07/05/2012 07:07 pm ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Farewell, Lady Phoenix: My Interview With Nora Ephron

On Nov. 15, 2010, Nora Ephron read from her essay collection, I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, to a packed audience at the Miami Book Fair. Earlier that day, I interviewed her for Topical Currents, a program on WLRN, South Florida's NPR affiliate. In our too-short time together, we reviewed her eventful life and career. Dressed in her customary black, she looked witchily beguiling -- and surprisingly frail. I suspected something was amiss but didn't ask. Nothing else suggested weakness. The moment she sat down in the studio, she started giving me and my producer directions. Not unexpected; I'd heard she was a little bossy. But her soft-voiced charm quickly won us over. She was a lady, in the non-ideological sense of the word, tough yet dignified, more Alice Roosevelt Longworth than Dorothy Parker, the despairing wisecracker she was often compared to.

Gore Vidal once praised his nemesis, Norman Mailer, for his willingness to experiment with different forms, to "re-bear himself like the Phoenix." Ephron likewise refused to dance to a single tune. While most people are content to hide behind shut doors, she searched for new ones to open. I hope the transcript excerpts below give an indication of our loss last week, when this extraordinary woman entered into her final incarnation:

ARIEL GONZALEZ: How have you coped with growing old?
NORA EPHRON: By writing about it... If you read about growing old, you have no idea what it's like. There are many books about your happy golden years and how you're going to be in your prime, but nothing really prepares you for all the indignities of it -- and I'm not even that old! Nobody tells you what's going to happen to your poor elbows, and that's the least of it... I read about this disease that has a fancy name, that Oliver Sacks has, where he doesn't remember people's faces, and when he looks in the mirror he doesn't even recognize himself. I thought, We all have that! I'll look in the mirror and go, "Who is that person?"

AG: Hollywood is in your blood. Both your parents were screenwriters, but you didn't follow in their footsteps right away. After college, you decided to become a journalist. Why?
NE: To rebel against my parents... I thought, I'm not going to do what they do, I'm going to go into journalism! And journalism was like a siren's song to me from the time I was a teenager... I'd read Brenda Starr and Lois Lane in the Superman comics and I had seen just enough movies and television shows about journalism to think that it was a romantic profession where you could not only write but you could probably date a journalist. Both of those things seemed equally good to me.

AG: I don't know if you've ever seen Mad Men --
NE: I have.
AG: A recurring theme of the show is the treatment of women in a pre-feminist workplace. Your journalistic career began around the time that Mad Men is set. Did you have to face much sexism?
NE: Sure. I think that as bad as journalism was, it wasn't as bad as the advertising business was just then. But it was pretty bad. When I went to be interviewed for my first job at Newsweek, which was the fantastic job of mail girl -- and there were no mail boys, by the way -- they said to me, "Why do you want to work at Newsweek magazine?" And I think I was supposed to say something like "It's such a fantastic magazine" or something, but I didn't really have any strong opinion about Newsweek so I said the truth, "Because I want to be a writer." And they said to me, "We don't have women writers at Newsweek." And what's fascinating about this is, first of all, no one would say that today, and the second thing is there were women writers at Newsweek... There were one or two women left over from World War II when it was sort of Rosie the Riveter and... they had to use women, they had no choice. But they weren't going to make that mistake again.

AG: Lillian Ross is mentioned in one of your essays [in I Remember Nothing]. She's a writer for the New Yorker. You met her at a party in the late '70s. But then you were somewhat famous, your profiles and articles had appeared in Esquire and New York magazine. But Ross wasn't impressed. You weren't surprised. You write that there was a 'cold war' between Esquire and the New Yorker. What was the difference between them?
NE: The New Yorker under William Shawn in those days --
AG: Also known as Mr. Shawn.
NE: He was always known as Mr. Shawn. And all the people at the New Yorker used to say "Mr. Shawn" like they were dropping the name of the Baal Shem Tov... But they were at this place where, by the way, everybody wanted to work because they got paid so much money. They had health insurance and they had contracts that gave them a certain amount of money every year. Everyone wanted to be at the New Yorker. And then Harold Hayes came along at Esquire and suddenly Esquire was this energetic sort of ballsy magazine with unbelievable covers by George Lois, it was really the zeitgeist at that moment. And those of us at Esquire felt we were not at all like the people at the New Yorker. We were --
AG: Hip?
NE: Well, we were climbing the greasy pole and we were ambitious and we wanted to be famous and they were all pretending they didn't want to be famous. It was a gigantic culture clash between the two publications.

