Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
“Apart from the life of intellect and the contemplative religious life, which few people are qualified to enjoy, what else is there to distinguish man from the animals but his social life?”
Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate
Image Credit: Society in Vogue
“What a fatuous fool I am, living in a largely self-invented world of wit, brains, and money.”
Cecil Beaton, The Wandering Years, Diaries: 1922-39
Image Credit: Horst, His Work and His World
“Elsa [Maxwell] was, first and last, a party woman. Party-giving was the whole motivating force in her life. Elsa was not a religious person, but had she been, I’m sure she would have planned to see that God had a good time, and would have surrounded him with a better class of people, preferably rich Greeks.”
Jerome Zerbe, The Art of Social Climbing
Image Credit: Happy Times
“You fall in love with someone, and part of what you love about him are the differences between you; and then you get married and the differences start to drive you crazy.”
--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.
Even though Heartburn was clearly the story of her own marriage, it was ostensibly a novel, and thus, the names were fictionalized. Ephron called the Carl Bernstein character Mark Feldman. In 1983, that meant nothing to the reading public. Yet, it was a poison arrow to her ex-husband. Ephron was evidently privy to one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century: the identity of Deep Throat, the confidential source that brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. As Vanity Fair revealed in 2005, Deep Throat was Mark Felt, a Nixon administration insider. For Bernstein, his name was worryingly close to Mark Feldman, the name Ephron conjured up for the Bernstein character in Heartburn.
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.