News of Nora Ephron's death late last night, of complications arising from leukemia, came to be public in a most curious way. The story was broken Tuesday afternoon by the gossip writer Liz Smith on the Web site wowOwow. Smith, a longtime friend of Ephron, hadn't gotten the family's permission to write about her passing, and in fact her post went live hours before Ephron had actually died. As Ephron was on her deathbed, reporters scrambled to contact her loved ones and representatives to confirm or correct Smith's account.
When she published her post, Smith had just wrapped up an interview with a Women's Wear Daily media reporter. The topic? How the constant deadline pressure and infinite news hole of the Internet combined lead online writers to make mistakes borne of haste that old-school gossip writers, such as Liz Smith, would never make:
Online news goes up before it's confirmed, she said. "Gossip writers can't make a living anymore unless they're willing to print anything, like the stuff that comes up on the Web," she said, from her home in New York. "Nothing has time to develop."
Oh, the irony. Smith began writing her post, which has since been taken down (it is screencapped here), because yesterday morning she received a call from Ephron's son Jacob Bernstein informing her that there would be a funeral for Ephron later this week. Although Smith and Ephron had been acquainted since the latter's days as a junior reporter at the New York Post in the 1960s, Smith hadn't previously been aware that Ephron was sick. Assuming she had already died, Smith sat down with a box of old correspondence, typed up a remembrance, and hit "publish." The most eerie part is where Smith quotes from Ephron's instructions for her funeral:
I have a letter now in my hands: 'Came home (from Claudia Cohen's funeral where you, Liz, say you want nothing like it). Told Nick to make sure when I died there was a funeral and not a memorial service. Please remind him. This is the real effect of all these funerals. They give us ideas for our own. I want a big deal, and I want everyone to be basket cases.'
Women's Wear Daily, as is its wont, appeared to relish the opportunity to draw attention to Smith's tactless mistake, and its unfortunate timing, coming just after Smith's put-down of those "Internet writers" who get things so wrong.
This seems like as good a time as any to remember Ephron's own 1968 essay about Women's Wear Daily — which prompted threats of a lawsuit from the publisher Fairchild upon its publication in Cosmopolitan magazine. The critique of WWD and its obsessive relationship with the clique of socialites who then dominated its pages, whom Ephron derisively called "The Ladies," became one of her most notorious early pieces. The Times even mentioned it in its own Ephron obit, published late last night, safely after Ephron had in fact passed away. Ephron writes:
The group that Women's Wear calls The Ladies began to read WW in 1960, when John Fairchild returned from Paris and began to write about them. The Ladies are those socially registered women who summer in Southampton, winter in duplexes on Park or Fifth Avenue, and make a career out of looking beautiful and having lunch — a full-time job, requiring an early rise and a packed day. One must plan one's dinner parties, go to one's sinister Hungarian skin doctor, have one's biweekly massage at Elizabeth Arden and one's tri-weekly combout or set at Kenneth's, lunch at one of five recognized places for The Ladies to lunch.
The Ladies, unlike the fashion industry, learned to love Women's Wear, and with good reason: before Women's Wear became the swinging newspaper it is today, it was not really chic to be a Lady. There was something a little embarrassing about just doing nothing and having lunch in between. Oh, there were charities and the children to be sure, but The Ladies occasionally sensed there might be Something More. Then, with their glorification in Women's Wear Daily, their elevation to a pantheon of heroines built somewhere in John Fairchild's noggin, and their constant pursuit by Women's Wear photographers, The Ladies suddenly relaxed and became quite content. It was enough just to have found that divine little pendant made from a Coca-Cola bottletop; enough to have thought of using one of those wide French neckties on one's skinny shirt; enough to have divined that what one really needed drooping from one's hair at Truman Capote's gala was a single white begonia.
The Ladies began to subscribe to Women's Wear to read about themselves, to find out what clothes they are buying and what they should buy, what designers they will patronize next, what restaurants are fashionable, where their friends are this month and whom they are in love with. But there is one more reason The Ladies read Women's Wear Daily: it serves as their Surrogate Bitch. Delightful, delicious, delectable, and delirious the newspaper is, but it is also bitchy as it can be.
Ephron also took WWD to task for the paper's factual errors:
The inaccuracies range from minor facts or dates wrong to major flubs (WW once printed an obituary of a man who had not died) to gross faux pas — such as Women's Wear's page-one explanation of the 1965 power blackout. Rumor had it, the paper reported, that a "test of a revolutionary weapon to destroy enemy missiles" had deliberately drained the Northeast of power. "We overplayed it," said Fairchild later, in something of an understatement.
Publishing an obit of someone who has not yet died? A gross faux pas indeed. But in the newspaper business as in life, it often helps not to cast the first stone.
Women's Wear Daily Unclothed [Google Books]
Liz Smith Responds To Criticism Over Nora Ephron Piece [WWD]