Four sisters, all writers -- not just the one we know best -- came of age in the shadow of a complicated, talented, hard-drinking mother. It wasn't easy, but it made them who they are.
By Hallie Ephron
"I loved your sister."
I hear that refrain from strangers at writing conferences, libraries, and bookstores, wherever I go to talk about my own novels. I accept heartfelt condolences from people who never met Nora but adored her movies and her books.
These well-meaning strangers often ask, "What was it like, being her sister?"
I tell them that I looked up to her the way younger sisters do. That she was seven years older than me and a tough act to follow. I might add that she was a voracious reader with a monster intellect who had opinions on everything, including things she knew little about. Once, after a particularly lively discussion during Thanksgiving dinner, I asked Nora how in the world she managed to stay so well informed. "I don't," she told me. "It doesn't matter how much you know; what matters is how confidently you say it."
She also had an uncanny sense of what was soon to be current. She wrote about quiche before many of us had tasted, never mind baked, one. She wrote about breasts before we were comfortable seeing the word in print. Her essays on aging had a generation of women obsessing over their necks.
Living as she did through the birth (and some would say death) of women's lib, she was a feminist. But she bristled at being labeled. She led by example, not by carrying placards. She was hardworking, with seemingly boundless energy—even in her last week in the hospital, fighting leukemia and exhausted from chemo, she was developing a new project.
Sympathy was never Nora's strong suit. She was the last person I'd call if I needed a shoulder to cry on. She'd say, "Deal with it." That's what she did when bad things happened; pity was something she neither accepted nor offered. It made perfect sense to me that she didn't tell many of her closest friends how sick she was.
Beyond this, I knew her well enough to know I didn't know her that well at all.
Sometimes when people ask about Nora, I feel like saying, "There are three other Ephron sisters." Delia and Amy have screenplays and best-selling books to their credit. Even though I got a late start, first publishing an essay when I was 50 years old, I've since written eight suspense novels. But to understand any of us, including Nora, you'd have to start with our mother -- a woman well ahead of her time. Of all the Ephron women, she was surely the most exceptional, for better or worse.
Phoebe Wolkind Ephron cracked wise like Dorothy Parker and looked like Katharine Hepburn. She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party of America's candidate for president. She hated to shop, didn't do housework, and never chatted on the phone or met friends for lunch.
One early photograph captures her in a rare maternal moment: sitting in a chair, feeding a baby -- Nora. It is June of 1941. My mother is 27 years old. The portrait is lovely, and yet the longer I look at it, the more it seems suspect, this semblance of domesticity.
When she got pregnant, she'd had to quit work, as women did in those days. She went from being a secretary for a top Broadway producer to walking a baby carriage up and down Riverside Park, near the apartment she and my father shared with her parents. She must have appreciated the irony of it -- playing the role of traditional wife yet naming her firstborn for Nora Helmer, the character who famously walks out on a stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. My mother, too, was determined to be more than a "doll-wife."
My father, Henry Ephron, didn't expect her to stay home and take care of the kids. Stage manager for Broadway legends Kaufman and Hart, he had for years been churning out plays he couldn't convince anyone to produce. When Nora was still an infant, he asked my mother not to go back to work but to collaborate with him.
Why not? He had connections. She could type. All they needed was a great idea. And she came up with one: An unhappy new mother moves in with her parents in a cramped apartment that's already crowded with crazy relatives. She arrives, alone and in tears with the baby and a carriage and a pile of diapers. The baby cries. The new mother cries. The maid (it seems even families in two-bedroom apartments had one in those days) quits. It's a farce with the baby as the whoopee cushion. This was my mother's brand of alchemy, transforming unhappiness into comedy -- her ticket out.
Three's a Family opened in 1943 and ran for 497 performances. The Playbill credits writers "Phoebe and Henry Ephron." She insisted her name come first.
Delia was born in 1944, and by the time I came along four years later the family was living in California. My parents had signed a seven-year contract to write screenplays for Twentieth Century Fox. Nora was in elementary school, Delia home with a nanny; my mother barely paused to give birth to me. She went into labor while she and my father were writing the final scene of Look for the Silver Lining. After she banged out "The End," they drove to the hospital.
We lived in a Spanish-style, white stucco, 14-room Beverly Hills house. In a photo taken in its gated courtyard, lush with camellia bushes and shaded by an olive tree, my mother poses, holding me. By her side, an ever-confident Nora smiles and curtsies in her party dress; she's the star of the picture. My sister Delia, wearing a dress that sticks out around her like a lampshade, sucks her thumb and fidgets. Something is dribbling out of my mouth, and I'm already squirming to get down so I can trail after Delia and Nora. Four years later, the youngest Ephron sister was born and my mother named her Amy, after the fourth sister in Little Women.
