My Divorce from Nora Ephron

Margo Howard looks back — with regret — at the unfortunate end of a treasured friendship

Last week should have been designated “Nora Ephron Week.” She received terrific publicity, seemingly everywhere, for her new book, I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections. What woman of a certain age wouldn’t agree with the premise of her two most recent titles? We all feel bad about our necks, and who among us has not lost her keys? Not only was Nora’s new book getting a big play (and important reviews) but she got quite a lot of ink about being the founding editor of a new section on Huffington Post: Divorce. This is a subject I find enormously interesting, obviously, because I have had three of them. And what makes it even more interesting is that you might say that Nora and I got divorced.

This is kind of complicated, but what divorce isn’t? (Well, actually, two of mine weren’t. Although the first one was hot and cold running detectives, the second was a matter of indifference, and the third was probably the friendliest on record. I mean, it was “You take this,” “No, you take this.”)

But back to Nora, who is a marvelous writer, and back in the day was a wonderful girlfriend. We met right before she became engaged to Carl Bernstein; a mutual friend introduced us. We had dinner at the old and glorious Pump Room in Chicago. At some point we got deep into girl talk. She introduced me to the analytic idea of girls marrying their mothers, in the bad way, and agreed that perhaps this is what we had both done the first time around. We also had our own Ugly Man contest. Good taste prevents me from naming the husbands and beaus we each named, but we were pretty even in that department, and decided the guys who weren’t lookers were often the smart ones. At that particular dinner, Nora spoke of fidelity and its importance to her. Alas, that was around the time she had caught Carl with a Playboy Bunny, but she gave him a pass, as they were not yet married. Anyway, that dinner was the seed of a friendship I cherished, because I was just starting out as a writer and Nora was already … Nora. (The only other meal I can think of that turned into something meaningful was an interview lunch I had with Ken Howard … and we got married. Then divorced.)

Nora was into the women’s movement in a way I was not. One of the things I admired about her, aside from her gifted prose, was that she was extremely generous and non-competitive with other women writers. In fact, when I called it a day with Mr. Right #2, she insisted I go back to work. (As then-newspaper editor Jim Hoge put it, “Writing is what Margo does between husbands.”) Nora went so far as to get me in to see Lee Eisenberg, who was then running Esquire, and he asked me to write a story for them.

In a funny way, Nora was also like a big sister, though she was a year younger. I remember, in 1975, when my parents divorced after 36 years, savvy Nora said I should put my phone on service and not answer because every women’s magazine and a few wire services would be after me. When it was announced, it was a 24-hour news story and she was right. The list of publications that left messages was quite long, indeed.

I also remember being madly impressed when, on a visit to New York, Nora made me a tuna fish sandwich that was maybe the best I’d ever had. OMG, the girl could cook, too. This was particularly impressive to someone who often stored extra sweaters in the oven.

Although there were people who found our writing styles similar, Nora had something I never did have, and never would: ambition. She wanted to do it all, and she has. I, on the other hand, the sloth to her motivated, high achieving self, was always happy with a toy career.

But on to the divorce – hers and mine — which, strangely enough, crosses paths with the biggest criticism she is facing with her latest book, if not her new HuffPo section. The common thread would be Carl Bernstein, her (second) husband from 35 years ago. She has managed to keep his indiscretion alive for all this time so that someone not up on the news might think it was only yesterday that she caught him screwing Margaret Jay. At the time Heartburn came out, I wrote about it for The New Republic. It wasn’t meant to be a book review, because we were friends, but it was an essay — funny, I’ll grant you – that said a true and serious thing: I was unhappy that she’d written the book because it invited people to pity her, which I didn’t think a good thing, at all. I remember writing that I believed the title of the book had been a compromise between Heartache and Slow Burn. Because Nora had interspersed recipes throughout Heartburn, my piece used them, too. I made the observation that while her book went quite beyond kiss-and-tell (being more live-and-tell) I felt she didn’t actually reveal everything … that she was fudging. Then I gave a recipe for fudge. I think you get the picture.

