I discovered Nora Ephron in 2006 in the most embarrassing way: I thought I “discovered” her. I knew her name, of course -- who hadn't heard of "Sleepless in Seattle"? -- but it wasn’t until I read her New Yorker piece “Moving On” about her love affair with her apartment building the Apthorp that my obsession started.
It was such a passionate piece about Upper West Side real estate; it ended with her leaving and announcing “Unrequited love's a bore” -- and me falling head over heels for her writing.
“Have you heard of this writer, Nora Ephron?” I asked a friend. I was a freshman in college. From California. Forgive me. Despite being late to Nora Ephron game, I still had a lingering feeling that there was some sort of special connection between us. I wrote down quotes from her books (“...he was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind”) and wished for opportunities to use them in real life (even if it meant suffering "Heartburn"-style agony).
I dug through her oeuvre, hoping to find more things to tie us together.
“In many ways Meg and I are sort of scared of Nora. You don't want to disappoint her,” Tom Hanks said in one. “You don't want to go neck and neck with Nora in a battle of wits.”
In another, Washington Post columnist and close friend Richard Cohen was asked to comment on her and answered “I’m afraid to!” He added (out of fear?) “Yes, she's tough. She can kill you at 50 paces with her wit.”
I killed no one with my wit, but I imagined a world in which I did, and therefore felt even closer to Ephron. I read "I Feel Bad About My Neck" over and over, always finding new things we had in common. Small breasts! A disdain for thousand-dollar handbags!
I always imagined that I’d run into her one day (Zabars?) and start a friendship so powerful that she’d have no choice but to write about it (with me, perhaps?). We’d be played by Diane Keaton and Ellen Page and wear matching dresses to the Academy Awards!
So when my editor at a fashion trade publication asked me to cover an event she would be attending, I hardly felt nervous. I felt ready. Ready to meet Nora Ephron -- current idol, future BFF -- for a Tom Hanks-produced movie premiere and dinner party. Instead of planning my approach, I spent the day planning what would happen in dramatic form.
Amy: Hi, Ms. Ephron, my name is Amy Preiser, and I’m a huge fan of your work.
Ms. Ephron: Really? Well, call me Nora! Actually, why don’t you call me at home tonight? Here’s my phone number. You’re adorable, and look very smart. I think we will be good friends.
Amy: Really? I felt that way too! You know, I love I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I also have small breasts.
Nora: I can see that. Here, sit down next to me, and let’s throw our heads back laughing as Tom Hanks tells another zinger.
That this is NOT what occurred. We were in the same theater for the premiere but did not sit next to each other (weird, right?). At the restaurant after, I approached her candlelit table, leaving my sub-thousand-dollar handbag and a plate of steak frites back at the reporters’ table. She sat in front of her identical meal (kismet!) at a table with more important people, more expensive bags.
“Hi Ms. Ephron, my name is Amy Preiser. Do you mind if I ask you a couple questions?”
Plan set in motion: Stun her with fantastical journalistic skills, then chummy up over the praise. But she faltered from my script. Looked bored.
“What are the questions about?”
Uh oh. I was struck dumb. How did I not plan for this? I stared at her for about 30 miserable seconds before stuttering “...about the film we just saw.” I am still smiling, not yet panicking. She agrees.
“Only two questions though. Go.”
In this moment, staring at a woman with no interest whatsoever in being best friends, my confidence falters, and I’m left with nothing. I grapple for an inane question about the movie, which she answers in a tone that suggests she’d rather be eating dinner.
I looked around. To my left was Tom Hanks and a fancy salad. To the right, her husband, Nicholas Pileggi looking between me and his salmon.
“What is your favorite movie snack?” I blurted out awkwardly.
She didn’t skip a beat. “I consider part of my job during a film to think about what I’m going to eat afterward.” She paused. “Does that work?”
Yes. Perfectly. Apparently not all stupid questions get stupid answers when you’re interviewing Nora Ephron. I switch off my tape recorder and launch into babbling praise. “YouknowI’mahugefanofyour—“ I started, desperate to undo my idiocy with old-fashioned flattery.
She smiled coolly. “That’s really nice. Thank you.”
The thank you was not for the compliment; it was a polite goodbye. At that, I padded back to my seat. We never became best friends, Nora and I. This should have been obvious to me from the start, but it still stung.
I’ve told this story several times over the past few years as one of my brief celebrity encounters, and everyone usually laughs at her whip smart answer to my lazy question. That was the last time I did not prepare for an interview. But it was far from the end of my obsession.
Unrequited love can be a bore when it comes to real estate -- and yes, as she’s pointed out, in marriage -- but for me, it’s provided lessons in humility, grace, and the kick in the ass that comes with the sting of embarrassment. And now, Nora Ephron, the brilliant writer, the one to win every battle of wits, whether it’s with Tom Hanks or simply an awkward reporter, has passed away at 71.
She left us with an incredible body of work and some of the best female characters we’ve ever seen on screen, among many other gifts. We were never best friends -- not even close -- but I, like countless other writers touched by her work, will miss her in a big way.
Amy Preiser tweets about her unrequited love of many things, mainly Hello Kitty, at @firstpreiser.