Interview by Studs Terkel
This interview with Nora Ephron was recorded on July 28, 1975 and comes from the remarkable WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive.
The Animated Transcript
Studs Terkel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who interviewed thousands of everyday Americans and international notables during a 45-year stint at WFMT-FM in Chicago.
I wrote this piece, it was called a few words about breasts and I said at the end that that I have a lot of friends who always used to tell me that I had nothing to complain about and that it was much much much worse to have big breasts and I don’t. I’m sorry. I don’t believe it.
I still get letters about it. I still get these endless letters saying you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
My guest this morning is Nora Ephron, the most perceptive young journalist and the name of the book, based on a Yeats quote, is Crazy Salad.
Yes it’s from “A Prayer for My Daughter” and the lines are “it’s certain that fine women eat a crazy salad with their meat.” I thought it was a nice title for a book about women.
You’re a feminist and a journalist same time. This creates something of a conflict, doesn’t it?
It certainly does. You know I have to say that I’ve never believed in objective journalism and no one who is a journalist in his or her right mind does because all writing is about selecting what you want to use. As soon as you choose what to select you’re not being objective.
For someone like me who was sympathetic to the women’s movement and was trying to cover it as a journalist, it always seemed that if I wrote the truth about the movement it would somehow hurt it. If you write that the women spent the Democratic convention squabbling among themselves, aren’t you giving people who want to put it down, the ability to say “oh those women you give them a little power and they just behave like cats and dogs toward each other.”
You know one of the lines of The Women’s movement is that all of us who care about it say we don’t want women to do anything really that what this movement is about is choice and really one means that. I don’t want every woman to go out and get a job if she doesn’t want to. She can do exactly what she feels but deep down I think there’s the sneaking feeling that I really believe that if everyone really got it together the choice they would make is the one that I made. I think that’s true for a lot of women in the movement and it’s the reason why we have so much trouble talking to one another. We say that but we don’t really mean it.
There’s a book I review by Alix Kates Shulman called Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. The entire novel is about how difficult, how absolutely abysmally difficult it is to be beautiful. Well you know I can’t get into it. I don’t believe it because I was not beautiful and I don’t believe for a second that she wishes she weren’t. She’s trying to tell me something that will make me say oh yes I recognize your pain and I don’t.
The other night I was at a restaurant in New York where I’ve never been to without a man. I went there with a woman friend of mine and there was no table and we went to the bar to have a drink. The bartender said, “are you women unescorted?” And I said, “yes, we are unescorted.” He said, “I can’t serve you.”
So I turned to the men to our right at the bar and I said this bartender won’t serve us unescorted will you do me a favor and the man said, “Of course I will.” And that was all the bartender needed and he served us the drinks. Now, subsequent to this we have to wait 45 minutes for a table while men who come in later than us are being seated right and left it’s a kind of men’s hangout. And I realized that I had lost my right to complain because I hadn’t walked out when the bartender said that.
You are a young woman a gifted writer. The year is the latter third of the twentieth century. Being a woman right now I imagine is a very exciting moment.
Yes, it is. It’s terrific. Absolutely terrific, don’t you wish you were one?
[Laughs] That’s interesting, isn’t it? Well, there is an androgynous string in all of us.
It’s okay being a woman now. I like it. Try it sometime.
It’s a good way to end this conversation. Nora Ephron thank you very much.
Thank you, Studs.
It’s always amusing to me when I hear women in the movement saying that if only women ran the government we would not have war and we don’t have really great role models to draw that conclusion from.
You were in Israel and Golda Meir her whole approach is that what has been hitherto a very macho approach.
Well and I think it’s absolutely necessary given that she is the head of state of Israel. I don’t know what would have happened to that country if she had been a pacifist. But she isn’t a feminist. You know, Israel, it was a great shock to me when I went there to cover the war. Well as it turns out Golda Meir is the only woman who has ever held Cabinet rank in Israel and the women in the Israeli army perform all the clerical tasks. You cannot get a divorce in Israel without your husband’s consent. You cannot marry in Israel if you are a bastard and a bastard only means that your mother was not married under in the eyes of the law.
Hot Takes From the Full Interview
“I grew up on all the great stories, and no one told me the sad parts.”
