When Olivia Met Nora
Autumn in Manhattan: Central Park kindled in colour. When Harry Met Sally season. It was pouring rain, and I was walking through the Upper East Side en route to my meeting with Nora Ephron. Her apartment building, a red-brick postwar pile, was perched on the kind of cinematic city block where geraniums dribble out of window boxes and bel étages belong to designer psycho analysts. The kind of place where Carrie Fisher’s Marie and Bruno Kirby’s Jess might have argued about a wagon-wheel coffee table. Where Harry might once have wooed Sally.
I remember the day exactly—it was November 4, 2010. I was there to interview Ephron for a newspaper story because she had just written a brand-new essay collection entitled I Remember Nothing. At least, that’s how I had positioned my pitch to the editor. More to the point: I pitched the story about Ephron because I loved her. She had been my professional idol and fantasy mentor since I’d read Heartburn, her 1983 roman à clef about discovering that her husband, Carl Bernstein, was having an affair when she was seven months pregnant. (She described her ex as a man “capable of having sex with a venetian blind.”) She could write with as much heart and wit about adultery, single motherhood and her parents’ alcoholism as she could about, say, her relationship with her purse, the evils of the egg-white omelette and the delights of the petite teaspoon (perfectly built for savouring). She was brilliant, and I was besotted.
I’d never had a mentor, but I’d been in the market for a good one for years. To me, Ephron was the redoubtable, out-of-my-league ne plus ultra. Around that time, I chatted with a writer friend, also mentorless, about the seeming impossibility of meeting “the one.” She asked me who was on my Dream List.
“I love David Sedaris,” I said.
“Nah. You need a woman. Have you considered Ruth Reichl?” she asked, as if I should maybe give
some thought to switching to almond milk.
“Nora Ephron would be the ultimate,” I admitted, feeling embarrassed, like I had too hastily revealed a schoolyard crush. I worried, though, whether it was even possible, or wise, to look for mentorship in another writer—a species generally volatile and tender of ego. I thought of a scene in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson’s Gil, an aspiring novelist who finds himself in 1920s Paris, approaches Ernest Hemingway and
gingerly asks him if he might read his manuscript. “I hate it,” sniffs Hemingway.
“You haven’t even read it,” responds Gil.
“If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, then I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer,” says Hemingway. Problem was, I did want Ephron’s
opinion—or at least her approval, or even just her thoughts on, say, the recent charcuterie craze.
The whole idea—and fantasy—of a mentor is hardly limited to Woody Allen’s filmography: The term’s etymological roots are ancient. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Mentor is the wise noble man to whom a young Odysseus entrusts his household when he leaves for the Trojan War. Whatever the origin of the word “mentor,” I wanted Ephron to be mine. I resolved to ignore Hemingway’s counsel in favour of Western history’s happier examples of the mentor-protege pas de deux: Leonardo da Vinci mentored Raphael; French novelist Gustave Flaubert served as Guy de Maupassant’s mentor, introducing him to such literary luminaries as Émile Zola and Henry James; Sigmund Freud was a mentor to Carl Jung. (Granted, that relationship eventually went south, and Jung referred to their years of letter writing as “that accursed correspondence.”) And Edith Piaf was
mentor to Charles Aznavour, who later became a mentor to Liza Minnelli. In other words, I told myself, even in the arts it can work.
The day of our scheduled interview, I was wild with nerves. As I struggled with my umbrella like a lunatic under
the awning of her lovely building, her Jeevesian doorman glided out to the rescue: “Are you here
to see Ms. Ephron? She is expecting you.” Not only was I about to meet Nora Ephron but I felt like I was in a Nora Ephron film.
If her writing was warm and confiding, in person she seemed to me withholding, authoritative and assessing. We sat together on a white artdeco-style tufted couch in her office, the room spacious, soigné and washed in shades of cream and egg white. She was sporting black leather pants and a dark-grey sweater and looked almost breakably delicate— like a slender punctuation mark against a blank page. I was terrified and enamoured. But sometime in the middle of the interview, I somehow managed to make a joke that made her laugh—and as I watched her smile graduate into a sincere chuckle, I thought that I might have reached the highest point in my life. If ever there were a moment fashioned to be savoured with a teaspoon, this was it.
By the end of our meeting, I’d confessed my feelings for her and asked her if she might sign my copy of her book. “Of course!” she said, calling out to her long-time assistant: “J.J.! Get me a great pen.” In that moment, I was reminded of the Wellesley commencement address Ephron delivered in 1996, in which she exhorted the graduating class: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” As J.J. searched for an adequate writing utensil, I felt for that minute (ofcourse, it soon passed) that I was finally the hero of mine. She wrote a few nice words in my book, and I was insane with joy—as if she had just proposed marriage or adoption.
In “Pentimento,” an essay in I Remember Nothing, Ephron wrote about her relationship with writer Lillian Hellman. They had met when Ephron profiled Hellman for The New York Times. Afterwards, they became friends. Maybe Nora could be my Lillian, I thought. I’m full of doubts and uncertainty, and she was full of consoling absolutes and rules (like about how tuna salad should always involve celery and how everyone should change careers when they’re on the verge of turning 40 and then again at 50). We could be great together! I floated into the rain—who needs an umbrella when you’re in love?—and cued up the montage of our relationship: We’d eat bowls of Bing cherries together (she loved Bings) at her house in the Hamptons; she’d give me advice on writing and relationships; we’d argue about salted butter (her favourite) versus the superior unsalted butter (my favourite).