Fast forward to a night not long after the TNR piece ran when we essentially bumped into each other at Orso in New York. Nora spotted me and race-walked to her table, leaving me in the dust, as it were. Not that there really is any dust at Orso’s. It was then I knew that her dictum, told to her by her late mother, “Everything is copy,” did not apply to her. Nora, herself, had written about close friends, old beaux, etc. – very thinly disguised – so it took me a while to figure out that she could do this, but other people could not. I must admit, for many years, I did not understand her feeling that I had been disloyal, because my main point was pro-Nora. Years later, however, I did see her point and felt the piece, although quite terrific, was not worth the friendship. However … I am lucky in one respect; there are people walking around who have no idea why Nora dropped them. I did think about apologizing, but felt in my gut that Nora being Nora, it would be rejected. I wish we were still friends, but there you are. And whenever I feel like taking the sweaters out of the oven, I make her peach pie, which is fab.

I read in one of the articles about her that Nora saves letters. So do I! And some are from her. A few of them tell me that I and my (then) tykes encouraged her to have children. She really seemed to love motherhood. She also admired my Rolls Royce. And she was a constant cheerleading section for my working. So that’s the story of our divorce. And — unlike those with any of the husbands — this is the one I wish hadn’t happened.

31 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    I think of Frank Sinatra: “Regrets, we have a few . . .” when I read, realizing the openness of your story. And – as we would know it would — all the hoopla over Nora via NYT Magazine and the latest of her book reviews — brings the past to the surface in a big way. We ourselves can guide, give advice, but then it is our turn. Our feelings on lost friendship of the good kind may differ. I tend to bleed — as if I have again been stabbed in the back many times. I want to look back, wondering if I have left drops of blood behind me on the sidewalk. Margo, the darn trouble with all this is that mention of the name alone, years later when life is quite satisfactory and friends – real friends – are there, makes me look behind me to see if the drops of blood have made another appearance.

    Certainly, we don’t intentionally hurt good friends. In fact, we think we know each other so well that we can take a joke or – as in your case — a bit of very very clever one-up-man-ship. It should have been thought of as such. You might have expected a phone call with a laugh on the other end that said “Well, you got me”.

    But I am sure after years of being on the giving end of advice, you would say to another that the end result was truly your friend’s bad luck. It could have been the friendship of a lifetime. Even if Nora called you up after reading this and suggested the “kiss and make up”, those women are risky. Chances are Nora is still Nora. You would have to be alert — and for God’s sake, that isn’t fun.

    I call it LIFE. The scars of life unfortunately remain. But we are making our “now” and our future the best it can be — and how lucky we are to find ourselves loved, to find ourselves treasured by those who love us for who we are. I call this being blessed.

    But — like you — for a bit right now the wound is re-opened. . and the “wish I hadn’t” part prays on the mind. And yes, it tells us that this person WAS special and yes, we cared.


    • avatar Linda Myers says:

      I thnk at times we are not meant to know why the parting occurs. I was sitting one afternoon and got pulled into this strange little vision with a friend I really treasured and had not talked to for quite sometime, just sitting with each other and she said I would see her again later in life, but not now or maybe for a very long time without any explanation as to why – and in this world I haven’t even though I tried to make contact. Friends are lifetime in our thoughts, just maybe not in our life. 🙂

    • avatar mary burdt says:

      Hi Joan,  Friendships are a tricky business, aren’t they?  Since reading your posts for quite a while, I venture to say you are the kind of friend all of us want in our lives.  I treasure my friends for the unique qualities they possess and you, I consider, a friend. Mary

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        and while we have never met,  certainly feel the same.  I think one of the mistakes we make in life is not expressing our good feelings.  The smallest things can make the largest differences I find – and one thing we all share is the need to be cared for and wanted.  Joan

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      It sounds horribly narcissistic but I really have no regrets so far.  Life is not easy. Decisions are difficult. But when you know something is right, it’s right.  And you live with the reality that some prefer to believe that right is wrong.   And that wrong is right. 

