My Nora Ephron Problem

A few years ago, when I was working as an editor at Hearst, one of the writers from the international magazine I worked with emailed and asked me if I would answer a few questions about New York for a travel article they were writing from the point of view of a young local woman in her 20s.

“Of course!” I replied, because I love to talk about myself.

I eagerly shared my tips for getting around the city and my favorite places to eat. At the end of the questionnaire, they included a few short questions like: “What’s your favorite New York City song?” and “What famous woman embodies what New York City means to you?”

I don’t remember what I wrote for the song, but I do remember choosing Nora Ephron as my inspiring successful woman who embodies what New York City means to me. I sent it back and forgot about it, until the next day, when my editor mentioned the interview and asked to read my answers.

Nora Ephron, Alejandra?” she asked, and I realized that the answer was perhaps not exactly the right one for the hip young target.

When the magazine went to print, they ended up replacing it with some other girl’s choice: Carrie Bradshaw. (She's not even real!)

But my answer still stands. Because Nora Ephron wrote the New York that inspired me.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my mom, listening to her music and watching her movies. I didn’t really know the connecting thread just yet, but there was something about the lifestyle depicted in movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle that drew me in. When You’ve Got Mail came out, my mom bought the VHS and we watched it over and over again. My dad rolling his eyes each time and asking, “How many times have you seen this?”

If any of those movies is ever on, we stop and we watch.

Of course I enjoyed and wanted the love story, but even more, I wanted to be Kathleen Kelly, with a life surrounded by books, a large plush bed, rugs to warm up hardwood floors, funny colleagues, and a smart man to meet up with for ice cream and conversation.

She was my kind of lady: talkative and witty. Heartfelt and honest. Playful and unapologetic.

In fact, all of Ephron's women were my kind of ladies. They made me laugh. But, more importantly, they felt familiar.

In college, armed with my first credit card and an eBay account I started buying stacks of musty magazines from the 1960s and 70s. I liked the old yellowed Esquires, full of smart writing and outdated advice that I followed anyway. It was in them that I read Nora Ephron’s essays, which somehow said a whole lot while in the guise of talking about little nothings. I loved how her words bounced from one idea to another to another with digressions and personal asides, like friends lingering at a table long after the check has arrived. Even when I couldn't relate to the specific subject (small breasts, for example) I could relate to that kind of thinking.

The magazines made me crave more, so I ordered her books, like Heartburn, her roman à clef (with recipes!) about a food writer who catches her husband cheating, which I read while cooking my way through my own broken heart. Or Crazy Salad, a terribly interesting collection of essays about women and women-things, which I still keep buried at the bottom of my purse, ready to reread during the dull moments.

(Actually, I didn’t even buy that book; I borrowed it from a library half a dozen years ago and never returned it. A crime I admit to having committed on multiple occasions.)

I’ve always been a bit odd and nostalgic; as a teen I’d spend hours watching AMC, back when it was American Movie Classics and played nothing but black and white movies all day long. I once watched 5 movies in a row on a summer weekend and mentioned this to a friend in my 7th grade classroom, still buzzing on snappy dialogue and happy endings.

"That's 10 hours of movies," she exclaimed, horrified.

While my friends longed for the guys from *NSYNC, I nursed crushes on Gregory Peck and Cary Grant—handsome men who had long since died (or were just about to). I carried stacks of strange books around, and listened to an awful lot of old people music. Once, my parents had my favorite radio DJ wish me a happy birthday on air in the morning before school; I excitedly walked into class that day, eager for the reaction from friends, but the only person who had heard the announcement was my middle-aged teacher.

I had fantasies of going off to the city to write clever and important things while typewriters clacked in the background.  At night, I imagined, I’d go on dates with a charming, yet infuriatingly neurotic man, who wore a suit well, ordered a good cocktail, and would ultimately win my heart with his conversation.

I think I love Nora Ephron so much because both her stories and her story made those black and white dreams seem possible and—even more importantly—not the least bit silly. Those Ephron ladies that were my kind of ladies? They were each a little bit nostalgic, a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit odd.

It is always something of a relief to see a bit of yourself on paper.

I live in New York and I've created my own way here. It’s not Nora Ephron’s on-screen New York; real New York is rarely that continuously charming. But there are bits of it here and there that remind me:

A front stoop. A brownstone. A conversation at the next table over.

I can’t pass the stunning Apthorp without thinking about her New Yorker essay about living there (until her $1500 rent went up to $12,000 and she and her family were forced out and across the park to the East Side).

[I love that story, by the way. I love that even Nora Ephron was priced out of her New York. God, this city!]

In her essay on Dorothy Parker, Ephron wrote:

"The point is the legend. I grew up on it and coveted it desperately. All I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker...the woman who made her living by her wit.
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, so it was not a surprise to me to find out that there were other young women writers who came to New York with as bad a Dorothy Parker Problem as I had.
I wonder, though, whether any of that still goes on."

I didn't come to New York with a Dorothy Parker Problem; I came here with a Nora Ephron problem. But I don't think that's very much of a problem at all.

When I read that she had passed, I heard myself say "Oh no!" out loud even though I was sitting here alone. I rarely care about "celebrity" deaths. It sounds terrible, I know, but it's the truth. It's possibly because the celebrities I most admire are very old (so it's expected), and the ones that die young usually do after several years of living their lives in incredibly stupid ways (so, once again, it's expected).

But hers was a life full-lived. And her absence on the page and on the screen is one that I, and many, will feel.

It breaks my heart that there will be no new stories to delight and inspire. But I am ever so thankful for the ones that did.


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