my universe, Nora was more than an important movie director. She was the author of “A Few Words About Breasts,” a classic 1970s essay on women and body image that informed every page in my book.

I like Nora’s fiction and movies. But I will always treasure her essays, especially the early ones. My favorite is about Dorothy Parker, or, more specifically, about Nora not being Dorothy Parker and whether this seeming handicap should have stopped her—as a woman and a humorist—from ever touching a typewriter.

The piece uses Parker to explore what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence”: Can you admire writers who have come before without letting their achievements silence you? And it challenges tokenism: the notion that one woman—and only one woman—could keep pace with the sparkling male geniuses at the Algonquin Round Table.

I first met Nora in 1975, two years after she wrote on Parker. I was a sophomore at Yale, studying with Bill Zinsser, a New Yorker writer who was then the Master of Branford, one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges. In the 70s, masters held weekly teas, designed to let students rub proverbial elbows with visiting dignitaries—usually Nobel Laureates or heads of state. Bill’s teas, however, were the most popular on campus—because he invited his writer friends from Manhattan.

At that tea, in an effort to impress Nora, I rattled off whole paragraphs from her essay on Ayn Rand—the sort of thing that today might get a person locked up for stalking. But Nora took the performance in stride—and suggested that I read her piece on overcoming the excessive influence of other writers.

Life often serves up strange synchronicities. On the day Nora died, I was finishing my syllabus for a course on writing the personal essay. The Parker piece was the first reading I scheduled. But I struggled to come up with a companion writing assignment.

Did today’s students know—or care—about Dorothy Parker?

Was any contemporary writer witty, accomplished and versatile enough to paralyze a twenty-something?

The answer was obvious. I assigned 800 words to fit this title: “On Not Being Nora Ephron.”

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