“I got interested in the women’s movement and then more and more involved in it over the two years I wrote about it…and then in the end I got less and less interested. I sort of duplicated what happened to the women’s movement. It went through a period of a lot of activity and anger and so did I, and then it sort of evened off to get down to business and life and so did I.”
“Groups without leaders are dangerous little things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the thing that can happen is you get a stake in people’s situations being worse than your own. You really don’t want them to change. It’s so comforting to you that you’ve got it better than somebody else.”
“I do think there is an implicit message in cosmetics that you don’t look good enough yourself.”
“True believers don’t like to hear any kind of complicated response to something.”
“It’s very confusing to know what you want from a man, given the women’s movement. I want to be independent and I am, and I want to be considered a person in my own right which I usually am, but I also have a lot of feelings about being taken care of by a man.”
“A Few Words About Breasts”
The essay Ephron refers to at the beginning of the episode went on to become one of her most famous and widely-read pieces. It was written in 1972 for her column in Esquire. Recently, the Esquire Classics podcast revisited the iconic essay, with commentary from Inside Amy Schumer head writer Jessi Klein.
“Even though I was outwardly a girl and had many of the trappings generally associated with girldom-a girl’s name, for example, and dresses, my own telephone, an autograph book – I spent the early years of my adolescence absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I did not feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, outspoken, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees and my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted desperately not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things, but instead just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink as a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.”
Esquire received this choice letter-to-the-editor after running the essay:
“Gold stars for two fine articles in the May issue, Faubion Bowers’ ‘Why China Will Not Become the Fifty-Third State’ and Oliver Evans’ ‘A Pleasant Evening with Yukio Mishima.’
To those among you who chose as lead article something about the earthshaking trauma of Nora Ephron’s poor little bosom, ten thousand demerits and an hour a day for the next month in your Meditation Room, where you will ponder that you work for Esquire, not Seventeen,Mademoiselle or Women’s Wear Daily.
As for Nora Ephron, my personal medal for Yenta of the Year, and as penance, back to Beverly Hills High School where you will write on the blackboard one hundred times It is better to be a lady than to kiss and tell.”
Arthur Hertzberg Pacific Palisades, Calif.
Steinem v. Friedan at the 1972 Democratic Convention
In the interview with Terkel, Ephron also refers to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami which she covered as a journalist (her essay on the convention appears in Crazy Salad). The ’72 convention was noted for the power struggle that went down within the National Women’s Political Caucus between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, the two giants of the women’s movement. Heading up to the convention, the women were riding high after New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm campaign as the first black female presidential candidate. The Caucus wanted Democratic nominee George McGovern to make the legalization of abortion part of his campaign platform, but in-fighting and the political/media establishment’s refusal to take the women seriously bulldozed all their efforts.
Nora Ephron on Writing
Her collected wisdom, brought to you by Neiman Storyboard
Ephron on Film
Both of Ephron’s parents were screenwriters, and she grew up behind-the-scenes in Hollywood. Young Nora was intent on pursuing journalism though, which she did through the mid-70’s beginning at Newsweek and later writing for publications like Esquire, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.
“The fundamental thing that’s true of both is that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. What I really understood as a magazine writer was when the beginning had to start to end, and the middle had to begin, and when the middle had to start to end and when the ending had to begin. And if you know that, you’re halfway to being a screenwriter.”
– The Believer, March 2012
Ephron’s first foray into film screenwriting (she had previously written a TV movie) was 1983’s Silkwood starring Meryl Streep, who would go on to star in Ephron’s next film Heartburn (1986) and in Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron also directed.
Nora Ephron Highly Recommends Having Meryl Streep Play You
“Most directors, I discovered, need to be convinced that the screenplay they’re going to direct has something to do with them. And this is a tricky thing if you write screenplays where women have parts that are equal to or greater than the male part. And I thought, ‘Why am I out there looking for directors?’ — because you look at a list of directors, it’s all boys. It certainly was when I started as a screenwriter. So I thought, ‘I’m just gonna become a director and that’ll make it easier.'”
For a closer look at the history of women in Hollywood, check out “Where Did All the Powerful Ladies Go?” over on our blog.
Words for the Future
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
“High Time for a Highball” Tarek Modi
“The Wind Of Change” Simon Stewart
“All Day Long I Dream Of Caroline” Henry Davies