AG: Your bestselling novel, Heartburn, was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. You wrote the screenplay. The director was Mike Nichols. You'd worked with Nichols before on Silkwood, a movie that didn't have many jokes --
NE: More than you think, more than you remember.
AG: Yeah, the Silkwood shower was hilarious... Nichols can do comedy and tragedy with equal ease. What was working with him like?
NE:: What was great for me, working with Mike Nichols in what became not my first script but my first movie, is that he had been a stage director, and so he liked the writer. It wasn't the way many directors are, who think of the writer as someone they wish would just go away the minute the movie starts being made. Alice Arlen and I wrote Silkwood together and he let us sit in on all the casting sessions and met with the production designer and -- because he knew when you write something you have a picture in your head of it and what's the harm of at least saying it out loud, so I felt it was like going to film school for me. He let us come to Texas where he shot the movie, gave us per diems so we could sit there and actually be part of it and it was an incredible education for me.

AG: Heartburn didn't do well at the box office... You've been very successful but --
NE: Heartburn eventually became a kind of hit.
AG: A cult hit?
NE: Not a cult hit. People love the movie, they see it on television all the time. I would say once a week someone says to me, "Oh my God, that movie!" And I think many people are surprised when they hear that it didn't do well.
AG: But initially it didn't do well.
NE: Yes, when it came out... which does matter to you, in terms of your emotions.
AG: After you wrote When Harry Met Sally, you became a film director. You've had hits like Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, Julia and Julia...but you've also had some bombs. When you were making these movies, did you have a sense that they weren't going to work out, that you were bewitched by a poor concept? Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
NE: When you have a flop... it takes up way more space in your brain, you noodle over it in a way that you never do about the hits... You toss and turn for days and weeks and months over what you should've done differently, and why didn't you know. You could say, "I should have known the day that such and such happened." But my experience is that you often don't know. Of if you know then that's replaced by your optimism in thinking, "Well, they all laughed." My experience is that if you are shooting a movie where the crew is falling on the ground laughing, where the camera operator has to stuff Kleenex into his mouth to keep from ruining the take because he's laughing so hard, you may be making a flop.

AG: Another flop was your play, Imaginary Friends --
NE: Oh, don't make me cry!
AG: I don't want to make you cry. But I'd like to discuss it for a moment. Imaginary Friends is about two female writers: Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman. Hellman was a playwright who was involved with the mystery novelist Dashiell Hammett. When her plays stopped attracting audiences, she turned to writing memoirs. You knew Hellman. What was she like?
NE: She was a piece of work. She had incredible energy, she had one of the great laughs of all time; she was a great storyteller, she told these fantastic stories, many of which turned out to be literally fantastic, which is to say they were fantasies, they weren't true at all. But I didn't know that when I met her. She had just done Pentimento, her second memoir. It was so romantic about her and Hammett that when I subsequently found out that they had barely had a sex life for most of their relationship I didn't even care.
AG: What inspired you to write a play about her and McCarthy?
NE: Mary McCarthy and she had a gigantic fight because Mary McCarthy called her a liar on television. Mary McCarthy was on the Dick Cavett Show and Dick Cavett asked what she thought of Lillian Hellman and she said this famous famous line: "Everything she says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" So Lillian Hellman sued her for libel and essentially they destroyed one another. I don't mean Mary McCarthy was destroyed as a writer. But she was destroyed financially. If you have no appetite for litigation, which Lilian did -- Lillian was a fighter, Lillian was a dramatist, Lillian wanted to have conflict because you know you couldn't have the end of a first act without it. So Lillian just fed on it and Mary McCarthy -- and I identify with Mary McCarthy in this area because it is no fun to be in a lawsuit, it is a nightmare and it was before the invention of Ambien so it was a really difficult thing... Mary McCarthy was destroyed by it and Lillian was destroyed by it because it was considered a horrible thing that she had sued someone for libel, she allegedly believed in the First Amendment and we all believed that people could say pretty much anything they wanted to.
AG: In your play Hellman says, "We all wanted to be one of the boys." These women would not have called themselves feminists, right?
NE: That's right.
AG: This was the last generation of female intellectuals before what we consider the modern feminist movement.
NE: Yes, and they had made it and therefore anyone could. That was their thinking. They were proof that you could do it.

AG: You were on Bill Maher's show recently, along with Michael Moore, who got quite irate over the Iraq War. In your new book, your write about seeing Thomas Friedman at a conference. Friedman is a New York Times columnist who enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. Of course, we know how that turned out. But his books are still bestsellers and he's still a frequent guest on talk shows and panels... Isn't that the problem? None of these people who were wrong about the war -- about anything -- ever suffer a penalty. If you're a pundit, you can be wrong all the time as long as you're interesting.
NE: Everybody was wrong about the war, except me and probably you. There was an army of people who believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that therefore we should do something about it. Because I work at home, I spend a huge amount of time not writing, and I had been watching Hans Blix at the UN and I thought, We don't know yet, we really don't any about any of this. I didn't understand why other people didn't see that. But I think other people had other things in mind with that war, I think there's no question there were other agendas... I think Thomas Friedman is wrong about a lot of things... If the world were flat, we would be in much better shape that we are. This idea that there are no walls and the truth is going to get out there and hop into countries with different cultures from ours is simply not true.