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June 29, 2012 1:00 PM My Nasty Nora Ephron Encounter

By Jamie Malanowski

I met the great Nora Ephron just about 30 years ago, when I was a young junior executive in the great John Scanlon‘s public relations agency. We had been hired to work on the film Silkwood, in part through Nora, who was one of John’s Hamptons friends. I really didn’t have anything to do with with the account; John’s partner, Ed Menken, was hot to handle our small show business practice. He really liked hobnobbing with the stars and the directors, and he had the kind of energy that might have made him a successful producer or agent. He wasn’t very good as a PR man, in part because he never really studied how the news business worked. Instead, he was prone to brainstorms, sometimes inspired, but usually stupid. For example, when Columbia Pictures hired us to develop off-the-entertainment-page press for the film Gandhi, Ed was struck by a bolt of brilliance. “Let’s start a campaign to get Gandhi the Nobel Peace Prize!” he shouted, delighted at his own ingenuity. It didn’t do any good to tell him that the Nobel people didn’t give awards posthumously; I had to pretend to call Stockholm, and pretend to lobby to the Nobel people on Gandhi’s behalf, before reporting that alas, the small-minded Swedes said no.

One reason our agency had been hired for Silkwood was to substantiate the film. The picture was about Karen Silkwood, a young woman with a messy personal life who worked in a nuclear energy plant, and who had been blowing the whistle on incidents of safety violations just before she ended up mysteriously dead. Ephron and her collaborator Alice Arlen has written a careful script that adhered to the facts and avoided sensationalism, and they and the studio and director Mike Nichols wanted critics and others who were going to write about the story to know that Nora and Alice hadn’t made anything up.

A very reasonable desire. A fairly standard assignment. Except Ed didn’t do it. He put it off and put it off, and finally, just before Columbus Day weekend, when the thing was already overdue, he dumped the assignment on me. I could understand why. The movie was stuffed with stuff to be fact-checked–personal, legal, scientific–and Ed had only collected a couple articles from The Village Voice to refer to. “Don’t worry about it,” Ed said. “All you have to do is write something that answers four questions.” The first one was “Who was Karen Silkwood?” The others I no longer remember but they similarly simple, and I typed up a few pages for Ed that he pronounced satisfactory, which he then sent to Nora. Later in life I would see the voluminous press notes that are prepared for films, and would understand evidently what Ed did not: the document had to be thick, not merely thick enough to substantiate the film, but so thick as to discourage anybody from even questioning it. “Ah, fuck it,” thick, in other words. More than three or four pages thick, in other words.

Over the weekend, my beloved boss John Scanlon called and told me that Nora had a couple questions. He asked me to go see her on Columbus Day to find out what was on her mind.

Ephron lived in the Apthorp, a magnificent building on Broadway on the west side, in an enormous ten or eleven room barn of an apartment that always makes me weak. Ordinarily I would have demonstrated a lot of awestruck apartment envy, which most occupiers accept as personal reverence, as though the apartment was a sign that they had lived the sort of morally upright life that deserved to be rewarded with a great apartment. But Ephron wasn’t interested in my awe. She was interested in flagellating me.

Nora wasn’t unhappy with my skimpy report; she was furious. Her eyes were black and ferocious, and her jaw jut out in a combination of insult and disbelief that seemed to snarl “How could you?”I do so wish I had taken notes that day–imagine, I was the one-man audience as one of the most celebrated wits of her era engaged in a no-holds barred attack, uncut and uncensored! We sat in her large, splendid kitchen, and went over the document word by word, with her exposing its every shortcoming. And my own as well! All I could say in my defense was “Ed said just answer four questions!”, which I believe I babbled at various times during her autopsy of my work with pathetic repetitiveness. It was torture, and she kept flicking the flesh off my bones for a half hour or more, long after she made her point.

