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Nora Ephron's 'Crazy Salad': Still Crisp

Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past

It's one of the book industry's basic operating rules, so axiomatic that it ought to be capitalized: Collections Don't Sell. This has always struck me as odd, since I love to dip in and out of books by writers whose prose and ideas I admire, sampling here and there without committing to the long haul that a "real" book entails. My shelves are lined with short-story collections by the likes of Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor and Peter Taylor, and nonfiction collections by the likes of Russell Baker, A.J. Liebling, Fran Lebowitz and Joseph Epstein.

Much of Ephron's "Crazy Salad" is old news now, but the delivery is as smart and sharp as ever. (Gino Domenico -- AP)

Nora Ephron, too. During the 1970s she was one of the country's best journalists and/or essayists, and during that decade she published three collections: "Wallflower at the Orgy" (1970), "Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women" (1975) and "Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media" (1978). Apart from the wit and perspicacity of the pieces collected therein, what distinguishes Ephron from just about every writer relegated to the graveyard where collections are buried is that one of them broke the rule: It did sell.

This was "Crazy Salad," Ephron's sympathetic but mischievous and occasionally contrarian look at American women generally and the women's movement specifically. At a moment in its history when that movement was almost aggressively humorless, Ephron wrote about it with irreverence and a merciless eye for hypocrisy and self-satisfaction. Perhaps, after surpassingly turgid feminist tomes such as Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics," readers were ready for a fresh, undogmatic, cheeky view of a subject about which too many people clearly had gotten entirely too solemn. Whatever the explanation, "Crazy Salad," which takes its splendid title from William Butler Yeats -- "It's certain that fine women eat / A crazy salad with their meat" -- was exactly the right book for the moment, and the reading public greeted it enthusiastically.

Toward the end of it Ephron noted, in a piece about Martha Mitchell, that "there is not much call for yesterday's celebrities," and a second reading leaves no doubt that this is something of a problem for "Crazy Salad" as it nears the end of its third decade. Ephron's prose is as spare and tart as ever, and her insights remain acute, but a fair amount of stuff herein is yesterday's news. Most readers under 40 probably will have to be told that Martha Mitchell was the "slightly dizzy" estranged wife of Richard Nixon's attorney general; that Barbara Mandel was the estranged wife of the governor of Maryland; that Betty Friedan, who as author of "The Feminine Mystique" had done much to start the women's movement, by the 1970s had become something of a superannuated bore; that Rose Mary Woods was the White House secretary who did or did not erase 18 1/2 minutes from a tape recording pertaining to the Watergate investigation; that Bernice Gera was the first woman to umpire a professional baseball game.

Et cetera. These are problems most certainly not of Ephron's making, but they are problems all the same. Yet for me at least, they matter a good deal less than the pungency of Ephron's opinions and prose, her refusal to march in lockstep with feminist orthodoxy, her eye for the ludicrous and the self-righteous. I had been an admirer of Ephron's work (much of it published in Esquire) long before the book appeared, and I gobbled "Crazy Salad" right up, including it in my list of the best books of 1975 that I compiled for the Miami Herald, where I then worked.

"Crazy Salad" didn't come from out of the blue. Ephron wasn't exactly born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, but she got off to a head start. She grew up in Beverly Hills, a daughter of prominent screenwriting parents. She hung around with the children of other Hollywood notables, attended Beverly Hills High School, then went to Wellesley College. After her graduation in 1962 she was hired by the New York Post as a reporter, an experience about which she writes amusingly and touchingly in "Scribble Scribble." After that she went freelance, writing for Esquire, New York, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and other magazines.

In "Crazy Salad" Ephron describes being photographed by Philippe Halsman, who had done "a charming book containing photographs of celebrities jumping," and being told by him that "you have only one jump in you." Subsequent developments have proved him entirely wrong. Journalism, for her, was the first of several jumps. After "Scribble Scribble" she published a funny, best-selling novel, "Heartburn" (1983), based on her spectacularly unsuccessful marriage to Carl Bernstein, and later in that decade she picked up where her parents had left off. She wrote screenplays, then moved along to producing and directing. Her best-known films are "When Harry Met Sally" (1989), "Sleepless in Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998).

