Remembering Nora Ephron

06.28.12

Tea With Nora Ephron, and Talk of Newsweek and Women Writers

When Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison wanted to write about the women of Newsweek, they turned to Nora Ephron, who invited them over for two uninterrupted hours of talk about taking risks, breaking up—and quitting your job.

In retrospect, there was nothing particularly unusual about it: there was tea; there were cookies, and dainty porcelain saucers, and an immaculate white couch. Maybe the room was unusually pristine. (We were terrified of dropping crumbs.) Maybe the address was a little fancier than we were used to. (The Upper East Side, just off Park Avenue.) But it was natural, and easy. We cleared the teacups together. We bumped elbows in the kitchen.

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Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

But at the time it felt preposterous. If there was an icon for young female writers making a go of it in New York City, Nora Ephron was it. We had cold-called her, on a line we weren’t sure was hers, and she had promptly invited us over. We were embarrassingly giddy.

It was November 2009, and we had just started working, unbeknownst to our editors, on a story about the women of Newsweek—women who, in 1970, had sued the magazine for gender discrimination in the first case of its kind.

Nora had not been involved in that suit, but she had, somewhat famously, toiled in the magazine’s mailroom in the 1960s. It was her first job out of Wellesley, and she was paid $55 a week to deliver the mail to the magazine’s editor, Osborn Elliot. We wanted to know what it was like and, more important, why she had left.

Newsweek was a different place half a century ago. And though Ephron knew she wanted to be a writer—and announced as much in her first interview—she was told, in no uncertain terms, that “women don’t write at Newsweek.” Instead, they were given jobs as clerks and mail girls, tasked with delivering coffee, and fact-checking the men’s copy if they were lucky. “There were no mail boys at Newsweek,” Ephron later wrote. “If you were a college graduate (like me) who had worked on your college newspaper (like me) and you were a girl (like me), they hired you as a mail girl. If you were a boy (unlike me) with exactly the same qualifications, they hired you as a reporter.”

Ephron would spend just nine months at the magazine, and yet even before she was famous, she was a legend among her contemporaries. She was the success story among droves of women with writerly ambitions: the one who’d escaped the boy’s club, who’d made a name for herself, who’d gone on to prove that women could write.

But when it came to the women who had sued their company—and us, the women who came after them, questioning how much had changed—we knew Nora would have something to say: about women, work, and, well, the age-old debate over having it all.

And indeed, she did. She answered the door, kissed us each on the cheek, and ushered us into her all-white living room, an elegant space with casement windows and gleaming shellacked floors. She was rail-thin, in head-to-toe black, offering us sweets even as she ate none. But if she cut a stark silhouette against the white around her, she exuded a kind of warmth that even her biggest fans hadn’t expected. For the two hours that followed, not once did she check a BlackBerry or take a call. There were no assistants, or publicists, or even a housekeeper. We had her full attention.

When it came to the women who had sued their company, we knew Nora would have something to say: about women, work, and, well, the age-old debate over having it all.

We were ostensibly there to interview her, but instead she did what every good journalist does: she turned the questions back on us.

What, she asked us, did we want to do after Newsweek?

What, she wanted to know, were our aspirations?

And why—if things had changed so little (which was what had brought us to her house in the first place)—were we still working there?

She listened carefully, interrupting now and then with one of those whip-smart witticisms for which she was legendary. And then, in the part of the conversation that never made it into the story, she basically told us to quit.

Calling Newsweek a “warm trap of a place”—and a nice one, “especially if you were a man”—she described how she “blasted out of there while climbing the greasy pole” as soon as it was clear that they would never make her a writer.

“Women are loyal and true in a way that men aren’t. We have trouble breaking up,” she told us. “On some level, you have to choose to not be victimized by the things you should be calm about and focus on the things that should actually upset you.”

Ours is a very small story, and she almost certainly forgot the whole thing the minute the door shut behind us. But it felt big—not because of who she was, but because of how she was. And while we were hardly the first women that Nora had encouraged to take risks, she turned a visit in which we would have been content to talk in broad terms about the past into a pep talk about our futures as individuals, with the kind of genuine interest and constructive advice that, as we would later write, is rare for women like us, at least at work.

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady,” Nora said in 1996, in a speech to the graduating class at Wellesley. “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.”

No, we didn’t race back to the office and quit our jobs—at least not then—but we did speak up, and because of her, it felt a little less risky.