She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron

9781476796147_p0_v2_s464x700    When Nora Ephron died, her story became legend; how she influenced lives emerged in articles and books, but none so intimate and revealing as Richard Cohen’s inside look at her life – She Made Me Laugh. Cohen offers his platonic love story with the famous writer – a long valentine detailing her quirks, her loyalty, her genius – but with  snarky asides Ephron can no longer challenge.

With a style purposely mimicking Dorothy Parker, her role model, Nora Ephron not only created an enviable collection of essays, plays, and movies but also reigned over her own round table, like Parker, as a social maven and hostess.    Cohen details the dinner parties with celebrities, embellished with perfunctory  discussion topics and after dinner games designed to entertain as well as intimidate – Diane Keaton famously refused to play and Cohen himself admits to cheating to win.

Although I knew most of her body of work through movies and her most recent books, her earlier essays were a surprise and the sheer volume amazed me.   Cohen covers her career, from reporting for The Wellesley College News to mail girl at Newsweek,  to columnist, essay writer, novelist, screenwriter, director, and playwright.  In one evaluation of her prolific work, Cohen offers his own scorching critique:  “For Nora, the story came first. . . . Telling it was her job, her duty. She rarely let sentiment get in the way. . . . It cost her some friendships. It’s not clear, though, if it ever cost her a night’s sleep.”

I remember seeing her last creative effort, the play Lucky Guy about tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, who won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before he died at 41.  In the play he says: “If you are a doctor or a lawyer, you take the case. If you’re a reporter, you write the story.  I didn’t think about being sick.”  When I saw the play, I was impressed by the trademark Ephron wit, but not by the story or the lead character as played by Tom Hanks.  Cohen notes it as Ephron’s determination to leave one last literary mark, using McAlary as a role model of dying: “{The play} was about  Nora Ephron the beloved writer, wit, public personality, film director…” – the reason so many wanted to see it after she died.  He cruelly adds “…it is doubtful {the play} will ever be seen again.”

Ephron’s long illness and seemingly sudden death came as a surprise to her readers.  Only a few knew of her struggle, but her death triggered an avalanche of grief and an amazing amount of writing – about her.  At first, Cohen could find little wrong with his old friend, but as he wrote about their long relationship as fellow writers who witnessed each other’s lives through marriages and divorces, he seems compelled to humanize her with inside gossip about her flaws.  Cohen,  like so many others he identifies in the book, credits Ephron with his own success through her personal and career support, but can’t help disingenuously remarking “You knew some things; she knew everything…if she turned cold, it was more than an emotional rebuff, it was a failure: You had flunked Nora.”

Although I read the book in one sitting, I had to stop now and then to check the references – watching you-tube moments of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and listening to Ephron’s 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley, her alma mater.  Cohen’s memory did not always survive the fact checking, and his disorganized approach backtracked and repeated, but always adding a gossipy note – not always flattering to his subject.

Ephors died at 71, which seems awfully young to me, and of the same AML my brother died of in his forties.  She had rallied with illness for over six years, with very few knowing about it, and in that time, “she wrote 100 blog posts, two plays, directed a movie.”  She is beloved by readers who enjoyed her wit, and may have a place as patron saint of writers, but her old friend, Richard Cohen, had the last word on her indiscreet and sometimes frenetic approach to life.

His book has all the notes of a long friendship, revealing more than most of us probably should know.  Save us from our friends, especially if they are writers.

Related Review:   I Remember Nothing

 

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