Nora Ephron’s eulogy for journalism and for herself

March 6, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

Nora Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein describes the eulogy his mother wrote for journalism and for herself:

Based on real events, “Lucky Guy” is about a tabloid journalist named Mike McAlary. In the early ’90s, he became one of the highest-paid newspaper columnists in the country. Crime was still rampant in New York, and the Internet had not yet destroyed the economics of the newspaper business. My mother said that she saw his career as “the end of something,” a bookend to a time when reporters could still believe there was power in the job; when Elaine’s was still one of the city’s most glamorous rooms; when much of Times Square still belonged to prostitutes and drug dealers; and when the West Village had not yet been taken over by hedge-fund magnates and Russian oligarchs.

My mother knew a lot about McAlary’s world. She dreamed of being a newspaper reporter from the time she was in high school, and wound up spending much of her 20s working at The New York Post. Moreover, McAlary was what she liked to call “a problematic human being.” And after a decade of writing and directing romantic comedies, a lead character who wasn’t entirely likable seemed like a good way to keep herself from getting boxed in. …

McAlary got the scoop of his life just nine months after receiving a diagnosis of advanced colon cancer. In 1997, he wrote the story of a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima who was brutally assaulted by a New York City police officer. In the spring of 1998, McAlary won the Pulitzer Prize for his work. On Christmas of that same year, he died at 41. Shortly before his death, he was quoted as saying: “If you are a doctor or a lawyer, you take the case. If you’re a reporter, you write the story. I didn’t think about being sick.”

When Mom returned to working on the script in 2008, this was something she knew all about, though it was a secret confined to a tiny group of people: my stepfather, my brother, her sisters, a couple of close friends and me. …

All her life, she subscribed to the belief that “everything is copy,” a phrase her mother, Phoebe, used to say. In fact, when Phoebe was on her deathbed, she told my mother, “Take notes.” She did. What both of them believed was that writing has the power to turn the bad things that happen to you into art (although “art” was a word she hated). “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you; but when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh,” she wrote in her anthology “I Feel Bad About My Neck.” “So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.”

And she applied that maxim everywhere. …

The thing is, you can’t really turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story. For her, tragedy was a pit of clichés. So she stayed quiet, though clues were sprinkled through much of what she wrote during the six years she was sick. …

My mother didn’t know Mike McAlary personally, but she was certainly familiar with his kind. And what details she didn’t know were quickly filled in by his friends, colleagues and relatives, almost all of whom she interviewed.

McAlary was born in Oahu, Hawaii, and he grew up in Goffstown, N.H. After graduating from Syracuse University, he went to work at The Boston Herald American, covering sports, then eventually scored a job at New York Newsday. There, he made a name for himself as a particularly aggressive reporter, covering crime and police corruption. After that he began to bounce back and forth between The New York Daily News and The New York Post, getting bigger and better contracts each time he made a move.

In 1993, he broke his contract with The Daily News to become the highest paid reporter at The Post, with a salary of $945,750 over three years. The Daily News was granted a preliminary injunction that prevented him from making the move, and McAlary wound up with too much time on his hands. After a night out at a Yankees game, he totaled his car on the F.D.R. Drive. His injuries were so serious that he spent several days in a coma and a month in the hospital. Rupert Murdoch, who hired him at The Post, never called or came to see him. But Mort Zuckerman, who owned The News, did. So he stayed at The News.

Not long after McAlary returned to work, he made a career-killing mistake. A woman in Prospect Park had reported being raped, but Mc­Alary’s sources had doubts. He was told that the results of the rape kit had come back negative for sperm, that it was only a matter of time before she was found out. But the most crucial points in McAlary’s stories turned out to be wrong. The woman had been raped. What the source didn’t realize was that no sperm didn’t necessarily mean no semen. McAlary had made no attempt to speak with the victim herself, an act of laziness that his supporters believed was partially attributable to his accident.

The News reduced the frequency of his column. The official explanation was that he was writing his novel. It was around this time that he began to get sick. He was jaundiced and losing weight. In conversations, he seemed dazed.

“He still had these symptoms,” said his widow, Alice, when I went to see her last month. “You have to remember, they put him all back together again. So when he started having issues with his colon, his stomach, all that stuff, we attributed them to the accident.”

By the time McAlary got his diagnosis of colon cancer, it had already progressed to an advanced stage. …

In the play my mother wrote, there’s a scene toward the end, in which McAlary, sick with cancer, goes to the Poconos to visit his friend Jim Dwyer, then a columnist at The Daily News. It’s a glorious summer day, and McAlary’s 12-year-old son, Ryan, wants to do a flip off the diving board, but he gets scared and can’t do it. So McAlary takes off his shirt, walks to the edge of the diving board and says to him: “When you do these things, you can’t be nervous. If you think about what can go wrong, if you think about the belly flop, that’s what’ll happen.”

And then McAlary does the flip himself and makes a perfect landing.

It’s a metaphor, obviously, for his view about life. And I’ve come to think it might as well have been about my mother. The point is that you don’t let fear invade your psyche. Because then you might as well be dead.

As she saw him, McAlary was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness. In the six years my mother had MDS, she wrote 100 blog posts, two books and two plays and directed a movie. There was nothing she could do about her death but to keep going in the face of it. Work was its own kind of medicine, even if it could not save her when her MDS came roaring back.

Ephron died June 26, 2012 at the age of 71.