December 9, 2013
Guest: Delia Ephron
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In the opening chapter of my guest, Delia Ephron's latest book, she writes about losing her sister, Nora Ephron. Nora, who wrote and directed "When Harry Met Sally," died last year of acute myeloid leukemia. Delia and Nora were writing partners. They co-wrote the movies, "You've Got Mail," and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," as well as the off-Broadway hit, "Love, Loss and What I Wore."
Delia was an assistant producer on Nora's film, "Sleepless in Seattle." Delia writes, losing her is like losing an arm. It's that deranging. But Delia also asks herself, With sisters, is the competition always marching side by side with devotion? Does it get to be pure love when one of them is dying, or is the beast always hidden somewhere?" Delia Ephron's book is a collection of autographical essays titled, "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)"
Ephron is also a novelist. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, O, Vogue, and the Huffington Post. Delia Ephron, welcome to FRESH AIR. And before we go any further, I want to say like, I call you Delia Ephron. You pronounce your name Delia Ephron, which surprised me but...
DELIA EPHRON: I do. Yes, this year I was at Nora's play and I heard them announce her name - they did it before the play started - as Ephron. And I said to someone, that's not how we pronounce our name. And she said, you know, it's like dope. Everyone pronounces your name like this and you don't know it. So yes, I am Delia Ephron, but I have always called myself Delia Ephron, so there you go.
GROSS: Okay. I'll probably switch back and forth and be totally inconsistent. So anyways, I'm so sorry you lost your sister. I'm grateful you wrote about her. It's a really beautiful essay about - not only about Nora Ephron, but about the whole idea of sister and family and collaborator.
EPHRON: Thank you.
GROSS: And I'd like you to read a short passage from it. And this is, you know, the opening chapter of your book, which is called "Losing Nora." And would you read an excerpt for us?
EPHRON: Yes. She was born first, solo. I was born a sister, three years younger. I can only imagine her horror when I turned up. It was the first thing in her life that she had no control over. So many women have come up to me telling me that she was their role model, and she was mine too. I used to joke that I ran for the same class offices she did and lost as she did.
Looking back, that's a loaded comment, isn't it? I mean, it doesn't take a shrink. I wasn't going to best her, upset the balance of power - my place in the world. It didn't cross my mind until I was out of college that my job as a younger sister was not to imitate, but to differentiate. But how? We are sisters, collaborators, writer children of writer parents who collaborated; how am I not her?
How did I find my way when she took up so much space?
GROSS: It must be kind of odd to write about her since she was your writing partner as well as your sister. I know you both also wrote independently, but you must have - like if she were alive and you were writing this essay, would you have shown it to her first?
EPHRON: I wish I never had to write this essay, but it got me through the most difficult time. I started it just after she died. It was just the way to get through the day. I really would just go into my office at four in the afternoon and it was a way to be together. I would write about us and I tried to make sense of it. But I think that I have probably thought about sisterhood and sisters and what that's about more than probably anyone.
It's been such a big part of my life: How great it was, how difficult it was, how complicated it is, how uncivilized it is. So when I started to write about it, it was like I almost knew what I wanted to say.
GROSS: You know, you write that it wasn't until college that you realized your job as the younger sister was to differentiate yourself from Nora, and I'm thinking how much harder that must have been to do as writing partners.
EPHRON: It was. The lucky thing for me was that when I decided to be a writer - and by the way, I blew my entire 20s on just avoiding the entire problem as a way to differentiate. Just married the first man who asked and moved to Rhode Island and I blamed this all on a movie I saw called, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
But in any event, when I did start writing, the first time I understood who I was, I was 32 years old and I wrote something called, "How to Eat Like a Child." And it was 500 words about how children eat food. It was very funny; it was on the last page of the New York Times Magazine. And when I wrote it, I looked at it and I thought oh, this is who I am.
And if I hadn't done that, and then I wrote the book, which was very successful, and several other books, so by the time Nora and I began collaborating, I had established an identity, but I absolutely knew that I had to keep writing books, because I knew I could get sucked right into hers, that it was never easy.
GROSS: Did you publish before she did?
EPHRON: I think Nora was published when she was born. No. It was like having a sister who knew everything she wanted to do, like from the second she was around, and it was such an overwhelming older sister to have. And yet, the most loving. I mean, she was - she taught me everything: The facts of life, that Santa Claus wasn't real.