As we got older, we grew comfortable in roles that met our parents' expectations. Nora was the smart one. Delia, the comedian. I was the pretty, obedient one. And Amy was the adventurous mischief-maker. But in reality, we were more alike than we were different -- all bossy and opinionated, witty and articulate, like our mother. At dinner, a three-course event that anchored every evening at 6:30 sharp, the competition for airtime was Darwinian. My instinct was to step back from the fray -- I didn't have the stomach to fight to be heard.
Our mother called her brand of mothering "letting them make their own mistakes." She was fairly useless when I got my first period. Couldn't understand why I might need a bra when I was still, as she charitably put it, "flat as a pancake." Prided herself on letting us walk to school and skipping parent-teacher night. It wouldn't have occurred to her to stay up to talk to me after my first date.
But as a wife, she believed her commitment was traditional: "Until death do us part." When she found out my father was fooling around with other women, she didn't walk out on him like Ibsen's Nora. She'd lost the alchemical powers that might once have enabled her to transform the betrayal into a wickedly funny story, the way our Nora would years later, turning her husband's infidelity into the best-selling roman à clef Heartburn. Or the way Delia turned our father's endless crazy phone calls into the comic novel Hanging Up. Or the way Amy transformed the theft of all her jewelry into a poignant essay, "Loose Diamonds." Or the way I reimagined the end of my mother's life in my novel There Was an Old Woman.
Instead, my mother drank. My father drank, too. Alcohol ignited her anger, and sometimes they fought from midnight to dawn. By the time Delia and I were both in college, things got so bad that Amy ran away and ended up moving in with Nora and her first husband in an apartment near Central Park.
Flawed as she was in most respects as a mother, she did find a uniquely personal way to provide life lessons and models for us to emulate -- introducing us to the extraordinary world of books. After dinner, she might haul out a poetry anthology and read aloud, as if words were the second dessert. She doled out picture books and novels the way other mothers might bestow toys or cookies. She didn't make a big deal about it, but the stories she chose for us featured strong female characters. There was Madeline, the diminutive French girl who is "not afraid of mice"; Eloise, the cheeky 6-year-old in a pleated skirt and falling-down suspenders who turns the Plaza Hotel into her personal playground; Dorothy Gale, an ordinary girl who, armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and consummate good sense, finds her way home from Oz.
The book that made a lasting impression was the one my mother gave each of us when she decided we were ready for our first "adult novel," Lucy Maud Montgomery's The Blue Castle. It tells the story of 29-year-old Valancy Stirling, whose only escape from her odious family and colorless life is her imaginary Blue Castle. Diagnosed with a fatal heart condition and given just months to live, she then refuses to be relegated to "hopeless old maidenhood." She proposes marriage to a rough, reclusive man with a mysterious past. Undaunted by the locked room he forbids her to enter, Valancy says, "I don't care how many wives you have hanging up in it. So long as they're really dead." "Dead as door-nails," he assures her.
I inhaled that book, finishing it late at night by flashlight under the covers. It turns out Valancy's doctor mailed her the wrong diagnosis; the only thing wrong with her at the beginning was a weak will. The novel's message is clear: You're a victim only if you let yourself be.
Excellent advice, which my mother bequeathed to us through that book. I wish she'd been able to follow it herself.
I have no photographs of my mother in her final years. Among the few that were taken at my wedding, there's just a single blurry shot of her pointing her finger at the photographer and scolding him for trying to take her picture. Two years later, she was hospitalized with cirrhosis. Dry and mordant to the end, when she was in the hospital she said to Nora, "You're a writer. Take notes." She died when she was 57 years old; I was 23.
Visiting Nora's apartment recently, I was surprised to see many of the Oz books we grew up with, lining a shelf in her bright living room. I took one down and, sure enough, there was my mother's name, printed in block letters on the flyleaf.
Jealousy flared. It didn't seem fair that Nora, who'd gotten the benefit of our mother's earlier nurturing moments and more of her happier years, made off with the best of the books, too. For just a minute or two I felt sorry for myself. Then I pulled out a pen, and started to take notes.
In the years after my mother died, I told myself that I was nothing like her. I had a real job, teaching, and later working in high tech. I had a happy marriage and two great daughters with whom I loved to shop and cook and chat on the phone. I never got roaring drunk, and couldn't stand to be around anyone who was. That was all to the good. But for decades, I also thought of myself as the pretty, obedient sister, the one who preferred not to compete. So, of course I didn't write.
Then, not on a single day but over time, I started thinking about my mother, trying to get beyond the unhappiness that poisoned the last decades of her life. I dug out old pictures and tried to imagine what she was thinking. I wondered how she felt about us. About me. I collected copies of many of the books she'd given us. And as I accepted the complicated person she was, I realized that I didn't have to be the obedient, pretty one. Now I like to think I'm channeling a bit of Valancy Stirling in my suspense novels about ordinary young women who discover that they're willing to defy expectations. Willing to look behind the locked door.
Hallie Ephron's eighth novel, There Was an Old Woman (William Morrow), came out in April.
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