      Believe me, no good deed goes unpunished. But at least you know you did the good deed.

      • avatar Deeliteful says:

        Not so horribly narcissistic, Snooks – more realistic to me.  I’ve divorced and been divorced by former friends. 

        It all comes down to that silly email thing that seems to come around every six months or so – People come into our lives for a season, reason or life time…blah, blah, blah., but it rings true.

        We outgrow each other, realize that we only had a few things in common and that changed, we moved hundreds of miles apart and moved on with our lives, or one friend literally sucks the life out of the other with her daily drama (don’t we all know one of those?)  Or any other number of reasons.

        I do not mourn these divorced friends anymore than I mourn my divorced husbands.  As my son would hate to hear, “It is what it is”.

  2. avatar Maggie W says:

    I don’t recall when I realized certain people come into your life for a specific time only. And that is okay. There is no meanie involved. Very few people are actually keepers. (Unfortunately, some in that category are relatives whom you cannot divorce. Life can be a cruel beast in that regard. ) Margo’s friendship with Nora very well may have fizzled any way at some point .
    Some child psychologists say our personalities are formed by the time we are three. But as we go through life, that same personality is tweaked for better or worse depending upon time and place and persons involved. I was quite young and also self absorbed when I met my husband to be. Now that I look back, I wonder how he tolerated me. How did that relationship survive and flourish? Perhaps he sensed a better version of me was further down the road. I can’t help but wonder if the Margo/Nora friendship had simply run its course. Possibly, it was time for a time out. Then again, was a better version of each of them down the road , minus the other? It appears that is the situation. As my dear father used to say after each of us kids made a tough decision, “Time to go forward. That can’t happen if you’re looking in the rear view mirror”.
    Margo, it was a lovely friendship while it lasted. I know you can celebrate that. I’m guessing Nora does as well.

  3. avatar Sue Fawcett says:

    Life is about people coming and going, and those that stay are our true friends. It’s difficult when a friendship ends – particularly for unknown reasons – but one must simply move on and have a somewhat fatalistic attitude about such matters.

  4. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    I enjoyed your article and enjoyed even more the comments that have been left by Joan Larsen and the others.  I recently lost a very good friendship with a neighbor who I thought I would be friends with for the rest of my life.  The sad part is that it ended over something completely petty and small.  Other friends and colleagues familiar with the situation have told me that it was not my fault, that I’m better off, etc.  Looking back in hindsight, I can see that they are right.  This woman has cultivated her role as being a constant victim and the loss of my friendship has only fed into that persona she has created for herself.  While I don’t wish her any ill will, I could kick myself for being so stupid and buying into her “poor, poor me” rhetoric for the last four years.  I actually find myself surprised that I am not missing her presence in my life more than I do, but as I get older, I find myself wanting to keep my circle a little tighter and not try to “save the whole world” as my husband calls it.  On a brighter note, I’m going to use the money I would have spent on her Christmas present to put into a pool so that a less fortunate family can have a brighter holiday.  Living well is the best revenge I say.

  5. avatar Lizzie R. says:

    A few years ago I had a friend, not a close friend, but a friend nonetheless. We enjoyed each other’s company when suddenly she just scorned me. I had no idea why and thought about it to the point of obsession and could find no reason for this. I finally asked her what was the matter and she started crying, which made things worse, as still could get no answer from her. Thought yet more about this and  finally called her. She answered, I asked her what had I done that had made her so angry at me? She told me to talk to her husband, who I had never met. He got on the phone & told me to NEVER call there again and hung up.  This was crazy making, but  then I heard from a mutual friend that she had done the same thing to her. To further add to this, another woman I didn’t really know had known her too, so I asked her about my “friend” and she started crying over her relationship with her. So much for this so called friend whom I ultimately dubbed “Psycho Bitch.” Ya just never know. ….BTW, Don Imus called the above named person a “bitch” today.