GROSS: She just broke every bit of news that needed to be broken to me. She took it upon herself to do it. And she was published very young and knew and said - if not in print, certainly to me, that she knew that she was going to be successful and, very early on, that she had a destiny. But, you know, this is all about my mother.
EPHRON: I mean, my mother was raising writers. There were four girls and we were all going to be writers and eventually - see, Nora became it immediately; I wanted 'til my late 20s; Amy began it in her late 30s; and Hallie in her late 40s.
GROSS: Your parents were co-writers. They wrote screenplays together, including the screen adaptation of "Carousel;" the movie, "There's No Business Like Show Business," with Ethel Merman as the mother of this show business family and Marilyn Monroe as a young singer trying to break into show biz.
GROSS: So what was the...
EPHRON: I met her.
GROSS: You met Marilyn Monroe?
EPHRON: I met her. I did. That's a set - I remember that moment. It was as brief as you could imagine. She patted me on the head and she said, Hi Delia. And she - her hair was in curlers and she had a little bandanna tied around it and I never forgot it.
GROSS: That's the movie she sings, "Heat Wave."
EPHRON: Yes. Very hot.
GROSS: What was the model you had of family working together from watching your parents?
EPHRON: Well, my family life was - I think everything started at the dinner table in my family. I always wonder about the dinner table and everyone's family because of it. When I was young and the family was really fun, we always had dinner together and we told stories and whatever crazy thing had happened to me that day I would come home and say it and my father would shout, that's a great line. Write it down.
And he would say that's a great title, write it down. If I said anything that sounded like a title - I had titles for things before I had any idea I would be a writer. And we sang - I was thinking about this. We sang songs, we sang rounds, we played Charades and 20 Questions and my parents had been - they had this radical past.
Here we were in Beverly Hills, OK, in this fairly large, Spanish house in Beverly Hills, all having dinner that my mother had not cooked. She was very proud of the fact that she had made a lot of money and someone else cooked dinner. So there we were singing union songs. They taught us, "There Once Was a Union Maid," and they taught us, "We Shall Not Be Moved," and we would belt them out. So funny.
EPHRON: So funny. But anyway, it was a lot of fun. And I think that's where I learned that I knew how to tell a story, that's where I learned that was funny, and that it was worth something.
GROSS: Your family became a little less fun when you got a little older, but we'll get to that a little bit later. Nora kept her cancer a secret. And so when she died last year, people were really shocked because she had cancer for six years and, you know, the public - her public - didn't know. Why did she want to keep it a secret?
EPHRON: Nora was, well, I think that was how she wanted to live. She didn't want that fact to be part of her life. And if you're really famous, life is very different. I mean everybody in the world knows you are a famous sick person and everyone wants to comfort you. And there's probably no moment in the day that someone isn't going to walk up to you and either give you their sympathies or say that they also had this problem or their sister or brother or somebody in their family did. But for Nora, she was very private. And it wasn't just about illness that she was private. There was - this is -this is so hard to talk about. You know, it's so much easier to write this than to talk about it...
EPHRON: ...which is such a curious thing. But she just didn't like you to see weakness. You know, it was the strangest thing. I remember after - she had a play called "Imaginary Friends" that was, that got a terrible review in The New York Times, unfairly, I thought. I loved the play. And I worked with her the next morning and she didn't mention it. The next morning she didn't mention it, to me. 'Cause it's a strange thing with sisters because you're so close; it's like I'd open a refrigerator and take whatever I want. But there was a quality of privacy that we both had - I mean I never discussed my husband's illness with her because I thought she would think I was weak because I was worried, because I never wanted to seem like a weak person. And that was because Nora valued strength among all things. And so that choice to me seems the only choice she ever would've made, was to keep it private among just a very close group of us. I mean really small group.
GROSS: But if she was keeping her cancer a secret, it meant you had to keep the fact that your sister had cancer a secret.
