In forever ago 1983, Carl Bernstein cheated on pregnant Nora Ephron, and she divorced him and wrote “Heartburn,” an instant bestseller. On the eve of publication, I published a piece about Nora and the book in New York Magazine. It was dishy, and quoted many of Nora’s friends, and, if an article could have gone viral then, this would have.
All these years later, Erica Heller — the daughter of Joseph Heller, who wrote Catch-22 — has published One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with Those Who Meant So Much to Us. It’s a banquet of stories: Kirk Douglas. Julia Child. Jesus. Steve Jobs. David Bowie. Groucho Marx. Robin Williams. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And … Nora Ephron.
In a world that no longer exists, my piece would run in New York Magazine, with a slug on the cover, and the chattering class would chat about it. In this world, New York and every magazine you can name is 24/7 COVID, and conventional publication is impossible. Even so, there have been reviews, all enthusiastic. And civilians have weighed in. Helen Mirren: “’One Last Lunch’ is a powerful, surprise-filled read that is as charming and funny as it is moving.” Carly Simon: “’One Last Lunch’ is a treasure trove filled with personal remembrances, some savory, some sweet, others haunting, hilarious and ultimately healing. This book resonates and works its way right into your heart.”
I have 5,000 “friends” on Facebook, but not really — I actually know just a few hundred of them. And I could say I was Nora Ephron’s “friend” from 1974 to 1982, but I was really just a friend-once-removed — for a few of those years, I was living with a writer who had been dating Carl Bernstein when he met Nora, and Carl, never strong on the one man/one woman thing, asked Nora for dinner, so Nora called her friend and asked if it would be okay for her to go out with Carl, and it was, which cleared the path for the debacle that was Nora-and-Carl’s marriage and the romance that put me in Nora’s orbit.
I wrote a piece for Nora at Esquire. I was in the horse-drawn carriage Carl commandeered and overturned after a drunken dinner at Le Cirque. And when Nora left Carl — as any wife might if her husband had an affair while she was pregnant — we both lived in the Apthorp, the baronial apartment building on the Upper West Side. So, okay, “friends.” In the specific, situational, Manhattan meaning of the word.
And then Nora wrote “Heartburn,” a novel about a Washington-based political journalist who has an affair while his wife is pregnant.
The idea to do a piece about Nora’s intensely autobiographical novel was a no-brainer: I’d toss some questions to my friend, and she’d hit 2,000 words over the fence. I could have placed that Q&A anywhere, but I was a contract writer at New York in that decade, so I pitched it to Ed Kosner, who assigned it. And then I called Nora.
Nora said she would only be doing interviews in the cities she toured, and then only on the day she was in those cities — there would be no previews of the book, no glossy press. And then she delivered the line that chilled: “I forbid you to do this piece.”
Ed Kosner’s reaction: “Who do you work for — her or me?”
Gee, now that he put it that way…
I called Nora. I said I was doing the piece and that I’d tell everyone that she had declined to be interviewed.
We never spoke again.
“Scenes from a Marriage” was published in March, 1983. (It’s online; you can find it here.) It presented a Nora Ephron radically different from the charmingly opinionated survivor in her book — I’d interviewed many of her friends, and, to my surprise, they’d not only failed to kiss the ring, some had expressed astonishment at the mere existence of “Heartburn.” (As it happened, my story wasn’t the worst for Nora. Leon Wieseltier, writing under the pseudonym Tristan Vox, took on the morality of the book in Vanity Fair. “Here is Carl Bernstein and adultery; there is Nora Ephron and child abuse,” Wieseltier wrote. “It is no contest.”)
I didn’t see Nora for 20 years. Then, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2004, she turned a corner and there I was. It was a movie moment. She didn’t gasp, but close. Clearly there was no statute of limitations on the crime I’d committed against her.
Nora Ephron died in 2012. But for her legion of fans, she’s astonishingly present, eternally alive in her writing and her movies. I recently read a piece that asked “What would Nora do?”
