When Bea Arthur died, I was stuffing my face with guacamole at El Sol y La Luna’s at the time new location on the corner of 6th and Red River in Austin. My old friend Claire was double-fisting queso and smartphone, and with her drippy chip paused in mid-air, simply exclaimed, “Bea Arthur died!” I was immediately crying and also surprised that I was crying. I didn’t cry that much at my own grandmother’s funeral, but there I was blubbering into my plantains over the undeniable end of The Golden Girls.
Even then in the moment, I knew it would someday make a good story. As Nora Ephron was fond of saying, everything is copy.
So now whenever a beloved famous artist dies, our family uses the gentle opener of, “I don’t mean to Bea Arthur you, but…,” so that we don’t let any more perfectly good Mexican food go to waste. When Mary Tyler Moore passed away a few days ago, my wife and I were both at work and immediately hopped on the phone to say the same thing to one another at the same time. We watch The Dick Van Dyke Show every night at bedtime. We were inconsolable. Mary Tyler Moore is the primary inspiration for my trademark hair flip. Thank goodness I’m on deadline to review Nora Ephron: The Last Interview by Monday.
Meville House Publishing has this terrific series of short “last interview” books, each about a hundred pages with reprints of a couple of Q&As spanning the career of important thinkers. They run the gamut from Derrida to David Foster Wallace, Arendt to Lou Reed. I like them the way I like those Philosophy for Beginners comic books. They take a broad view, but pretty much remain down to earth and accessible. These kinds of books are for anyone with a passing interest who is smart but wants an overview without perhaps delving too terribly deeply. Like Ephron herself, her Last Interview installment is particularly digestible.
There are four interviews in it, from 1974, 2007, 2010 and 2012. Michael Lasky’s 1974 piece for Writer’s Digest focuses on journalism because Ephron was not yet writing screenplays. She worked as a reporter for the New York Post for five years, and then pioneered the voice of New Journalism as a columnist for Esquire and New York Magazine. Lasky’s questions are mainly about the barriers for female journalists and the process of writing a story. Ephron made a good living off of things she wrote for supermarket fare like Women’s Day or McCall’s, but she thought of it as prostitution.
“I say ‘hooking’ because these women realize they are writing under their level. […] That would mean a certain amount of compromise or oversimplification involved in the writing of it. […] But I won’t be able to do it at the intellectual level that is the most rewarding to me as a writer” (6). Then they get into the nitty gritty of does she use a tape recorder, does she create an outline, does she ever get writer’s block and so on (almost never, almost never, and never).
The 2007 installment is from Patrick McGilligan’s book of interviews with ’90s screenwriters. They talk about how journalism experience is very helpful in screenwriting, then they talk about all the things she learned from Mike Nichols during Silkwood and Tom Hanks during Sleepless in Seattle. When McGilligan pushes her on the tension of “struggling with the clichés of romantic comedy” as a “radical feminist”, she cheerily shuts him down for both loaded hyperboles.
“When did I describe myself as a radical feminist? I’m a feminist but never a radical feminist, to the best of my memory. But yet I still agree with that quote [‘So many of the conscious and unconscious ways men and women treat each other have to do with romantic and sexual fantasies that are deeply ingrained, not just in society but in literature.’]. And of course Hollywood plays a big part. That’s one of the subjects in all my romantic comedies — the role of other movies (or in the case of You’ve Got Mail books) in that fantasy” (37).
Kerry Lauerman, a senior editor at The Washington Post, contributes the 2010 article from Salon. This is after the launch of Ephron’s second memoir, I Remember Nothing proves just as wildly successful as her first, I Feel Bad About My Neck. They open with Ephron’s atheism, then hunker down on aging and death.They debate the relationship between painful experience and a sense of humor, where Ephron denies the stereotype. “There are simply too many funny people who had a completely normal childhood. Not necessarily happy, but who had a really happy childhood. Almost nobody worth knowing has a happy childhood” (50).
On the subject of regrets, she oddly invokes Nietzsche’s opinion on the merits of having only a single virtue. “Especially when you’re young, you’re so puffed up with your standards. That’s probably one of the only good things about being older is you have fewer and fewer standards” (57).
Her last interview was given to Kathryn Borel for The Believer in 2012. Borel says of Ephron in the introduction, “there’s a practicality to her charisma that is rare”, and I love the idea that “every bit of her work energy goes not into mythology, nor the crusade of the female comedy writer, but into the slog of writing, thinking, planning, and more working” (63-64). They talk about how much Ephron hates being rounded up for “this moment when you are suddenly pigeonholed and interviewed every March by some very talented reporter who has just gotten the new statistics that only 13 percent of movies were made by women this year, and how is it possible, and blah blah blah … And what you’re meant to do in those interviews is complain about how difficult it is” (78).
All the hallmarks of Ephron’s voice ring true across the four interviews, regardless of subject matter or time period. As Borel astutely notes, “your two greatest skills are that you elevate the minute to make it interesting, and you ground the tragic to make it relatable” (67). This high compliment provokes the first of only four parenthetical asides denoting Ephron’s action in any of the interviews: “[Laughs].” The other three are [Laughs] again, [Pause], and [Pause] again, which pretty well sums things up. Nora Ephron: The Last Interview provides an excellent means of both laughing and pausing, just as Ephron herself always did.