EPHRON: Yes. It's hard to keep secrets like that. Everyone thinks that telling secrets is sort of a bad thing. And sometimes it is. I mean I have many, many secrets that I keep now for people. There are a lot of people who don't want anyone to know that they're sick or someone in their family is sick and yet they tell you. But sometimes when you tell a secret, it's 'cause you need to process it. You need to call your best friend and say, my gosh, you know, I'm so upset about this, and then you talk about what - either how much you love that person or what, why it frightened you that they're sick, and certainly it was very frightening to me that my sister was sick 'cause we were so close. It felt, I felt as if I were sick or about to get sick at any minute. And so I mean I had my husband and my husband knew and we talked about it. But it was worse for Nora. I mean I always knew the person who is sick is the one who is really suffering and you always have to remember that you're not the sick one. But keeping secrets is complicated.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. And her new book, "Sister Mother Husband Dog," is about her family. The first chapter, which we've been talking about, is about her late sister, Nora Ephron, who died last year.
Delia, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. We're talking about her new book, "Sister Mother Husband Dog." And the sister she refers to in the title is writer Nora Ephron, who died last year of cancer.
You write that Nora was often mistaken for your twin, but after 12 days of chemo she was mistaken for your mother. What was it like to see her so quickly transformed?
EPHRON: It was awful. Everyone who has ever been through that knows that - I mean chemo is therapy. And I don't like to call it chemo because I think it turns into some pet you have in the house. Chemotherapy, it just takes it out of you completely, and she went from being so - that's just what I said. I mean these candy stripers - well, that's what I used to call them. But, you know, they're volunteers and they were so sweet. They would come in every day to ask if you wanted a milkshake. And they would say something - they would guess at the relationship and they were always guessing are you twins. And then one day one walks in and says is she your mother. And I thought, well, that says it all, isn't it? That's 10 days on chemotherapy.
GROSS: And was this early in her sickness? And if so...
EPHRON: No. Oh no.
GROSS: This was at the end?
EPHRON: In fact, I mean just to correct. Actually, Nora didn't have cancer for six years. She had something called myelodysplastic syndrome, MDS it's colloquial referred to. And it's a disease of the bone marrow that at some point morphs into a very deadly form of leukemia. And so Nora for six years lived with this condition knowing that at any moment it might become more serious. Her son, Jacob Bernstein, wrote about this in The New York Times Magazine. And so she was living with a clock - a ticking clock - that was going to, at any moment things are going to change, and she got six years. The medications were quite effective with her. And she had six years where she was able to do a phenomenal amount. I mean we had "Love Lost" and we had her, and then she had her play with Tom Hanks. And she was able to work, which most important thing, I think, to her, and to have a fantastic time. She loved to have fun and she was able to live a very normal life.
GROSS: You tell a couple of actually very funny stories about how hard to please she was and how she remained that way even when she was sick. Do you want to tell the backpack or the hat story?
EPHRON: It was impossible to buy her a present. I mean she just had to be the giver, not the receiver in life, and in fact in work. You know, she needed to discover the material that - to work on. In a way she was sort of a director of life as well as a director of movies. And I mean it was so frustrating. And so I bought her this adorable backpack purse, which I sort of knew she was never going to keep. And a week later I went back to the store and there it was. And there had only been one so I knew it was exactly the same purse. So I bought it for myself because I really liked it. And about two weeks later I wore it over to the house because we were writing something together. And she said, oh, I love that. I want one. And I said get real, I gave this to you two weeks ago for your birthday and you hated it and returned it. I mean it was just so classic. It was so classic Nora, oh my gosh.
GROSS: You write that Nora thought of you as a hysteric and as a worrier. How well did you cope with the fear of her sickness and the fear that she was going to die? And I should mention here, your husband was sick during this period and so you, I'm sure, were quite worried about him. And so during this time of worry, you wanted to prove that your sister was wrong and that you weren't a hysteric. So how did that play out for you?
EPHRON: Well, first of all, I am a hysteric.
EPHRON: I go from zero to 100 faster than anybody in the room. But I come by it honestly, as we all do. And after I wrote about Nora, I wrote about my mother, which you sort of alluded to earlier. And I am the child of alcoholics - two alcoholics, actually, but more importantly my mother. And I was 11 when my parents became alcoholics and my sister was 14, and my younger sisters were, I guess, Hallie, four years younger than me, Amy five years. And I believe that nobody has the same parents, that you're born into a family at a different time, that your parents relate to you differently depending on what your personality is and how they connect. So that I came - I was 11 when this happened and I really had much more time to live in that house. And when you're the child of an alcoholic, you are worried all the time. All you think about is: Are they gonna start drinking tonight? My parents were - this is the hardest thing I wrote in the book by far, writing about my mother, and I felt it was so important because of the isolation you have as a child like this. You're always keeping the family secrets. And I just don't keep them. I really feel passionately about that. So I became someone who was always trying to figure out what was going to happen. I was a watcher. I was on hyper alert. Were they going to have a fight tonight? Were they going to drink tonight? What did that movement mean? Why did she pour the glass of - so quickly? Why did she drink it so quickly? Why did she throw the jacket over the chair in that particular angry way? What did it all mean?