Good question. What would Nora do if, by the magic of literary conjuring, she were yanked back from beyond to have lunch with me? She wouldn’t be pleased by her companion. But as even her friends will admit, Nora was one of the greatest control freaks on the planet — who but Nora would, in her terminal year, have the presence of mind to befriend the new “It” girl, Lena Dunham, knowing that she could place her account of their friendship in The New Yorker. She might loathe me, but she could use me to burnish the identity she’d brilliantly created: accessible icon, chatty neighbor, eternal romantic.
A conversation for all eternity — what could I ask that would get her to go beyond the quips and opinions that made her name? How could I make our lunch matter? More to the point, why did I want it to? Why couldn’t I, as I wanted to do three decades ago, serve up questions she could easily hit out of the park?
My method as an interviewer is to read everything and write a hundred questions — and then throw all that away and play the moment. And yet, as I walked into Michael’s, the media lunch room, I was aware this conversation would be different. In life, Nora was an A-list star, effortlessly flitting from pieces to plays to movies. If she was ever nervous, no one saw it. Me, I’m a nail-biter.
Ah, there she is, seated at a good table in the front room of Michael’s, like a Dickens ghost, seen only by me. In a lovely memory piece, her son Jacob described her uniform: “Chanel flats and cream-colored pants and a black-and-white-striped blouse.” That is exactly how she looked. Unchanged.
The waiter brought me what I always order: ginger ale.
“This is… beyond amazing,” I said. “You look great.”
“You couldn’t think of anyone else?”
“Like someone from history?
“I hear Michelangelo was a fascinating guy.”
“I thought of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. But you and I had unfinished business, so…”
“I died, Jesse. Our business couldn’t be more finished.”
“For you. I’m still here.”
“Oh, dear. You want to unwind the clock, make it right?”
Whatever she’d had in mind, this wasn’t it.
“In the ‘60s, I was a ferocious journalist, fearless, confrontational, exciting to read. In the ‘70s, I lost my nerve. I trimmed my outrage, I wrote nice profiles. And then you came along. I had to do the piece, but it didn’t have to be so… honest.”
“Oh, is that what it was?”
“You lived it, I wrote it down. After, I remembered that was what good journalism is. And for the next few decades, that’s how I wrote. So… I owe you.”
“I’m happy to have helped,” she said, though by the way she delivered the line, I doubted she was.
“I’m curious: What was it like for you to read that piece?”
“I didn’t read it.”
“You caught me in the act.”
“Writing it, I thought: This woman is as scared and insecure as I am.”
“Or more. I had two small children, and…” She caught herself before she could reveal more. “Your life worked out. And you’re still living it.”
“You cannot imagine.”
“What’s it like… over there?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I can’t. Words are inadequate.”
Imagine that: a description of eternity eludes a writer who had something to say about everything.
I didn’t mean to ask that, but as soon as I did, I knew this was why I’d wanted this conversation with Nora. All these years later, I still felt her power, still hoped for her approval.
“Death is nothing but forgiveness.”
There’s a moment in a conversation when the exchanges aren’t strategic or social, a moment when two people are, simply and sincerely, saying what they believe to be true. Was this that moment? Was there more to say?
I felt a spectral presence behind me. Nora brightened. My ability to see the dead extended only a few feet, so it wasn’t until the presence was standing directly beside me that I recognized him: Mike Nichols, looking as suave as ever.
“Just a minute, Mike,” Nora said, and I realized that she and Mike often had something they called lunch at Michael’s, and our conversation, this once-in-a-lifetime communication with the dead, was far more important to me than it was for Nora. For me she was a window into eternity; for her I was a chore. Ms. Ephron simply didn’t dwell on unhappiness.
I pushed my chair back, stepped aside for Mike Nichols. Nothing, really, had changed. I got the last word. Nobody got the last laugh.
“One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us,” edited by Erica Heller. Copyright © 2020 by Erica Heller. Excerpted with permission by Abrams Press.