Nora Ephron's body of work At 65, the writer of "A Few Words About Breasts" reflects on how the years have treated her - and her neck.

Posted: August 13, 2006

NEW YORK — Some years ago, 34 to be exact, Nora Ephron became famous for her breasts - or, from her perspective, the decided lack thereof. Now, the writer has traveled a few inches up the body to publish I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf), a collection of 15 comic essays.

First, the neck. Because she chose this title, everyone stares at her neck.

Know what? It's not a bad neck.

"You're looking at my neck, but look how you can barely see it," says Ephron, 65, tugging at the top of her nice pink jacket. "My collar is really up high." Of this sartorial subterfuge, a practice widely adopted by friends, she writes, "sometimes we're all wearing mandarin collars and look like a white ladies' version of the Joy Luck Club."

On the subject of Nora Ephron, we are not objective. We love her. We love everything about her. Ephron is smart, funny, charming, warm, and the shoes are cute, too.

"Believe me," she says leaning forward in her chair, sitting at her publisher's office. "If I look good, it's not an accident."

In the treatise "On Maintenance," Ephron catalogs the second career that middle-aged women pursue attempting to look as lovely as they once did effortlessly. Seeing a homeless woman, Ephron observes of her own intense physical upkeep rituals, "I am only eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street."

Ephron will read at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 8 p.m. Sept. 21.

I Feel Bad contains pieces on Ephron's intense love affair with her rent-controlled apartment, her deep affection for various cookbooks (The Gourmet Cookbook, Julia Child, Lee Bailey), parenting ("Adolescence comes as a gigantic shock to the modern parent, in large part because it seems so much like the adolescence you yourself went through"), and serving as an intern for John F. Kennedy ("I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the president did not make a pass at").

The eldest of four daughters born to screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron (Desk Set), she is the director and screenwriter of You've Got Mail (cowritten with sister Delia) and Sleepless in Seattle, as well as the screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally. She made Meg Ryan adorable and funny.

A blogger on the Huffington Post, Ephron has written precisely one novel, but, oh, what a book. Heartburn - she also penned the screenplay - is a fictional account of her breakup with second husband Carl Bernstein when she was seven months pregnant with their second son and he was busy with the wife of the British ambassador.

"It is interesting to me that people don't get over their divorces," says Ephron, long happily married to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas, Casino). "Get over it and make some money from it, that's my theory."

Now, of course, she's making money from the aging business, about which she is not pleased - the aging, that is, not the money.

"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life," she writes. "I can't stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?"

Ephron went through menopause as forests were being leveled for books on the subject, each more earnest than the last. "Not one of those books said the truth."

They didn't?

"The truth is, it's not a better stage of life. Your sex life gets so much better? I mean, really? Really? Your sex life may be fine, but let us not get carried away here." And the truth? "You become forgetful, and your skin gets drier and what may be wrong with you, suddenly might really be wrong with you."

Plenty of friends have had surgery, but Ephron won't get a face-lift to refurbish the neck because "it's too scary if you have a little face like mine." She has, however, had "filler," her euphemism for Restylane and Botox injections.

"But I don't have to get Botox in my forehead because" and here she leans forward as if to to share a state secret. "I have BANGS!" she announces with childlike pleasure.

The hair works. It's the best cut of her life. "I'm mortified about how bad my hair looked for a whole lot of my life," she says. "My wedding pictures are unspeakable." Which wedding? "Third. At my first wedding, my hair looked much better, and then I had a major decline. I don't know how my husband actually got involved with me."

In I Feel Bad, Ephron reveals the last unknowable about most women, her weight: 126 pounds. ("I work out on a treadmill to The Daily Show. When you TiVo all the commercials out, the show's about a mile.")

She exposes her roll, a small amount of avoirdupois located directly south of that famous chest of "A Few Words About Breasts," first published in Esquire and taught perpetually in college writing courses.

"You can't absolutely believe that you don't weigh all that much and yet this thing," she says, disgusted, grabbing the roll likes it's spoiled food. "And there it is and where did it come from? And what did I do to deserve it? And there's not a thing you can do about it." Truly? "You practically can't," Ephron says. "I'm sorry to say I know more about this than I should."

The Waterloo of her maintenance is her teeth, which have "always been an orthodontic tragedy. You know how one day, you can't stand the sink in your house for one more minute. It's sort of a shock to you that the sink is the thing that really reared its head, and said, 'Get rid of me and replace me.' That is precisely how I felt at a certain point about my teeth."

They're terrific teeth.

"I thank you so much," she says. "They should be."

In I Feel Bad, she confesses to spending $20,000 on her teeth after reading a Vogue article - "which was my first mistake" - on cosmetic dentistry.

Twenty thousand dollars? "I think I lied about how much money they were," Ephron says, looking ashamed. "It was so much more."

There are few upsides to getting older, she believes. "You don't have to shave your legs as much, I'm excited to be the first person to tell you this," she says. "And there are whole vast areas of department stores that aren't remotely relevant and it sort of focuses you in a shopping way."

She pauses. "Other than that, I have no idea."

Her last essay, "Considering the Alternative," deals with death, specifically the death of a dear friend at age 66 two years ago. "That's nothing, nothing. Well, what does it mean? And it's extremely confusing because you really don't know the answer to so much. You don't really know what it means at all."

Ephron knows people shouldn't delay what they want to do. "You absolutely know you're going to feel like an idiot if you find yourself dying and you really meant to go to Barcelona and never did, so you ought to get there."

The business of "dreading birthdays is a kind of self-indulgence," she says. "There's a certain point where, to me, being depressed about turning 65 is really looking at the wrong amount of water in the glass."

She just returned from a terrific trip to Italy, boating down the coast and eating exceptionally well. And what is she doing to enjoy these years, this age? "There's no question that, in the last couple of years I've been eating a lot more bread," she says. "I spent my life in the Zone, and I can't believe how great bread is in America at this moment."

Her voice, for once, is tinged with regret. "I have had way too little bread and pasta in my life, so I'm making up for that," she says, smiling. As for the key to growing older, she adds, "I know it's not a deep answer, but it's an answer."

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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