  6. avatar Gilesey says:

    It is not surprising to me that Nora E. “broke up” with you.  A true friend would have spoken with her before writing a column about something so personal.  Granted, she had exposed herself in the film, but she exposed herself in the way that she apparently wanted to be exposed.  As her friend, you should not have exposed her further as you saw fit nor expressed your opinons about her publicly.  Note that I have not read your apparently humourous article that you reference, but am just going by this post.  If you had done what you say you did to Nora to me, I would feel horribly betrayed.  I’m amazed that you feel writing about how a friend deals with a tragedy in her personal life is okay.  If you were so concerned, why wouldn’t you just pick up the phone and call her.  Instead, you decided to benefit from your friendship in a creepy way.  And now to write about it so much later as if she is at fault for your betrayal and also unforgiving is just strange.  Ick. 

    I will say I’ve had an experience like what you did to Nora.  Not cool at all.  My friend later admitted she did me dirt because she was jealous of me.  How sad.  

    I’m amazed that you wrote this aticle also because it seems so obvious that you revere and yet are jealous of Nora E.  Either that or you have a limited morality that allows you to take advantage of people who trust you.  

    I don’t want to be mean, but I’m just amazed at this.  Well, at least you’ve admitted what you did.  Maybe later you’ll come clean re: why you did it.  My friend took years to admit what she did and even longer to admit why she did it.  


    • avatar Paul Smith says:

      Gilesey, your friends should count themselves lucky.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      When someone puts something out in the “public domain” they invite comment and the right to comment should not exclude ‘friends, family, and other assorted strangers” who may take issue with what has been put out there whether they take issue with it on a serious note or a “tongue-in-cheek” note.

      To thine own self be true. And truthful. Especially in print.  Fudge a little and, well,  expect a fudge recipe.  

      The end of a friendship is difficult. I have never had any problem writing the loss off as their loss. Not mine.  Nora’s loss.  Not Margo’s.

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Gilesey – when you write: “I’m amazed that you wrote this aticle also because it seems so obvious that you revere and yet are jealous of Nora E.”

      I must point out that neither jealousy nor reverence comes into play. If I wanted a career like hers, all I had to do was put in the time. I also have attributess/qualities that she doesn’t … so again no point for jealousy. And, probably most important of all, you don’t know Nora. And … my situation is not in any way like what you speak of with your friend. You have managed to conflate your experience with mine. 

  7. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    I broke up a long friendship because of betrayal. The friend in question can’t see where “she did anything wrong” as she puts it to others. The article that you wrote could seem amusing to you because you weren’t living the internal pain. I think it is different when an individual experiences something and writes about it. I’d consider it a violation for a friend to do so. You said that you were unhappy that she had written the book because it invited people to pity her. In her mind the book might have been a release from the years of loving a man of questionable fidelity. It would have been an explanation of those times. There had to have been qualities that made the relationship last the duration that it did.
    In many long standing relationships and friendships people begin to assume that they know you better than you know yourself. Most of us only see the outside influences and the reactions to what happened. We never completely share the deepest feelings because they are too private. Your essay could have trivialized her feelings and the years she spent in her relationship. In her mind that would have been the ultimate betrayal.

  8. avatar Laurie Deer says:

    I am glad to hear your apology to a very dear friend.  I think it’s great, although it may fall on deaf ears, your atonement is truly the gift in all of this.  BTW, I read Nora’s book and truly enjoyed it.  I am a novice Nora Ephron reader and am smitten-ed.   Thank care.

  9. avatar Margo Howard says:

    I’m not going to get into it any further or draw a roadmap, but I don’t think people are really understanding this piece. Perhaps my fault.

