By Dick Cavett 29 June 2012
While traveling in a remote part of western Nebraska - away from the news media except for little local papers - I saw a friend's e-mail suddenly change from its harmless subject to the appended line, "Sad about Nora Ephron."
One of those moments when the mind does its inadequate best to fend off the truth. "What's sad about Nora? Surely not "
We sat, facing each other, dismay bordering on panic. The setting: "The Dick Cavett Show," somewhere in the early '70s. Nora and I are talking. My producer, sheet-white, had just delivered the news during a commercial that my next guest, a famously eccentric genius actor with a legendary thirst, had, in a gesture of professional shabbiness, gotten "tired" of waiting backstage and had left. (His initials are Nicol Williamson.)
Nora and I, having used up all our good stuff and at the point where I was supposed to say, "My next guest...", now faced what felt like a Sahara-wide half-hour of remaining airtime to fill. We set forth on our trek.
It may sound improbable that two such, ahem, engrossing people couldn't fill the time as if tumbling from a log, At this distance, it seems crazy to me, too. But it's a peculiarity of such a show that it somehow doesn't work that way. We had, in the elegant phrase, shot our wad. I wish I could make that convincingly clear. It's a little like asking a singer or dancer, wiping their brow after having successfully done the expected performance they were geared for, to do two or three more right now just like it. The mind has moved on.
It's weird and shows again how just "sitting and talking" on TV is not remotely like doing the same thing in real life.
After what seemed like an hour of gasping for air, lurches and restarts and awful pauses, we had killed only 10 minutes. Only 20 to go.
Each time I looked at the studio clock it seemed to have the same time it had before. Had the hands been welded in place? In a state of stunned disbelief we somehow dragged ourselves, and what felt like at least two tacklers - and any remaining viewers - to the finish line. As the closing theme song mercifully sneaked in and the eon-length show faded from the screen, we, at least figuratively and maybe in fact, fell into each other's arms like two survivors pulled from a mine.
And agreed to meet the next day to plot the slow death by poison of Nicol Williamson.
Years later, Nora pointed out that at all our subsequent encounters, before cordial greetings, each gave a little involuntary shudder upon seeing the other. Like friends who'd survived a long-ago car crash together.
All that aside, I did one good thing for Nora and her arsenal of talents. I gave her a play to write.
It had to do with the notorious incident on my PBS show when I had lightheartedly asked Mary McCarthy, who'd talked about underpraised writers, to name some overrated writers.
That's when she delivered her famous remark about Lillian Hellman that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" It flowered into a notorious lawsuit about which much has been written. Including a Broadway play Nora managed to construct from the wreckage.
In the world of letters it was generally held that, by suing, Hellman had disgraced herself and betrayed her own principles about free speech and criticism. Nora saw Hellman's actions as "a kind of dance of death."
An effort to, in fact, shorten McCarthy's life; which, in my opinion, the anguish and costs of Hellman's monumental lawsuit undoubtedly did. (It amused Nora that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and my hard-drinking friend Jean Stafford always referred to Lillian as "Old Scaly Bird.")
But that same Nora found the appallingly spiteful Hellman to be a vastly entertaining friend who made her laugh. She called her, in a chat we did for the now defunct magazine Show People, "too much fun to hate."
In that same staged restaurant "conversation," Nora told me she was startled to read in her morning paper just what in fact had happened the night before on the Cavett program.
"One of the rare nights when you missed my show, Nora?" I asked.
"One of the rare nights when I missed your show," came the reply, with a wry line reading that Eve Arden might have envied.
Intrigued and inspired, Nora turned all this unwieldy and psychologically complex matter into an entertaining play, "Imaginary Friends." The longstanding hatred between these two competitive women who became famous at the same time (1929) had all the seeds of drama. Nora stated at our magazine interview lunch what could hardly be called a trivial factor: "They had a lot to fight about. One was beautiful and one was not."
I told Nora, in a merry jest, that I had tried out for the part of "Dick Cavett" in her play but had been turned down.
"We wanted someone younger." (Laughter all around.)
I loved making Nora laugh out loud. We talked about Hellman's "Julia," a tale apparently bogus from tip to toe. In it, Lillian claimed to have risked her life during a dangerous period in Germany by smuggling a vast number of German marks - hidden in her hat - to Julia.
I said that owing to the value of the mark at that particular time in Deutschland, to have smuggled, chapeau-wise, the amount Lillian claimed, her hat would have had to be the size of a Volkswagen. Nora's laugh was my reward.
For a sample of Nora at her deadliest best, and for your entertainment, I shall now ask my operatives to guide you to what I would put in a Nora time capsule. It's a review in this newspaper from 1972 of three books about and by gossip columnists. Before you go there, let me whet your appetite by the last bit of Nora's review of the columnist Sheilah Graham's memoir about her sex life. Its title - and could you have guessed? - "A State of Heat."
Nora wrote, "I'm afraid I may have made 'A State of Heat' sound like one of those 'so-bad-it's-good' things. I don't mean to. It's as close to being unpublishable as anything can be these days. Sheilah Graham has been in on a pass for years as a result of her affair with Fitzgerald: it's about time it ran out."
I don't know how to close this. If there is that so-called better place, then Nora's surely in it.
Her going left ours a lesser one.