Liz Smith: More On the Divine Nora Ephron

Meryl Streep and Nora Ephron on the set of Julie and Julia.

“SHE WAS confident and she was consistent. Her voice proved that clear logic combined with stark honesty creates the most perfect wit. I think she’ll be an even bigger icon than Mark Twain.”

This is excellent writer Joan Juliet Buck on Nora Ephron. (You may have seen Joan playing the nasty French woman who tries to teach Julia Child how to cook in Nora’s film Julie and Julia.) Joan’s entire words on Nora — and being cast by Nora in the movie — appeared in The Daily Beast on June 28th.

I HAD dinner with two knowing friends on the day after Nora Ephron died and the gentleman host, who knew her slightly, asked me why her death at age 71 was such a big deal — in person and in the press?

He said, “I haven’t seen such an outpouring of love and interest since the sudden death of the Middle East diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Mr. Holbrooke was a brilliant but controversial devotee to Secretary of State Hillary Clintonand he wasn’t exactly popular and loved by everyone.) Said the gent: “ But Nora seems to be.

Yes. I wrote the other day about various tributes to Nora. And I hope you read Cynthia McFadden’s incredible piece about her titledDrama Without the Dramatic: Remembering a Legend, which appeared on Wowowow.com and in the Nightline correspondent’s ABC internet site on June 28. Such good writing.

I went to a get-together hours after Nora’s death became a reality. In its “hearty normality” it was one of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced. Everyone tried not to act broken-hearted. But people got into clumps commiserating. A chunky man I didn’t know stood alone in the middle of the living room, his glass sagging.

I said, “Come here and give me a hug.” He did, started weeping, and said: “A few years ago my wife died of cancer. In the doctor’s office, I saw Nora at the time. She looked fine, but she didn’t speak to me — just put her finger to her lips, like ‘Shhhh!’ and waved me off. I realized she didn’t want me to tell anyone I had seen her there. I never have told this until now.”

I just love the suggestion that Nora Ephron may be the Mark Twain of her own life and times. But the light has gone out for now.

THERE HAS been a lot printed about Nora belonging to the Harpies lunch group, but this nonsensical little gathering of women, who like to gossip at will and not see it in print, was the least thing in Nora’s busy life. Nora joined us late but she relished being a part of it.

The Harpies had come to be by accident in about 2002. We didn’t realize we had formed a group. Soon after, a few of us started trying to gather regularly. We then had the idea of a guest each time. We started by inviting George Clooney and he was a smash, of course, and it gave us a lot of wanted and unwanted attention in Michaels. But after Hugh Jackman turned us down, we decided to let it be just us — with an occasional female guest.

I suggested we call ourselves the Harpies, thinking it meant a group of naughty talky women. Some asked, “What’s a Harpy?” I said, knowingly, “Look it up!” (I was the one who needed to look it up; later, I discovered that a Harpie actually is an avenging/and, or a helpful spirit that likes to work alone. So, because of my mistake, we are misnamed.)

The Harpies in 2005 at Osteria del Circo. Standing (l. to r.): Liz Smith, Nora Ephron, Wendy Siegal, Bette Midler, Jeannie Williams, Maurie Perl. Seated (l. to r.): Lisa Caputo, Cynthia McFadden, Barbara Walters, and Peggy Siegal. Photo: JH.

But here is the crux of Nora and the Harpies.

After a meeting in 2010, she sent us “The Minutes (abridged) of the Harpies lunch.”

It goes like this: “Read Norris Church Mailer’s book … See Roman Polanskimovie … Go to Ylang23.com for jewelry … lose five pounds before having plastic surgery … Vanity Fair is a very good magazine … Beth Kseniak needs an assistant … Do not go to Sicily in August … Do not open windows while standing on chairs … Have electrolysis to remove hairs on your body … But you won’t need it after the age of 64 … Eat ginger cookie … Maurie Perl, thank you for a wonderful lunch.”

Liz and Nora.

So that day, as usual, Peggy Siegaltold us about where to buy jewelry … Norris Mailer was still alive … We noted our fave, Vanity Fair … I was in a cast from falling backwards off a chair … ABC’s Cynthia McFadden would find Beth a willing helper … Maybe the Roman Polanski ‘movie’ was Sheila Nevins’ HBO documentary … Someone had been to Sicily in August and knew better … And we always talked about plastic surgery at every Harpies get-together and who had had it? (None of us, of course.)

Nora became everyone’s favorite of all the Harpies and, as has been pointed out, she did not vie for attention. When she spoke, everybody else shut up. We knew when we had met our match.

So long, girlfriend, have a good rest! I’ll be writing about you and thinking about you for the rest of my days.

ENDQUOTE: “Man is that woman earnest!” That was Lynette Rice in last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly commenting on the now-infamous ousting of Ann Curry from the Today Show. And this was before the terrible moment came, live on TV, when Curry bade goodbye to her audience in one of the worst put-together “tributes” to a long-standing member of any team, anywhere.

Miss Rice has a point. Ann Curry isearnest, serious, given to deep questions. Empathetic to the nth degree. She doesn’t have a wacky sense of humor. Maybe she doesn’t find reporting news to be a funny business. (Guess what, it isn’t. Or at least it maybe shouldn’t be.) NBC had its tattered hat handed to it, in the wake of Curry’s body being thrown under the bus. Public humiliation is a terrible thing, possibly the worst thing.

But let’s not sob too deeply for Miss Curry. She is wealthy, she has incredible name recognition. Right now she has the sympathy of thousands if not millions of people. As Deborah Norville — anotherToday Show woman unceremoniously dismissed from her duties — noted: “ Just as an earthquake forces you to check the foundation of your home, having my own career shatter forced me to re-evaluate everything … I survived, even thrived, and so will Ann.”

“And she won’t have to get up at four in the morning anymore.”

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 7/2/12

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar TimIn808 says:

    Well, Liz, if you ever DO talk about plastic surgery amongst the Harpies, do tell me who does Barbara Walters’ work. She looks amazing for her age! Hell, she looks amazing if she was 50!

  2. avatar Linda says:

    “She looked fine, but she didn’t speak to me — just put her finger to her lips, like ‘Shhhh!’ and waved me off.”

    This makes perfect sense to me. In the different posts which have been made, consistently it told of a woman who could still a group just waiting for what was said next. A magnetic energy she probably knew early on that could be used to either keep the laughter coming – or surround her in sorrow.

    Being the mom of a daughter with cancer now, what she dreads more than the medical is the next person who is going to say “I’m sorry” or sees her differently than they did before. She was and still is a happy person who doesn’t want to be surrounded with sadness or create sadness in other people.

    Not too long ago, her boss for more than the last decade and somewhat of a surrogate father lost his battle with cancer. At his funeral his teenage daughter sang his favorite songs and ended with a strong statement her Dad had said many times. instead of saying “why me”, he would say “why not?” He felt he served a purpose in this world even wihen the disease took hold. My daughter said the same “why not” to me, though she followed the statement with saying she was a fighter and it would take more than this to bring her down.

    Nora gifted herself possibly in a way of keeping her circle of energy light without embracing the “why me” in her life.