And what happens is you grow up and you're still worrying. You're still knowing that when you're looking left something is coming at you from the right. So you're trying to look two directions at once, which is completely impossible, as we all know. But those things that you develop as a child, these survival things, they hang on and they stay in your life and I really needed to write a lot about that to sort of exorcize the demons of it, I think, and try to understand who my mother was, really - which I, to some degree, will never know. So I think Nora very accurately nailed me for a worrier. She knew I was, I was just worrying all the time. But she never really understood why.
EPHRON: And that, I don't think that was, it even occurred to her. She just concluded. Sisters do this, you know, you just conclude things about each other and they frustrate you and irritate you in a way that they, they don't irritate your friends at all, they're very forgiving. But sisters, sisters can be tough on each other.
GROSS: Delia Ephron will be back in the second half of the show. Her latest book is a collection of essays called "Sister Husband Mother Dog, (etc.)"
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with screenwriter, novelist and essayist, Delia Ephron. Her latest book is a collection of autobiographical essays called "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)." The first essay is about hear sister, Nora Ephron, who died last year of acute myeloid leukemia. Nora wrote and directed "When Harry Met Sally," and the two sisters co-wrote the movies, "You've Got Mail" and "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," as well as the off-Broadway hit, "Love, Loss and What I Wore."
Their parents were also screenwriters. They co-wrote the film adaptation of "Carousel" and the movies "Daddy Long Legs," starring Fred Astaire, and "There's No Business Like Show Business," starring Marilyn Monroe.
We were talking a little bit about your parents. One of your chapters is about your mother, but also about your father. And, as you said, your mother became an alcoholic when you were 11. And you write: Alcoholism breeds a staggering self-absorption. Would you explain what you mean by that?
EPHRON: Well, the need for a drink is what controls your day - how soon you're going to get it, how soon you're going to get that click, how soon you're going to be in a haze, where things aren't really clear. Or in the case of my mother, who I think of as a, the day mom and the night mom, because the day mother was so completely pulled together, rather remarkable screenwriter, with her pride of daughters, and she never will lost her temper and she always wore these perfect suits. At night, she started around six. By the time it was bedtime, she was very drunk and she would rage all night. We were up night after night at home just listening to my parents scream at each other, actually and rage at each other. And I understood nothing accept terror when I was a child. I was really, really scared.
And I just think that that - it's an illness, alcoholism, and the need for my mother to have that drink and then to possibly it made it - I'm not sure, but it seemed to make it possible for her to let out the monsters. You know, that is, that's self-absorbed. Even though that's to call it a name when it's an illness, but what I mean is from the point of view of the child, I'm not getting taken care of. My life isn't safe. And the job of the parent, as we all know, is to take care of their children; to keep them safe, to keep them feeling secure. And children in a - I, in a home like that, there was no way I ever felt safe or secure. And I always imagined that I had a move to make that would in fact not make this happen, which is, of course, just the way children think, and imagine that they could...
GROSS: You mean that you could fix it? If you did the right thing you could fix it?
EPHRON: If I didn't fix it, if I diluted the liquor bottles maybe they wouldn't get as drunk that night. If I was really, it was really amazing because we had these fantastically fun dinners and then as this took over the family, instead of all the fun, one of my sisters would kick me under the table or I would kick them, don't bring that up; that might set them off. You know what I mean? That suddenly you're just watching to see what's going to happen next and you are living in their craziness.
GROSS: So when you said you didn't feel safe after your mother became an alcoholic, do you mean that you felt physically threatened by your mother or that you just didn't have a parent there to protect you from all the things children need protection from.
EPHRON: From their parent.
EPHRON: I did - that's right. I mean who's the mother here, if I'm diluting liquor bottles, who's the mother here?
GROSS: Did you dilute liquor bottles?
