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Daum: Under Nora's wing

If you're a particular kind of writer, the kind with a taste for "social observation" and a belief in the divine partnership of unbridled humor and unapologetic honesty, Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday, almost certainly fell into the category of Central Influence. If you're a particularly lucky writer, Nora was not only an influence but a sort of literary mother hen with a cashmere-clad wing outstretched. She was a connector, a cajoler, a cheerleader — maybe even a friend. I was among those lucky ones.

Not that I knew her well. To be friends with Nora in this way was not so much about seeing her but about being set up with other friends of hers. Sometimes these were career assists ("I'm calling X to tell him he must take a meeting with you"), but mostly they were examples of basic human outreach: a New York journalist recently transferred to L.A. "who you need to meet for coffee," a young novelist "you should really meet because she seems to be doing the thing in her work that we try to do in ours."

What a thrill to be in on that "we." I have no doubt that Nora saw me as just one in a great assemblage of ambitious, wiseacre chicks whom she took out to lunch once in a while and peppered with advice and encouragement. Still, the friendship to me was like a tiny piece of expensive jewelry tucked deep inside my big sloppy purse. To dig it up every now and then was to feel instantly classy. It was to feel, despite frequent evidence to the contrary, as if I'd "made it."

PHOTOS: Nora Ephron | 1941-2012

I met Nora when I wrote to her asking if she'd blurb a book of mine. She wrote back saying that she did not do blurbs but that she would instead take me to lunch next time I was in New York. In the ensuing decade, we would meet a few more times and occasionally correspond by email. Seeing her name in my inbox often made me want to take a snapshot of the screen and mail it to my younger self as if to say, "Oh, the people you will know."

Not long after I moved to L.A., Nora invited me to a party at her house here. I assumed it would be a large gathering — otherwise why would I have been included? — but it turned out to be about 25 people. Nora introduced me to her husband, Nick Pileggi. Then she introduced me to Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan and Steve Martin. From there she was pulled away and I was on my own with Rob Reiner, David Geffen, Arianna Huffington and several other ultra-major Hollywood players whose names I probably should have known but did not.

Nora had prepared a feast (I swear it was ham) and laid it out on the kitchen counter in aluminum pans. Later, she divided us into teams for a game of charades. At one point, the clue was the movie "Days of Thunder," and when it was finally revealed, someone asked, "Is that a movie? I've never heard of it!" and Kidman, who had starred in the movie, muttered quietly, "It's a race car movie."

I had no business being at this party. Despite Nora's gracious introductions, hardly anyone talked to me or picked up on my attempts at conversation, and I spent much of the evening in a state of low-grade panic, worried that Nora would at last behold the extent of my loserdom and regret inviting me.

But as the hours rolled by, it dawned on me that I wasn't in a celebrity version of a high school cafeteria as much as I was living out a classic fly-on-the-wall fantasy. I was invisible and therefore free to do nothing but take notes. As Nora always said (actually, she was quoting her mother, who always said it), "Everything is copy." And in thinking about how I'd be telling the story of this party for years to come, I considered Nora's well-known piece of advice about how if you slip on a banana peel you're the butt of the joke, but if you tell the story of slipping on the banana peel, you're the hero.

Not that there's anything heroic here — except maybe Nora's cooking ham for all those people. But when I impart this wisdom to writing students, which I do just about every time I walk into a classroom, I'm struck again by Nora's generosity, not only in person but on the page and even the screen. She understood that connecting with an audience isn't just about sharing but actually giving. It's about sacrificing a little piece of your pride for the sake of telling the truth, or maybe just a good joke. It's about finding salvation in banana peels.

I last spoke to Nora in late 2011. I needed advice about something I was writing, which she cheerfully and immediately supplied. She also wanted to tell me all about Lena Dunham, the 25-year-old writer/director/actor who is now famous for her acclaimed HBO show"Girls" but who at that point was still relatively unknown. Nora had just filmed a conversation with Dunham for the DVD of Dunham's movie,"Tiny Furniture." Later I would watch the conversation and practically catch a buzz from the energy coming off the two of them. Dunham was poised and deferential. Nora seemed to glow with goodwill. She was passing the torch.

Actually, she was passing one of countless torches she always kept on hand. As gifted a writer as Nora was, she had one distinctly unwriterly quality, which was that she seemed constitutionally incapable of not helping those coming up behind her. Her hairdresser was our hairdresser. Our victories were her victories. The people she knew became the people we knew.

And, oh, the people she knew.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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