Musings From Mamaby Sharon Rosen Leib July 31, 2012
By Sharon Rosen Leib
Nora Ephron was a controversial figure in my family. She grew up in the flats of Beverly Hills, a block away from my grandparents’ home on Walden Drive. She attended elementary and high school with my mother and my mother’s sister Marina. In fact, my aunt, Marina Semenov, was Nora’s best friend throughout those years. Nora chronicled her relationship with my aunt (aka Diana Raskob) in her famous essay “A Few Words About Breasts.” She writes about how “Diana,” “her best friend since age 7,” betrayed her just prior to seventh grade by developing a waist, hips and a bust.
The “breast essay” provoked the ire of my grandmother Lillian Wurtzel Semenov. Why? Because my grandmother accused Nora of betraying and abandoning my Aunt Marina. Nora and my aunt graduated from Beverly High together in 1958. Nora went off to Boston to attend Wellesley and Marina went off to New York to attend Vassar. Around Thanksgiving of her first semester at Vassar, my aunt suffered “a nervous breakdown.” She came home, was diagnosed as manic-depressive (now defined as bipolar) and put under psychiatric care. My aunt stabilized and enrolled at UCLA, where she earned a degree in English lit.
Over the next several years, Marina tried to contact Nora several times to catch up and congratulate her on her successes. My aunt’s letters went unanswered, her phone calls unreturned. This must’ve hurt my aunt’s feelings, but I never heard her badmouth Nora. When Nora’s essay collection “Crazy Salad” was published in 1975, a bit of Semenov hell broke loose. My grandmother was infuriated that Nora used Marina, the best friend she betrayed, as material in the book’s first essay. Nora became a persona non grata to my grandmother. I was afraid to utter Nora’s name in my grandmother’s presence because it made her clench her teeth, flare her nostrils, and say, “Nora was the worst kind of friend to Marina.”
My mother, Debbie, had a completely different reaction to Nora’s essays. She loved that Nora wrote about the Semenovs and thought “Crazy Salad” was a hoot and a half. She insisted I read the book, so I did. I was 13. Some of the material wasn’t entirely appropriate for a 13-year-old. But what the hell, it was the wild-west-women’s-lib 1970s. The main thing I remember from the whole book was a bit about one of Nora’s boyfriend’s mothers telling her that she should be on top when having sex so her breasts would look bigger. At 13, that seemed like advice I might need someday.
In 2002, Nora wrote a play called “Imaginary Friends” that debuted at the Old Globe here in San Diego. My mother brought a group of women down from Palos Verdes to see a Wednesday matinee. During intermission she asked an usher whether Nora was in town. The usher said, “As a matter of fact, she’s backstage.”
“Tell her Debbie Semenov is here and would love to see her.” After the final curtain fell, Nora came from backstage and embraced my mother. They hadn’t seen each other in 42 years, during which time my aunt and grandmother had died. They cried, laughed and reminisced together for more than an hour. My mom told me Nora had been gracious and deeply saddened by my aunt’s death.
In 2003, my sister Dina graduated from medical school in New York. My mom wanted my brother, sister, cousin Amanda (Marina’s daughter) and me to meet Nora, so she called her and set up a breakfast. Nora was generous (ordering an abundance of pastries) but struck us as a bit affected. She told us a few fascinating Wurtzel/Semenov stories. I was dying to hear more, but time ran out.
When I finally read Nora’s essay collection “I Feel Bad About My Neck” in 2009, I had an epiphany of the obvious. I realized how much reading Nora’s work as a teenager influenced my own writing. I try to write honest and funny. I try to write short, clear, declarative sentences. Nora was the grande dame of this writing style.
So I wrote Nora a letter of appreciation and sent her a few of my columns featuring Semenov family members. I also wrote that my mother died recently. A week later, an email from Nora appeared in my inbox. She told me how sorry she was to hear about my mother. She also thanked me for sending her my columns and said, “You have a wonderful voice, and it was a pleasure to read them.” For this, I owe Nora much gratitude. She helped me realize I had a writing “voice.”
But I don’t think even Nora’s kind words about my writing would’ve appeased my grandmother Lillian. I also think Nora would have understood why.