I don’t blame her for being angry. She had a lot riding on the success of that film, and we had clearly screwed the pooch. And it might even be to her credit that she stood up for herself so staunchly. This week her many friends lauded her for her warmth and humor, but based on the day I saw how she treated a junior staffer when she didn’t think anyone was looking, I’d say she had her nasty side as well.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.
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Comments

  • DAY on June 29, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Yes, the Powerful can be Difficult, and there are too many examples to count. -Oh, Hell, The Donald, for one.

    However, YOU did screw up royally, on something at was apparently quite important to quite a number of Important People.
    'Not my fault' is a sorry excuse, even if it is true.
    You should have told the boss your were too junior to carry out the meeting, and sent him, instead.

  • NIGHT on June 29, 2012 8:09 PM:

    Yea, not really sure it's appropriate to say someone has a "nasty side" because they got angry about something they should be angry about. That's just being human

  • Robert Waldmann on July 01, 2012 7:38 AM:

    Hey I just discovered something -- 2+2 = 4. Ephron didn't just flagellate junior staffers when no one was looking. She publicly flagellated famous people. The contrast between her ferociousness and her sentimentality (I haven't seen Harry meet Sally I'm thinking of Sleepless in Seattle) was a large part of what made her interesting.

    Of course what goes around comes around and she sure had this article coming.

  • ceilidth on July 01, 2012 10:32 AM:

    The utter nerve of a woman giving you a hard time about what you and the company you worked for didn't do. If you really weren't responsible the person you should be angry at is the one responsible who chose to send you to present the bad work.

  • MGO on July 01, 2012 5:52 PM:

    With all due respect, by your own description, what you produced wasn't just inadequate, it was pathetic. Ephron had every right to light you up. The key here is whether she also did the same to your superiors. If she only took it out on you then I'd be more sympathetic to your argument. But if you just happened to be first in line, well that's just too bad. The real smuck here is your boss Ed or maybe it was also Scanlon if he knew how pissed she was and made you the sacrificial lamb.

    I don't say this trying to defend Ephron. I don't know and don't care whether she could be a real jerk. I would think that with a movie like Silkwood, it's integrity would have a real positive effect on ticket sales. I'd be hopping mad too.

  • Thymezone on July 01, 2012 6:56 PM:

    Personally I don't think you screwed any pooch, Ed did. And he left you to take the heat for it. Oh well. Nobody died.

    Whether you learned anything or not ... I'd say no. What is the point of putting forth this story at this time? On the one hand, the lionizing of Ephron right now is kind of sticky sweet for my taste, but why this? "I'd be hopping mad too." Right. I figure you for a real a**hole, basically, after reading this.

  • Gilbert Adams on July 01, 2012 11:56 PM:

    Second Thymezone's remarks. What a shame you didn't die instead of Ephron.

  • Lairbo on July 10, 2012 5:59 PM:

    Your encounter with Nora Ephron is of a type familiar to anyone who's spent time in the lower ranks of publishing (or its attendant industries) and whose job duties included dealing with persons of note.

    While there's no arguing that she shouldn't have been furious, it's a shame that she chose to vent at you instead of Ed or John.

    At least (I guess, since you don't mention it) she didn't threaten to have you fired or killed or both.

  • Melissa Firth on July 21, 2012 11:09 PM:

    Dear Jamie,
    Too bad Ed Menken didn't go to Nora Ephron's apartment and receive the tongue lashing. He didn't do what he was supposed to do; he handed it off to you - and something tells me if you had done a smashing job and received accolades from Nora, that Ed would certainly have made sure he got the credit. Thanks for sharing the story. I hope after the passage of 30 years that you can somehow see some humor in all of it. And it certainly didn't stop you from becoming a very very successful and revered writer. Big fan here. All the best, Jamie.

  • paula simson on August 07, 2012 3:15 AM:

    The real point is: we all have a lot to learn and we all have a nasty side.

  • Paula Sweet on August 10, 2012 1:31 AM:

    I've read and reread the comments. I really have to say: what a lot of fuss over nothing. There's a lot of things going on in the world that amount to a hill of beans--this doesn't. Doesn't anyone have anything of substance to do anymore. Shut down your stinking computers and get out in the world and do something!