In September 2009, I went to one of the first Broadway performances of Love Loss and What I Wore. Being a Nora Ephron junkie, I’d bought my ticket weeks earlier in Australia, the only show I booked before leaving home. My eagerness scored me a front row seat.
The night I went, Rosie O’Donnell and Tyne Daly were in the cast. I remember thinking how nervous and shy Rosie seemed, that she should do more acting because she was really good; and being overwhelmed by sitting in such close proximity to the sexy cheek boned half of Cagney & Lacey.
I also remember that I was very late and desperately thirsty when I got to the theatre, and that I only just had time to grab a water from the concession stand before they closed the doors. As the lights went down, I discovered the bottle’s lid was screwed on so tightly no amount of palm shredding attempts to open it were going to work. I’d have to wait until intermission to swap it, and resigned myself to saving up what little saliva my mouth was producing.
Turned out there was no intermission, and this was an Ephron piece. Forget retaining moisture (the Ephron sister’s ability to make you do that unattractive laughing while crying thing is the stuff of legend), I had tears streaming down my face. It was hilarious, of course, and at times heart breaking. It was dramatic and wry, and ultimately very touching. It was, as I said already, an Ephron piece.
By show’s end, I was in a state of near panic that my death from dehydration was imminent, and the downside to being in the front row (other than distracting the actors by struggling to open your water bottle) is that you’re the last person out the door. I started picking out which audience members were going to be the slowest exiters, thereby delaying my run to the bar. No dice. The entire audience, although upstanding, were at a standstill. Minutes passed. I inched forward. I couldn’t see what the delay was and frankly, I didn’t care because Ijustwantedafuckingdrinkofwaterthankyouverymuch.
Finally I was in spitting distance of the exit (not that I had any spit to waste at that stage). I got ready to push through two old ladies in front of me. And then I realised. The obstruction was Nora Ephron herself.
Turned out she’d had an aisle seat in the back row (the perfect seat for a hyperventilating thirsty person, if you think about it) and once recognised, was graciously answering people’s questions and signing autographs. It seemed every woman there wanted to chat.
Now, Nora Ephron is my absolute idol. On paper she is everything I hope to be as a writer, and from what I’ve seen in interviews, a lot of what I’d like to be as a human. But I have never gone up to anyone famous and said hello. It’s always struck me as a bit suburban. So I kept walking.
I was in such a daze at having seen her in the flesh that I walked straight past the water seller behind her, out on the street before I decided I couldn’t just walk away. I needed to meet her. I got back inside as she was leaving through a side door.
“Excuse me, Ms Ephron?”
Awkwardly, it wasn’t until she turned around I realised I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. I was completely overwhelmed by her standing in front of me. I stood in silence, just staring. Happily for me, she must have experienced mute Australians before, because she took my hand, patted it and told me to breathe. Then she laughed. I made Nora Ephron laugh. Not the way I’d hoped, but it was a laugh nonetheless. I think I muttered something about being from Australia and that I was desperately in love with her and she’d made such an impact on me and I’m a writer and oh my gosh I can’t believe it’s really you and you’re the one person who’s work I can’t get enough of and you’re just amazing would you like to adopt me? (See why I don’t go up to famous people and say hello?) She was completely lovely, thanked me for coming to the show, and wished me a good night. Then she got the hell away from the crazy person.
I was ecstatic. It didn’t even matter that I’d made a complete dick of myself. I had met my hero. I ran down 42nd Street so elated that I even smiled at a creepy kid outside the Port Authority who held a huge rat in my face and said “Hello Blondie” despite my hair being undeniably auburn. I imagine I bought another water at some stage. I can’t recall.
God knows what she made of me. Nothing, I suspect. I doubt I’m the only fan to have accosted her – the 30 minute wait to get out the theatre proves that, and when you’ve met one rambling idiot you’ve met them all. But when I heard the news four days ago that Nora Ephron had died, I was glad I’d had the chance to thank her. I may not have made an impact on her, but the reverse does not apply.
It’s rare that a ‘behind the scenes’ person’s death gets as much air time as Nora Ephron’s premature passing has, but she was a rare talent. She knew for sure what the rest of us struggle to believe – that the human condition is universal. It’s incomprehensible that an Upper West Side, Jewish raised straight woman who loved to cook could describe exactly how it felt for a Catholic educated Australian girl with burgeoning lesbian tendencies and a fear of the kitchen to fall in love. And yet, she nailed it.
I no longer remember how I discovered Nora Ephron, she’s just kind of always been there, but I do know that being exposed to her made me feel less alone. She understood me. By the time I got round to reading Heartburn, with the line “When I first met him, he had a recurrent nightmare that Henry Kissinger was chasing him with a knife, and I said it was really his father, and he said it was really Henry Kissinger, and I said it was his father and he said it was Henry Kissinger, and this went on for months until he started going to the Central American shrinkette, who said Henry Kissinger was really his younger sister”, I was obsessed with the Ephron view of the world.
I forced my mother to watch her movies and read her books, knowing that she would relate to them from her own unique place too. I sat through When Harry Met Sally… with both my parents, my prepubescent cheeks flushing red during the Katz Deli scene. When I was sixteen, my aunt took me to see Sleepless in Seattle and spent the entire movie grabbing my arm and telling me to wear my hair just like Meg Ryan’s character because we were so alike (we’re nothing alike, and as I’d just cut all my hair off in a wave of stupidity, I certainly wasn’t going to be replicating Annie Reed’s braid any time soon). I sat in a cinema near Lincoln Centre, crowded with middle aged Americans, and watched Julie & Julia, never once feeling I enjoyed it any less than the people around me. She wrote about the absurdity of feminine hygiene spray and called bullshit on those who said having small breasts was a privilege. And she showed men that it wasn’t just okay to be romantic, but that girls actually liked that sort of thing. Watching an Ephron ‘chick flick’ with your girlfriend wasn’t merely a way to score brownie points, it was an emotional instruction video.
Nora Ephron’s ability to put into achingly simple words those indescribable life moments meant we all bonded over the shared experience of her films.
Now, as I am struggling to explain why I feel so acutely the loss of a woman I never knew, I can’t help thinking I’ll never understand without Nora herself to make sense of it. Perhaps I’m better off leaving it to the expert anyway. To paraphrase Sam Baldwin in Sleepless in Seattle, her writing was “like coming home…only to no home I’ve ever known.”
I should have known she’d already written the perfect sentiment.