EPHRON: Who is - yeah, absolutely, I mean I did. But the point is: who's taking care of who?
GROSS: Did she get angry at you and figure out that you were doing that?
EPHRON: No. No. You're just so sweet, but you just imagining a level of sanity...
EPHRON: ...that I would have welcomed - believe me - anything that logical. Actually, one of the most powerful things that happened to me was that, you know, when my mother was dying, she said to Nora famously, in the sense that Nora wrote about it, and then the family kind of also at the same time embraced it - which is she said to Nora: Take notes. And to me, when I was a child, my mother said: I hope you never tell anyone what happens here.
So the messages in our family were very mixed. And I mean my mother didn't want anyone to know for many reasons. I think she was probably ashamed. I think she didn't want to be exposed. I think she was a very impressive person and it diminished her. And I was loyal. I mean, I kept the secret. But I don't think it's a good secret to keep. And I don't even think take notes on a deathbed makes any sense whatsoever. I mean, I did not take notes when my sister was dying; I was there for her, present for her, not taking notes on her.
And I've always felt with my mother that sometimes cleverness passed for wisdom. And also, in families like this, every family has myths and the myths become very powerful. And the myth of my mother was that she was really totally pulled together. And that, in fact, was not true. But it was also true that she gave her four daughters just a remarkable sense of destiny. I mean, there were no working mothers when she was a working mother. And she kept saying: You will have a career, you will leave Los Angeles, you will go to New York, you will have adventures, you will be a writer. And that was a fantastic gift that she gave me. But there was this other thing going on.
GROSS: Did your mother ever make you feel that you were getting in the way of her career? I mean, she had four daughters. That's a lot of - it's a lot of children when you're really busy with your career as well. I know there are people who do it, but it's, I think it's very, very challenging and it was before a time when there was a large population of women who were in that position and could talk about it together in public and private dialogue.
EPHRON: The thing that really breaks my heart about my mother was that she had no close girlfriends. The phone simply never ran for her, and I think the cost of this, both the person she created - this very confident working woman, as well as the other side - the dark, self-destructive side, she was keeping herself apart from them as a successful woman and she was keeping herself apart from them as a woman who wasn't in any way together. So she was isolated, I think, deeply isolated. But she made a lot of money. Both my parents, they were very proud of the fact that they were successful screenwriters. And, you know, then so many more movies were made every year and my parents had a contract at Fox and they went every day to the studio, especially when I was young. We had a cook who made dinner. We were always hanging out with our parents in the den before dinner. So she wasn't - and she did not make our lunches. I don't remember that she got up with us in the morning.
One of the things I often think about is how little trouble we caused her and my father. We were - well, certainly I, I cannot speak for my sisters, I was a very good girl. I mean, I have my moments when I converted to Christianity by accident at a Billy Graham rally, which they thought was hysterical or, you know, all that kind of rebel stuff they rewarded. They loved that I was kind of a nut like that. But they, I don't think what you're saying I - first of all, also when you're an alcoholic you're not really thinking about boy, I better really take good care of my children, right? But, in fact, there were so many rules in our house for living. There were so many expectations that they were very powerful and they trumped a lot of the chaos.
GROSS: There's a certain type of person, and I think maybe your mother fits into this category, who are very good at selling themselves even to their own family. And it sounds like the way your mother kind of narrated her philosophy of life and like, your mother is so busy she can't go to open school night; that she was kind of like a salesman, like selling her personality and selling her philosophy to you so that you would think more of her? Do you know what I mean? That she would be like a really big person in your esteem?
EPHRON: Yes. And that you think that...
GROSS: And that, and then so that she could almost like control the way you saw her. Like this is how you're supposed to see me. Here's who I am...
GROSS: ...and I'm really important.
EPHRON: I think that's true. I mean, that's absolutely true. And the whole idea of us as Ephron or Ephron...
EPHRON: ... depending on how you pronounce it - Ephron girls - was that she had this pride of daughters who were reflections, in a way, and she was very proud of how well we did in school in that sense. And I think she would say to us things like: You have to be nonconformist, you're not allowed to conform. Which meant we had to conform to everything she said because, in fact, she picked all our courses for us. We were never allowed to pick a course ourselves. She - three years of - two years of Latin, three years of French, four years of English. Everything was regimented as what she knew was best and within that we were supposed to be nonconformist. So it's really sort of complicated.