  10. avatar Catvickie says:

    I think most people have been on both sides of this kind of situation. When hubby and i were younger we spent a weekend with his best man and his new wife whom we had never met. They took us on a St. Paddy’s day tour of bars, and both of us do not drink much. The next day she had a hangover, but served a nice dinner. Never heard from them again. Maybe they were disappointed that we were not party animals, although the best man should have known. He never used to be.  On the other side, i had a friend for years who never ceased to be kind of loud and rude in any setting. At first I think it was a novelty to be with a person who spoke her mind, since it was a change from my background, but as the years went by, I could see how my wishes were overridden time after time, like the time she had a sick cat in her yard, and insisted on bringing it over to my house. I told her i had a box of new kittens, and they could catch something–she insisted that she did not want to expose her daughter to the trauma of taking it to the humane society. in spite of all objections, she brought it over anyway. i took it to the vet, who declared it FIV positive and charged $50 for euthanization. i had lost my job a few months before. She did not offer to reimburse me. Finally at a party at my house she loudly declared, standing next to my brother in law, that my sister in law looked like she had really aged. SIL was diagnosed with breast cancer a month later. That was nearly the last straw–I cut her off after another gaffe. I am sorry to say, i did not explain it to her, but it was impossible, some people absolutely have no clue.
    Margo, people should not judge you unless they know both you and Nora extremely well, and perhaps read both pieces to put in into context. Even then, each situation is different. I agree with the letter writers that say people move in and out of your life, sometimes friendships run their course. I know i let mine go on way too long, and i am happier for letting it go. Call me a coward for not trying to tell her, but I know from the past that she would not have gotten the message.

  11. avatar anneh says:

    Sometimes an apology is done in such a way as to simply justify one’s unfortunate actions.  And, that is never really a true or acceptable apology for a wrong done.  A true, heartfelt apology never has a “but” following it.  It simply reads:  I am sorry.  After reading Margo’s piece I am afraid that if I were Nora and were to read this piece I would feel it was written as a justification – not an apology.  All I have to go on is what Margo has written here as a public piece and from what I have read I would have to say that Margo may have truly done a disservice to her great friend.  And, regardless of the intent of that disservice (whether from jealousy, simply an attempt at humor or whatever) it seems to me an apology was necessary.  And, from what I have read here, the “true” meaningful and deep apology was never offered.  That is why the rift was never mended.

  12. avatar Lourdes Villarreal says:

    With all due respect to the posters, I think there’s too much reading between the lines here.
    I can only agree with Margo when she feels that the whole thing was not worth such a long-time friendship. Margo says she realizes she may have acted wrong, but Nora could have said something, too, instead of giving a high-school kind of ‘silent treatment’.
    I can also understand when Margo says “it took me a while to figure out that she could do this, but other people could not”, and resented Nora for this. Again, the two of them could have just sat down and talked about it, it shouldn’t have had to come to an abrupt end, but then again, nobody’s perfect.
    But most important: what I get from this piece is that Margo misses her friend very much, not less and not more. Anything else is speculation. The implying of jealousy, betrayal, stabbing in the back, and such horrible things, is judgmental and disrespectful to both ladies.
    Margo, I did enjoy very much your article, and if I’m misinterpreting something, I apologize. It must be very hard to open up your heart like this, so I thank you for doing it! You’ve certainly had a very interesting life!

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Lourdes – I actually don’t miss her. She’s a lot of work. I liked the friendship when we had it, and am sorry when anything ends.

  13. avatar Alice Beth Royce says:

    All I want to say is that criticism between friends should be just that, between them, not published.

  14. avatar Steve Santay says:

    Who’s this Nora Ephron person I was so happily unaware of five minutes ago?

    • avatar Margo Howard says:

      Steve — that is hysterical, and let’s hope she doesn’t she it.

    • avatar Patricia McFadden says:

      Steve,I’m with you.
      I didn’t know of her either until this morning when she was a guest on
      “THE View ” promoting her book.
      Seemed like she and Barbara Walters were long time friends.
      Or was it just a fake performance?

