New York Story

06.28.12

Lynn Sherr Remembers College Friend Nora Ephron

She was the girl to impress at Wellesley—and we were all in awe of her. From her all-purple days to putting a novelist on the hot seat, a look at the early days of a trailblazer.

I can’t get her voice out of my head. Thank goodness. It’s all over the airwaves now, and people who loved both her work and her self are laughing again at her wit. You can see her in interviews and “hear” her speak through the most memorable scenes from her movies. It’s a wonderful way to remember Nora Ephron.]But I’m sorry for the young pundit on the cable TV show who, when asked for his favorite Nora Ephron moment, had to quote something he’d only read that morning in her obituary—about her summer in Washington during JFK’s presidency, and how she was the “only intern he didn’t make a pass at.” Really, it was much better when you heard her deliver the lines in person.

I first met Nora when we were both students at Wellesley College, where she memorably gave the commencement address in 1996. The shrewd advice she shared with that lucky class was the grownup distillation of what I’d discovered more than three decades earlier. To know Nora then was to be in awe. Not only because she was a year ahead of me and therefore certifiably wiser; but because she was sharp and quick and seemed utterly self-confident at a time when most of us were still struggling to outgrow adolescence. We worked together on the Wellesley News, the college weekly that prided itself on tilting at authority at a time when young women were still supposed to be silent and in white gloves. One day, Nora strode into our basement office wearing bright purple skinny pants and a purple top, handing out wads of purple chewing gum. “I’m into purple,” she announced matter-of-factly. There was so much authority, so much magic in how she said it, some of us actually considered converting our wardrobes.

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Nora wasn’t glamorous then—not in the sleek-haired, black-clad, wide-eyed look that came to define her chic later years. But she was magnetic, and I think it was partly her actual voice—the snappy delivery, the distinctive sound. Elaine May meets Damon Runyon, as a mutual friend later put it, asking me, “Is she for real?”

Oh yeah.

“You always wanted her approval, wanted to please her,” recalls Ellen Levine, another Wellesley News alumna who now is editorial director for Hearst Publications. “She wasn’t the top editor, but you wanted her to like your story.”

In her junior year at Wellesley, Nora helped write (and act in) the college’s annual musical comedy production, that year a silly little parody of the hit movie, Ocean’s Eleven. The plot involved some gun-toting dames in a gang called “Orchid’s Eleven,” and while Nora didn’t play Orchid, or even Violet (yes, purple is a theme because it was her class color. Don’t ask.), she did play a character called Nails, which allowed her to flesh out even further the smart-talking moll that she often appeared to be in real life.

In her senior year, she cemented her aura as a genuine celebrity when her parents, screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron, based their Broadway hit, Take Her, She’s Mine, on Nora’s—our—life at Wellesley. Groups of us trooped down to New York to giggle at our friend, and ourselves on stage.  We didn’t know anyone quite like her—funny, sophisticated, a Hollywood kid with a Wellesley education. And a voice that could did not shrink from speaking truth to power.

Not to mention novelists. Jennifer Rogers, another News editor, roomed with Nora that year (in a suite with New Yorker covers pasted all over the bathroom—an aspirational touch) and remembers that she and Nora co-wrote a negative review of a novel by May Sarton, then a visiting professor at the college. When Sarton summoned the reporters, Nora climbed out of her Massachusetts General Hospital bed (after treatment for a painful cyst) and made it back to campus in time for the confrontation. “I was quaking,” Jennifer recalls, “Nora was not. She sat on her rubber ring the whole time and I left thinking we’d been right. If Nora hadn’t been there, I would have apologized like a mad woman.”

Her voice was too strong, too assured, to encase in strict rules. And her opinions way too precise. And valuable.
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When I told her I was working on a new book—SWIM: Why We Love the Water—and asked whether the wonderful play she and her sister Delia had written (Love, Loss and What I Wore) included anything about bathing suits, Nora said they'd considered it, but passed. And then supplied one of the great lines for women everywhere: "I think the day that you go to buy a bathing suit is the day that even women who like to shop feel like committing suicide." ()

Nora’s acid tongue didn’t enthrall everyone. But it did sometimes mask the very vulnerable underbelly of an immensely generous friend. When I got to New York and was apartment-hunting, she invited me to share hers until I was settled. It was a mixed blessing:  yes, I had a bed; but no, I wasn’t home the night a cat burglar crept into the window and stole her clock-radio, among other treasures. Neither was Nora. “I’m only dating the hottest writer in New York City,” she told me, then underscored her expertise by fixing me up with a variety of others.

When Nora landed at the New York Post—a very rare job for a woman in 1962—“it was like landing on the planet Mars,” says Ellen Levine, still at Wellesley at the time. “She was a girl with a gift, and it gave me the courage to try.” We all felt that way, especially when Nora’s voice livened up even that peppy paper. We drooled with envy as she covered everyone from The Beatles to Madame Nhu (and sussed out the skinny on the so-called Dragon Lady of Vietnam from, she later told me proudly, the security men in the bar). Once she went out to cover some municipal disaster and wound up in the subway, in her high heels, with several inches of water up to her ankles.  The original story faded away. Her lede—I can’t remember the exact words—was some version of, “Why am I standing in a foot of water in the subway?” A photo of Nora’s flooded legs and shoes accompanied the article.

I didn’t always approve of Nora’s deviation from the journalistic norm, particularly one night in 1972, at the Democratic convention in Miami. It was a madhouse, with the party in disarray and persistent groups of female activists pressing the case for what was then the burgeoning women’s rights movement. Shirley Chisholm, the feisty African-American congresswoman from Brooklyn, was considering a drive to pressure Senator George McGovern (the presidential nominee) into taking her as the vice-presidential candidate. I was there as a reporter, and attended a secret strategy meeting where the possibility was being discussed. I carefully took notes as the women tried to organize the petition and figure out how to deliver it most effectively. At one point, it became clear that the organizers didn’t understand the rules, and that their plan was cockeyed, the kind of confusion that a partisan might try to clear up but that a journalist silently avoided. To my great surprise, Nora, also there as a reporter and sitting next to me, tried to head off disaster by pointing out the facts and advising them on the procedure. I told her I didn’t think she was being particularly objective. She sort of agreed. Here’s Nora’s version, from her book, Crazy Salad:

Afterward, I walk out onto Collins Avenue with a fellow journalist/feminist who has managed to keep her mouth shut. “I guess I got a little carried away in there,” I say guiltily. “I guess you did,” she replies. (The next night at the convention debate on abortion, there are women reporters so passionately involved in the issue that they are lobbying the delegates. I feel slightly less guilty. But not much.)

Lucky for all of us, Nora ditched her down-the-middle journalist role to become a columnist, then a novelist, then a screenwriter, then a director.  Her voice was too strong, too assured, to encase in strict rules. And her opinions way too precise. And valuable.

One day a few years ago, over lunch, she and I were discussing a colleague whose signature was mystery—she didn’t let you in, we agreed; she didn’t tell what she was doing, she held up a curtain. Nora was intrigued by her and we dissected the enigma. At the end of the conversation, as I got up to leave, I said, “I think I’ll develop a mystery persona, too.” “Oh yeah,” Nora said, and laughed. It was, as usual, the voice of wisdom. I can still hear it.