GROSS: My guest is Delia Ephron. Her collection of autobiographical essays is called "Sister Mother Husband Dog (etc.)." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Delia Ephron. And she has a new book that's called "Sister Mother Husband Dog."
Your parents were screenwriters. And, again, they collaborated on the adaptation of the musical "Carousel," "There's No Business like Show Business" with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe, "Daddy Long Legs," with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Did you grow up watching those movies, and what did those movies mean to you?
EPHRON: I did grow up watching them and I loved them very much. The movie that I think my mother identified the most with was "Desk Set," with Tracy and Hepburn. And I think she identified with Katherine Hepburn. And in that movie Katherine Hepburn is a librarian in a company that they have just brought a computer into and she is smarter than the computer. And I think my mother identified enormously with that character who I think her name is Bunny. We did always see their movies. And when they wrote a play, "Take Her, She's Mine," and when it was made into a movie with Jimmy Stewart, they did not write it. Another writer was hired to do it, which I think rankled. And - I hope that's a word. I hope I didn't just make it up.
GROSS: I think it's a word.
EPHRON: Is it a word?
EPHRON: Oh good. And we weren't allowed to see that movie. And there was no censorship in our house at all. I was the only child reading "Peyton Place." I was the only one allowed in my - I don't know if you know that, but it's a very racy book and all my girlfriends were not allowed to read it but I, of course, was. But in this case, we could not go to this movie 'cause they're play had been destroyed and they were very upset about it.
So I knew a lot about what was going on in the movies, but they actually loved their work so much. And screenwriters today are a very unhappy crowd because I don't know if you know this, but screenwriters are just hired hands. You're hired and you're fired. And you can be fired for almost any reason whatsoever; the studio wants it funnier, they want a different take, the actor has a writer he loves, the director has a writer he prefers. I mean you're just, you can just be on and off. But my parents, they just made so many movies there and you were a contract writer at the studio and you were just given a job every other day and your movies just got made and it was so much fun. And my father was just a total Hollywood guy. I mean he loved the movie business, loved everything about it.
GROSS: So did you meet movie stars? You mentioned earlier you met Marilyn Monroe.
EPHRON: I did meet them. I'll tell you, that was another rule of my mother's. It's so disappointing: Just because someone is famous - well, wait. Famous people are no better than you are, so you are not allowed to ask for their autographs. So it was all very demystified in a way in the family. But I did meet Fred Astaire because they went to the races with him. You know, Fred Astaire was huge on horseracing and he even married a jockey, right? That was his last wife. So he came to pick them up, he came to the door. And I think my sister Amy, I think Ray Bolger sang "Once in Love with Amy" to her once and it became a very big thing that we all remembered this.
But the thing in Hollywood was that the writers hung out with the writers. And so my parents' close friends were, was Julie Epstein who wrote "Casablanca" - which by the way, I never even knew about as a child. I didn't discover that movie till I was in my 20s, it was never brought up at all. And the Hackett's...
GROSS: You mean you knew the writer and you didn't know the movie?
EPHRON: Absolutely I had no idea what he wrote. We used to go there and swim every Sunday.
EPHRON: I had no idea what he wrote.
GROSS: That's so odd.
EPHRON: That seems weird, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah. Considering...
EPHRON: The Hacketts...
GROSS: Considering the importance of "Casablanca." What a great movie it is.
EPHRON: Well, I wonder - I don't know the history that well, but I think it was - oh, I remember them telling us one story that Julie and his twin brother Philip, who died, but they had written that movie together. And that when they went to the opening they thought it was terrible and left. They were too scared to watch the whole thing.
And I remember my parents telling us that, but I really never knew that it was a masterpiece until I was in my 20s and I discovered it on my own. They were also very close with Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the movie that destroyed my life, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," and - because I just wanted to get married.
In spite of my mother, I just - with all that career stuff - I just wanted to get married, move to the backwoods and make flapjacks for a wild man after I saw that movie. And I saw it 16 times before I was 20. I was obsessed with it. But they also wrote "The Diary of Anne Frank." The play they wrote. And they wrote "The Thin Man" movies. And they were remarkable screenwriters and I knew nothing about what they wrote except "Anne Frank."
