By Carolyn See
Friday, November 12, 2010; C07
I REMEMBER NOTHING
And Other Reflections
By Nora Ephron
Knopf. 137 pp. $22.95
It was in Esquire, in the 1970s, that I first learned Nora Ephron's recipe for borscht -- certainly an editorial first for that manly magazine. And I read with high emotion Ephron's tales of watching her philandering husband asleep in their marriage bed, and how she longed to hit him with a skillet. And I read about the squabble Ephron and her three sisters got into about which one of them would inherit their mother's fur coat -- as their mother lay dying with such impeccable manners, making sure to introduce each visitor to every other visitor.
It's only been later, though, through almost half a century of writing, during which the author moved from mundane to fabulous and sometimes back again, that I realized her mother was, by that time, a full-on alcoholic, dying of liver disease. Now, in this collection, her mother gets mentioned often, but the tone is burnished, matter-or-fact. "She was a cut above the other mothers. . . . None of them had careers and children. . . . Also, she served delicious food, which was another way she liked to rub it in. And she could keep help. What's more, she dressed beautifully. . . . And then she ruined the narrative by becoming a crazy drunk." All this is from her new book, "I Remember Nothing," a collection of essays, which, like the rest of her career, moves from mundane to fabulous and sometimes back again.
Her films have usually been madly popular and wittily romantic comedies such as "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle." After she and Carl Bernstein broke up, she wrote "Heartburn," an acerbic, comedic book that also became a successful film.
Her essays, which maintain a separate life from the screenplays, come from a unique niche in American letters. Like many women, Ephron wrote about the stuff of family life: her apartment, cooking (a recipe for bread pudding takes the borscht position in this collection), her longings, her friends, her pastimes, her career. What makes this unique, though, is that Ephron's life has been -- from its beginning -- steeped in privilege and casual fame.
All women (and some men) may relate to the author feeling bad about her neck in her last collection, or -- in this new one -- her "Aruba," which turns out to be "the little bare space" on the back of her head. After a certain age, we probably all have one, and to discover it does not come as good news: "What is true is that I am older than I look, and my Aruba is a sign." Yes, we tend to have one, and we can sympathize.
But this fame-and-privilege thing is something most of us don't have. Ephron's mother, a successful screenwriter, had a famous run-in with Lillian Ross, the venerated New Yorker writer, and kicked her out of the house. The essay about this here is called "The Legend," and it's hard to know if "the legend" is the kicking-out business, or Lillian Ross, or Nora's own mother. Probably all three.
Some decades later, in another, masterly essay, "Pentimento," Ephron remembers her own relationship with a different Lillian, Lillian Hellman, distinguished playwright, Dashiell Hammett's longtime girlfriend and sometime plagiarist. For quite a while it's been fashionable to talk trash about Hellman, and the reader hasn't a clue, until the end, what the author's take is going to be on this curmudgeonly literary monument. The rest of us would be hard-pressed to have even one Lillian to kick around.
The other night I was lucky to attend the 100th birthday party of the Chinese artist Tyrus Wong. In heavily accent English -- he's only been in this country for 91 years -- Wong said that the success of his joyous career came from "good luck and hard work." The same can be said of Ephron. Luck is certainly a big part of her body of work. She was in absolutely the right places at the right time. She was on assignment at "The Ed Sullivan Show" the night the Beatles appeared. And she remembers (vaguely) the march on Washington in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War: "I went with a lawyer I was dating. We spent most of the day in a hotel room having sex." People she met but can "remember nothing about" include Justice Hugo Black, Ethel Merman and Jimmy Stewart, and they're just the first three. How many of us are lucky enough to meet -- or forget -- such people?
The hard work part of her life can be seen in her lengthy bibliography and especially in the essay "My Life as an Heiress," which turns out to be a cousin to that fur coat piece from so long ago. The privilege-and-fame aspect of things can't be accurately measured, but it's evident, through and through.
What you can finally say about Ephron is that she's a tremendously talented woman from a significant American period. Yes, she has some trouble making up her mind. She'll come horrifyingly close to self-denigration (in the divorce essay, for example), but then, just in case you might go along with that gag, she'll dazzle you in the next pages with strings of perfect prose. Luck, hard work, privilege, yes, yes, yes. But tremendous talent is her forte, her strong suit, her fiendish trump card.
See reviews books every Friday for The Post.
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