The impulse to exalt the mentor figure as the all-powerful, invulnerable and ever-benevolent sage can, of course, only lead to disappointment. In a paper titled “Beyond the Myth of the Perfect Mentor,” Linda Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, writes, “Although perfect mentors can be found in literature, they rarely exist in reality.” She tells me over the phone: “We tend to like to think of them as angels: that they will always assist us, be well intending and know what’s best for us. But that’s mythology. Mentors are human and flawed. But it’s very difficult to give up the dream of the perfect mentor. It’s like the moment you discover that your parents aren’t perfect.” Hill proposes that, instead of embarking on a quest for the perfect mentor, “individuals should pursue a strategy of being the perfect protege.”
But maybe, I thought, I had found the perfect mentor. In any case, I could be the perfect protege. I’ve often had friends and colleagues say “I hate it when other people tell me what to do.” I don’t. I love being told what to do! There’s that maxim about some people being born leaders. Well, those people aren’t me. I’m the youngest child, and I can follow like nobody’s business.
After the so-called Initiation Stage of the mentor-protege relationship comes what Hill has dubbed the Cultivation Stage: “the time during which mutual trust, respect and emotional interest grow between the senior and junior person.” While the protege learns, the mentor is revitalized. Ready to cultivate (I was so ready, I could have cultivated cacti in the Arctic), I emailed Ephron a couple of weeks after our first meeting, summoning the courage to ask her if she might be willing to meet with me again should I, at some point, be back in New York. She said yes! Naturally I lied, telling her that it was uncanny, But as luck would have it I would be in New York in a few weeks. “Tea on the 12th???” was her response. My response could be summed up something like “Hello, Air Canada?”
A splendid spring afternoon in Manhattan, trees in minty bloom. Perfect conditions for tea-sipping with your mentor. This time, Ephron invited me to her home. (She and her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, owned two exquisite apartments in the same building.) I brought her flowers. (That statement, by the way, does nothing to describe the psychic meltdown I endured at the florist while standing between the lilacs and the roses. I settled on white peonies.)
As I handed her the bouquet, she thanked me warmly and then said: “Oh, look! A bug!” She pointed to an insect casually promenading the fragrant petals. I gasped. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring an animal into your house!” I said, as if I had placed a St. Bernard in the bouquet.
“No, no, no. Don’t worry! It means that they’re fresh,” she offered consolingly, disappearing into her kitchen to retrieve a suitable vase. We sat down in her living room, walls painted the lickably creamy shade of a coconut macaroon and dressed in original illustrations from New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg (her friend). We chatted for nearly an hour that day, but my plan to be her perfect protege was failing. I was too nervous, paralyzed and rendered bland with fear—of disappointing and of being disappointed. Mainly, I ended up disappointing myself. About the trajectory of her relationship with Hellman, Ephron wrote: “The story is always the same: The younger woman idolizes the older woman; she stalks her; the older woman takes her up; the younger woman finds out the older woman is only human; the story ends.” Well, our story was not at all the same: The younger woman was too cautious, too frightened to stalk, and the older woman never took her up.
The younger woman did, however, buy a great pen and send Ephron a handwritten thank-you note after that second visit. There was a threat of a postal strike, so I decided it best to send the card via registered mail to
nsure its safe arrival in New York. Months later, I received a call from Canada Post, letting me know that my
letter never arrived.
“What do you mean? Where is it?” I asked the man on the phone.
“Unclear, ma’am. What we do know for sure is that it did not make it to its destination. Would you like us to launch an investigation?” he said with the gravitas of a forensic detective.
The same CSI wannabe reported back the following week. “I’m afraid it’s a cold case,” he said of my Kate Spade stationery. With my card on the lam, I emailed Ephron to explain the debacle and let her know how grateful I was to get to spend some time with her on that spring day. She responded quickly and kindly but with a brevity that I interpreted as a head-patting dismissal. I concluded from her note that she obviously thought I was a
mental patient and that Allen’s Hemingway was right. In that note, she also told me not to worry. I should have taken her advice, but I proceeded to worry intensely. What I now realize is just how much more she had to worry about at that time.
Since Ephron passed away last June at the age of 71 (from complications caused by myeloid leukemia), there have been an enormous number of memoirs, tributes and eulogies written about her—all by people who could call Nora their close friend and mentor and all of whom I now obviously loathe out of jealousy. I never lunched with her at Barneys or played would-you-kiss-a-Republican with her over Thanks giving dinner, like Lena
Dunham did. She never sent a gardener to my house to plant an orange tree as a thank you, like she did for
Tom Hanks. We’ll never eat bowls of Bings together. I’ll never be her perfect protege. I wish I could say that I lost a perfect mentor, but I lost the fantasy of one. And that somehow feels like just as sad an ending—precisely
not the kind meant for a Nora Ephron movie. So, here’s my new rule: Should you ever have the chance to meet your Nora, savour the experience—as if with a teaspoon.