GROSS: Getting back to your sister for a moment, Nora Ephron, her book "I Feel Bad About my Neck" was in part about her feelings about getting older. And I guess I'm wondering if watching her die and not live to the age that of course you would've wanted her to has affected your feelings about getting older.
EPHRON: I do feel that I have to do everything quickly. I hate to waste a day. I hate to waste a day I don't write or I hate it when I'm not - I live on this block that I'm madly in love with and every time I walk outside of my building I think, oh my gosh, I get to live on this block. And I try to really - but I feel now, and I feel it much more strongly certainly since Nora's death, is that all we really have is process.
How did the work go today? How did the writing go? How did the - how did the lunch go with your best friend that you usually love to just spend hours talking to? Did you wring every ounce of fun and intimacy out of it? Did you go - when you walked down the street today, did you notice things? Did you have a good time? Was it crisp out? Was it hot out?
And so what I think happened to me is that I got very focused on the day and making the day matter.
GROSS: Well, Delia Ephron, thank you so much for talking with us.
EPHRON: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure and an honor.
GROSS: It's been a real pleasure. Delia Ephron's collection of autobiographical essays is called "Sister Husband Mother Dog (etc.)" You can read her essay "Blame it on the Movies" on our website, freshair.npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. At 44, the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann may be the most popular tenor of his generation and one of the most versatile. Music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews two of his recordings this year, dedicated to both Verdi and Wagner, celebrating the bicentennials of their birth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: I've never heard Jonas Kaufmann in person, though I've seen him in several leading roles in the Metropolitan Opera's live telecasts. I was especially moved by his Parsifal, the innocent who some five hours later finally achieves spiritual purification. Kaufmann has everything going for him - a ringing tone, striking good looks, and expressive power. I don't really know how big his voice is because I've heard it only through electronic amplification.
But from all other evidence, he's the real thing. This year he devoted two albums to the two major opposing forces of 19th century opera, both born 200 years ago: the earthy, political Verdi steeped in the tradition of Italian opera, whose heart and soul lay in soaring arches of melody, and the intellectual and psycho-spiritual Wagner, who changed the entire tradition of operatic form.
Wagner is a natural for Kaufmann. German is his native language and the heft of his voice, at least on recordings, makes him sound like the true Wagnerian heroic tenor. Kaufmann's Wagner CD is vividly conducted by one of the world's leading Wagnerians - the Scottish conductor David Runnicles(ph).
Kaufmann sings not only familiar operatic solos but also Wagner's song cycle the Wesendonck Songs, which is usually sung by a woman. He sensitively balances large scale singing with intimate personal feeling. One of my favorite tracks on the CD is the soulful prayer from Wagner's relatively obscure third opera, "Rienzi," an epic about Medieval Rome.
Wagner wrote it before he started to shy away from the Italian opera tradition of aria and recitative. Soon he became interested in a more seamless blending of solo music into complex dramatic scenes. The character Rienzi is a plebian who becomes the popular leader of Rome. His rise to power is short-lived. He sings this moving prayer just before his terrible downfall.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "RIENZI")
SCHWARTZ: Kaufmann's Verid sounds remarkably Italian for a German singer, including the customary sob in the voice. And while he includes some of Verdi's most popular arias, he also chooses a scene with chorus from Verdi's rarely performed early opera, "I Masnadieri," "The Bandits" - the duet for tenor and baritone from Don Carlo, and two dramatic high points from "Otello."
His main obstacle in this Verdi album is the lackluster conducting by Pier Giorgio Morandi, leading the orchestra of the Parma Opera, who makes Verdi's unstoppable sweep sound square and plodding. But Kaufmann is in terrific voice and in one of the Verdi's most famous arias, "Celeste Aida," "Heavenly Aida," as the warrior Radames, he actually sings of his love for Aida as Verdi wrote it - ending not with the usual ear-shattering high note but with a dying pianissimo.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARIA, "CELESTE AIDA")
SCHWARTZ: These are only two of the CDs Jonas Kaufmann has released this year. He's still in his early 40s. His discography will continue to expand exponentially. And I'm more eager than ever to hear what he sounds like live.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and writes for the Web journal New York Arts. He reviewed new albums by tenor Jonas Kaufmann. On March 15th Kaufmann stars in Massenet's "Werther" in the Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD Series " shown in movie theaters.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.