August 16, 2006

Between The Covers

Hotties, listen up. You may be far from hot flashes, but Nora Ephron, who's just turned 65, has some ageless advice: wear that bikini now. And "don't take it off until you're thirty-four."

Of course, hindsight's easy, but why not profit from a pro? Ephron (Wallflower at the Orgy, When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) has been there, done that and has had it done to her. Why not be forewarned?

As she says, "You can't be friends with people who call after 11 p.m.," "The last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," "You can order more than one dessert," and "There's no point in making pie crust from scratch."

Never mind what those useless upbeat manuals clogging bookstores say about the joys of aging: "The honest truth is that it's sad to be over sixty" — even if 60 is the new 50. Some body parts cannot be disguised. That's why "I Feel Bad About My Neck" opens Ephron's 15-essay collection.

Check out the ladies who lunch — they're wearing turtlenecks and scarves! Ephron also hates purses, eyeglasses and working out. "Until around 1910, people exercised all the time, but they didn't think of it as exercise — they thought of it as life itself" ("On Maintenance").

Ephron has always been at her best when she spikes her good humor with sharp wit and invests her sympathetic characters with pathos. Though dark undertones blip under the wire here and there, Ephron knows not only where but how to draw the line. As her mother used to say, "when you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke."

The wisdom seems to work for her. In "Serial Monogamy: A Memoir," about food "fitting into your life," Ephron delivers hilarious accounts of trying out various recipes along with a quick aside on her personal life —"I got married again, and divorced again." Though they're not named No. 1 was Dan Greenburg, No. 2, Carl Bernstein, who left her for the wife of the British Ambassador when Ephron was expecting their second child. Ephron is still married to No. 3, "Nick" [Nicholas Peleggi] but realizes after the "rapture" of reading John le Carré that George Smiley "is exactly the sort of person I ought to marry and never do."

The post-menopausal set will recognize their trials and tribulations in these essays (most, published previously), though in some, Ephron comes across as more privileged than she allows. Even as she would deflate seeming advantage with self-deprecating humor, her bottom line is fiscally substantial. She tallies up money spent in a beauty parlor ("more per year than my first automobile"), but explains that she just can't blow dry her own hair properly or do manicures and pedicures.

As for the $20,000 she plunked down for her teeth, blame the salons and their women's magazines and enticing ads. She may not have had plastic surgery but she's had just about everything else. New York is her town, she says, mainly because "you can pick up the phone and order anything and someone will deliver it to you."

It's hard to laugh or cry with her in "Moving On," over her painful love affair with the Apthorp (at Broadway and 79th) where she rented eight rooms, admitting that living shabby chic on the "unfashionable West Side" made her feel "virtuous and brainy." When, however, the state legislature passed a luxury decontrol law declaring that any tenant whose rent was more than $2,500 a month and earned more than $250,000 a year would be removed from rent stabilization, Ephron felt her raise was "unfair."

Though she insists the new amount she negotiated "wasn't that outrageous" as NY rents go, she says she's too "embarrassed" to disclose the figure. Like Woody Allen, Nora Ephron uses humor not only to satirize others, but, to some unintended extent, protect herself.

Some essays yield welcome surprises: Did JFK not make a pass at her because she was Jewish? In "Me and Bill: The End of Love" she forgives Clinton after seeing him recently on TV sounding so smart, but then comes to her senses: "you hypocrite, why don't you stand up and take a position against this [Iraq] war?"

The last piece, "Considering the Alternative," is Ephron in top form: funny and sensitive. Alas, her good friend Judy won't be going with her to the spring garden and antiques show in Bridgehampton anymore. "The long shadows are everywhere — friends dying and battling illness."

She loves Edith Piaf'— "Non, je ne regrette rien" — but though Ephron has survived most of her mistakes or turned them into funny stories, she regrets "beaucoup." Oh, well, off to the tub and lots of bath oil. Then the last word, suddenly, "Goodbye."

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron. Knopf, 160 pp., $19.95.

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