At the time Ephron started movie work, I thought that Hollywood's gain was journalism's loss, and a rereading of all three of her collections leaves me even more firmly convinced of that. Journalism today has too many self-important, humorless, money-grubbing bigfeet, most of whom are far less interested in the story than in the storyteller. Ephron, as a columnist charged with expressing her own opinions, managed to strike the right balance between story and self. That she had a large and devoted readership had much to do with her ability to create a persona (one that presumably was fairly close to reality) with which readers could identify, in large measure because she was self-deprecating and actually seemed to mean it.

Thus we have Ephron writing about "Deep Throat" ("one of the most unpleasant, disturbing films I have ever seen -- it is not just anti-female but anti-sexual as well"), and admitting that she is "a hung-up, uptight, middle-class, inhibited, possibly puritanical feminist who lost her sense of humor at a skin flick"; acknowledging that she would "hate to be described as a participatory journalist; but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict"; confessing that "all I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker. The funny lady. The only lady at the table," and then admitting that "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 that there were other young women writers who came to New York with as bad a Dorothy Parker problem as I had."

Ephron calls herself a feminist, but she scarcely prattles the party line. Taking note of the incredible rivalries and animosities among feminists in the 1970s, she says (correctly) that "the women's liberation movement at this point in history makes the American Communist Party of the 1930s look like a monolith." She takes note of "a tendency throughout the movement to overindulge in confession, to elevate The Rap to a religious end in itself, to reach a point where self-knowledge dissolves into high-grade narcissism." Writing about Phyllis Chesler's "badly written and self-indulgent" book "Women and Madness" (1973), the research in which "seems to me to be full of holes," she makes the essential but commonly overlooked point that "one of the recurring ironies of this movement [is] that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it" -- that "sisterhood . . . doesn't make for good criticism" because the movement demands praise for anything, no matter how bad, that parrots the orthodoxy.

The movement is a bit less strident now and "postfeminism" (whatever that means) is said in some quarters to be the new orthodoxy, but Ephron's views of three decades ago remain pertinent. Strictly toed party lines are for the apparatchiks of Stalinist Russia or Islamic radicals of today, not for organizations trying to advance their causes in a democracy as unruly and elastic as ours. "Movement platitudes" may come easily to those who mouth them, but they oversimplify the complex and comfort those who utter them at the expense of facing reality head-on.

Which is to say that Ephron had then and presumably has to this day no patience with ideologues, fools, poseurs and the self-deluded. The classic piece with which "Crazy Salad" ends, her evisceration of the post-sex-change Jan Morris ("James Morris has become Jan Morris, an Englishwoman who wears sweater sets and pearls, blushes frequently, bursts into tears at the littlest things, and loves having a gossip with someone named Mrs. Weatherby"), is delicious evidence that she is entirely capable of simultaneously wielding a stiletto and a bludgeon. Yet she is just as capable of doing an end run around the reader's expectations. The "frowzy, excessive, blathering" Martha Mitchell turns out, on close inspection, to be "charming" and "canny" and "moving." As for Rose Mary Woods:

"She gives the impression of being quite petite, and her friends say that she is somewhat frail physically and has suffered periodic bouts of pneumonia from overwork. She has literally worked seven-day, hundred-hour weeks, fifty-two weeks a year for twenty-three years -- and in many ways she is not at all unique. There are thousands of women like her in Washington, women who come here as girls, get secretarial jobs on Capitol Hill, devote their lives to politicians, and end up elderly spinsters, living on their government pensions in apartments full of political knickknacks."

Perhaps that has changed in the intervening years, what with the acceptance of many of feminism's precepts in society and the workforce, but one rather suspects it hasn't; the self-sacrificial urge that causes some people to genuflect before others is deep in human nature and can't be erased by slogans or laws. Ditto: ". . . life for women in Washington combined the worst qualities of the South and small-town life. Washington is a city of locker-room boys, and all the old, outmoded notions apply: men and women are ushered to separate rooms after dinner, sex is dirty, and they are still serving onion-soup dip." Again, in some ways that's changed -- there are now women on the Supreme Court, and no Washington host would dare separate the boys and the girls after dinner -- but the essential truth about this city and its attitude toward women is unchanged.

In these matters as in so many others, Ephron got it just right. Three decades after its publication, "Crazy Salad" remains smart, acerbic and very much to the point. It is also a great deal of fun.

"Crazy Salad" is available in a Modern Library paperback ($15).

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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