I owe my entire life in its odd present shape to Nora Ephron. She never took credit and never even accepted my thanks for it. In fact, even as we shared many friends, I haven’t managed to speak to her in person once. (She was generally great at not speaking. Remember, for over 30 years she was one of the four people who knew who Watergate’s Deep Throat was). In this combination of massive influence and total unknowability, Ephron remains the closest presence in my life I have to - sorry, don’t gag, as she likely would - an angel.
At the tail end of 2005, I was a broke ex-cafe owner with a sideline in snarky unpaid music reviews for Pitchfork. For the last two months, I had worked as a bartender at Lucien, a bistro on the corner of First Avenue and 1st Street run by a manic-depressive French psycho. My marriage had barely survived the strain of the cafe experiment and wasn’t in the best shape either. I had written a short comic essay about all of the above for Slate, but the magazine kept putting off the publication, since it was “evergreen.”
For New Year’s, Lily and I pooled our little remaining money and went to a bed&breakfast near Rhinebeck, to get the hell away from everything and everyone. On December 30, while we were on our way up there, Slate suddenly put up the story. So when I checked my email on December 31 (this was back when you’d check your email once a day), there were a few readers’ letters in the inbox (this was back when readers wrote letters to the author). Including one charmingly titled “Your blog,” which seemed to be a generational thing - older people use “blog” for “post.” “I think you should write a small funny book about this,” it said. “You probably already have an agent, but if you don’t, I’m forwarding it to one I know. I even think there’s a small and charming movie here. Best, Nora Ephron.”
I remember staring dumbfounded past the computer screen and into a window, where rather Hollywood-looking snow was falling in earnest, and realizing this email had just changed everything an email can change. I spent about an hour composing a two-line answer, and then Lily and I went out into the snow. The agent was Binky Urban, the small funny book became Ground Up which became Kofemolka which got me this job which got me to the hotel in Milan where I am now typing this, and I never got to thank Nora Ephron - she would have none of it, even when I interviewed her as a source once over the phone, for a silly story about the Apthorp, she got off the phone as soon as I began talking about that email, and now the address sitting in my inbox like a little gold coin among plastic chips (@aol.com, of course, as befits the author of You’ve Got Mail) won’t work.