--Nora Ephron, Heartburn
When she published Heartburn, Nora Ephron upended the old adage that the best revenge is living well. That is too subtle. Worse, simply living well does not generate publishing royalties or motion picture-licensing fees. Consider Ephron’s casus belli against Carl Bernstein—the famed Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate story that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Bernstein swept Ephron off her feet and convinced her to leave her beloved New York for the then-cultural backwater of Washington, D.C. They married and had one son. She was seven months pregnant with a second son when he left her for the woman with whom he had been carrying on a torrid affair.
Ephron returned to New York, happily remarried, and, as the adage goes, lived well. Yet, she had her own maxim: “Everything is copy.” In 1983, she published Heartburn, a barely disguised account of the breakup of her marriage. There are many fascinating aspects to the novel. It is an accidental time capsule of an era when Manhattan was the only acceptable American city for a foodie like Ephron. It also portrays the trivial side of the revered journalist that broke the Watergate story (alas, it behooves even the most hallowed of public images to be taken down a notch on occasion). Yet, in retrospect, what is most fascinating is that Ephron divulged her ex-husband’s greatest secret, but in an oblique manner that made no sense until 2005, over twenty years after Heartburn went to press.
Ephron’s poison arrow seems to have snagged its intended target. When Heartburn was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, the name of the Mark Feldman character had been changed to Mark Forman. Might Bernstein had something to do with this? Most likely, yes. According to the New Yorker, “it took more than five years for Ephron and Bernstein to negotiate the terms of their divorce, and for about half the time the central issue was Bernstein’s demand for script approval” for the film adaptation of Heartburn.
Heartburn (the novel) received mix-reviews when it was released. Some questioned the wisdom of airing one’s dirty laundry in public, particularly with children involved. Yet, the book has aged well. It is a time capsule into the post-Sexual Revolution, pre-Internet era. Yet, its essence remains contemporary. Ephron’s sparkling wit and chatty, conversational style resonate well in the 21st Century. And, despite its ostensibly serious subject matter, the book is hilarious. Nick Harvill Libraries recommends the audio edition. Meryl Streep, who played Ephron in Heartburn (the film), narrates, and her comic timing is flawless. A word of caution, however, Ephron’s words and Streep’s delivery make for a potent combination: it is laugh out loud funny.
Further Reading: "Jacob Bernstein on Memorializing His Mom, Nora Ephron, in Everything Is Copy," Vogue, March 2016 and The Last of the President's Men by Bob Woodward.