  15. avatar Mary Miller says:

    When I was growing up , my family moved often because of my father’s business, wherever he went , we went and everytime we went we said many many goodbyes.  I learned at a young age that it was easier to say goodbyes when you got realy ticked off at someone, so I went out of my way to realy tick my friends off about a week before we would move. It wasn’t until I was in college that I envied others who had life long friendships, I didn’t know what that was.  I guess my large family was my lifelong friends.  Anyway, as I got older I realy yearned for those close friendships.  I went to work for a small agency and the director of the agency and I were basically on equal planes of the business, in one sense she was in charge of me and on another I was in charge of her, complicated but true.  She was as stubborn as I was , but we became realy good friends.  In the end, I quit because of her and left feeling pretty bitter about the whole thing.  At the time it seemed like a big deal and I didn’t speak to her for about 2 years.  One day I was thinking how sad that was as we realy had good times and had a lot in common and I decided to give her a call. I figured if nothing came of it at least I would put out my feelings and closeure to something that had never realy been resolved or closed.  She had since left her job as well.  To my surprise and realy happiness we resolved everything in that very long conversation and are again great friends and I value that so very much. 
    I don’t have but a few regrets but the ones I do have are ones where things never got resolved, whether for good or bad and they never will be because those people are no longer here.  I went through a horrible divorce, but we talk now.  We are civil and that is fine because we share a daughter, and a grandson, but beyond that,  no no no.  But a true friend that is lost is a heartache. 

  16. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    I have sat on my thoughts on this article for a couple of days.   It is always sad when a friendship ends.  And often they do for a number of reasons which do not have anything to do with fault on either side.  Different places, different lives, different interests, different levels of income or career success all can contribute to a friendship ending.   Sometimes its just for some years and sometimes it is permanent.  I had a dear friend who lost her husband to colon cancer.  She moved to a different city 10 months later.   She pretty much shed her old circle of friends like a dirty shirt but I still wonder what I did to make her cut me out of her life so drastically.  I tried to reconnect but was rebuffed so I am still wondering.  But…I am not the only one she cut off so I am thinking that as part of her grieving process she just had to cut ties with her old life and start again.  Still..I worry that I said or did something to cause the breach (and perhaps I did).  

    At least, Margo, you know why your friendship with Nora Ephron ended.  I am of course familiar with her work and the story of her failed marriage to Carl Bernstein.  Any reading woman *of a certain age* is.   (Sorry Steve if you are not).  I have no famous friends so I do not know if being their friend is a lot of work or not.  Or if Nora is just a *lot of work* (I think that was the term Margo used in one of her responses) or , even a *bitch* as Don Imus may have said about Nora or someone else.
    Iam not a professional writer and have not heard the term *everything is copy*.   Nora certainly did use her personal life to make some professional hay.  Whether she was truly heart broken at the betrayal of her husband and if he was truly the love of her life or only a furher stepping stone to fame  by association only Nora knows.  I will take her at her word.  And while Margo has suggested Nora  is milking it today, perhaps it is the one thing she cannot recover from.  But she was not a treasured friend of mine so I would not know.

    Perhaps, Margo, it was not so much what you said in that article so long ago that ended the friendship but the fact that you used your association with a person who at that time was much more well known than you, and her personal pain, to advance your own career.  Perhaps, you are right that if you had wanted to have the career that Nora Ephron did, you would have.  You did not.  And will not.  But…I must point out that it is not Nora Ephron who is using her past friendship with YOU to write an article (which just so happens to coincide with her recent re-entry into the public eye)o n a website.   She is writing books.  Perhaps they are retreads of her emotional life but at least they are about her own emotional life and not some sort of piggy backing on to another’s fame. 

    And while I have not been the best friend in the world, I think that MOST of the time, I have kept my mouth shut about what my friends are going through in their personal lives even in my own small circle.   And when I do relay information I do so, I hope, to make people understand why someone is not acting like themselves.  Even so…I know that at times I have betrayed confidences and it shames me.  At least I didn’t do it in the Washington Post.