When Nora Ephron wrote about her early aspiration to be the only lady at the table, the sharpest wit in the room, she called this her “Dorothy Parker problem.” The problem was that many other young writers saw Dorothy Parker as their role model, too.
“I have spent a great deal of my life discovering that my ambitions and fantasies — which I once thought of as totally unique — turn out to be cliches,” Ephron said, charmingly but disingenuously. Her goal was not cliched. And she did much more than live up to it. Dorothy Parker set an example for scathingly smart female journalists of Ephron’s generation, but Ephron’s five-decade-long career outdid that. It’s now the Nora Ephron problem instead.
Ephron died Tuesday of leukemia at age 71.
As a sparkling, fearless reporter in her 20s and 30s, she established a distinctive, savvy voice. She was tough yet ingratiating, always funny. Her targets were never predictable: Her greatest hits included one article about having small breasts and another about the Pillsbury Bake-Off. She perfected a wise and winningly nit-picky persona, turning herself into every reader’s confidante. She shared advice, confessions, quirks, trade secrets, and even recipes. Most famously, she shared the story of her spectacularly messy second divorce in her novel Heartburn.
When Ephron veered into making movies, she left behind some of the candor that first made her reputation. She remained dependably entertaining, but the sharp edges were not so cutting any more. The sugary success of Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally illustrated how and why her focus shifted. What Ephron, the daughter of two screenwriters, knew about the movie business could have filled a book. But she wanted to keep writing and directing films.
And going Hollywood cost her credibility. “At the time Ephron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood’s gain was journalism’s loss,” Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post in a 2004 reassessment of her 1970s collections of essays. “A rereading ... her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that.”
Then, in 2006, she rallied as a writer, returning to form with I Feel Bad About My Neck, a wry and invaluable book about aging. At 65, she had found newly difficult subjects to tackle, like the death of her best friend; she described that in a candid, all too well-named piece called Considering the Alternative. More typically, she had accrued enough culinary wisdom to trace the history of the preceding 40 years through changing trends in lettuce.
On Maintenance, her description of the effort it took to maintain her impeccable appearance, became an instant classic. It was a perfect encapsulation of the character Ephron chose to play in public: that of a sharp, funny, theatrically domesticated New Yorker who could throw arrows and good money at petty things that plagued her.
It’s true that her movies, especially You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia, could appeal to romantics of any stripe. And her tough, astringent political salvos, like Me and Bill: the End of Love, a scorched-earth letter to Bill Clinton, also attracted wide notice. But the essays that are her greatest legacy reach the readership that is most specific. They are treasured by women who are proud to have that Nora Ephron problem and never want it to go away.