Arts, Culture & Entertainment - Dobson and Ephron

Rosemary Dobson, A Celebration, Friends of the National Library of Australia, 2000
This week, a look at two women of arts and letters who have left us behind, not without significant contributions, whose lives represent a study in contrasts: Australian poet Rosemary Dobson and American filmmaker Nora Ephron.

Described as "the last of a great generation of Australian poets", Rosemary Dobson had 16 volumes of poetry to her credit and several awards and honours, including an Order of Australia (AO), The Sydney Morning Herald literary prize for poetry and the Patrick White Award.  

"She was very modest, very gracious and graceful lady, self-deprecating, had beautiful manners, always put other people before herself, and was really somebody who concentrated on words, and the still places between words rather than on the public life," said Marie-Louise Ayres from the National Library of Australia.

Born in Sydney in 1920, Rosemary was the second of two daughters of Arthur Dobson (the son of English poet and essayist Austin Dobson), and his wife Marjorie (née Caldwell) who met at a session of the Dickens Society. Her mother was well read, though lacking formal education, and her father, a civil engineer, endured ill health. He died when she was only five years old. Her poem 'Untold Lives' speaks of her mother at this time:

Firm at his death she grew in firmness, moved 
With two small girls from house to rented house 
Each time diminished. Yet she wrote each week 
By surface mail to his family 
Reporting on her pledge to rear the two 
By precepts he'd enjoined. They in reply 
Wrote with affectionate concern, and sent 
Books 'for the nursery'. She must have smiled.

The family was helped by the benevolent Winifred West, the founder of the progressive girls' school Frensham, who offered scholarships to Rosemary and her sister, Ruth, in addition to a position for her mother, who would go on to make a career in the Department of External Affairs, serving as Australian Ambassador in Denmark and Ireland and becoming Australia's first woman career diplomat ambassador.

Though financially restrained, Rosemary was a gifted girl who relished the scenery, community spirit and library at Frensham. Especially relevant for Rosemary, the school installed its own printing press.

Though she had penned poetry from the age of seven, the printing press allowed her to print, bind and design the linocut cover of her first collection of poems in 1937 with the help of the Frensham librarian and printer Joan Phipson, thus beginning a lifelong interest in fine printing and book arts.

After becoming an apprentice teacher of art and art history at Frensham, she studied English at the University of Sydney and drawing privately with artist Thea Proctor. She felt that of all the arts, painting and poetry are the closest, and she drew from each to feed the other.

She joined Sydney publisher Angus & Robertson as a proofreader and then editor in the early 1940s, which published luminaries including John Blight, Francis Webb, Hugh McCraw, Xavier Herbert and Ruth Park. Her first collection of poetry, In a Convex Mirror, was published by Dymocks in 1944, displaying maturity, a voice and aesthetic values beyond her years informed by "the years of study and contemplation of both art and poetry".

She contributed her poems to various publications, including the Bulletin and Meanjin Papers, and in 1951 married Alec Bolton, who had joined the editorial department of Angus & Robertson in 1950. They had four children over the next decade, including their first child, a daughter, who lived only a few hours. The tragedy was the subject of her poem 'The Birth (ii)'. Another daughter, Lissant, was born later, followed by two sons.

Her third collection, Child with a Cokatoo and Other Poems, was published in 1955. Her next major collection, Cock Crow, was published in 1965, the year before the family moved to London so Alec could take up the post of London editor for Angus & Robertson. A stimulating period in her life, Rosemary pursued her interest in art, took in the theatre and travelled frequently in Europe. She took classes in Greek civilisation while Alec enrolled at the London College of Printing as an evening student.

When they returned to Australia in 1971, Alec was appointed Director of Publications at the National Library of Australia, and the family settled in Canberra where Rosemary formed new literary friendships and enjoyed the Library's resources. In 1972, Alec founded Brindabella Press, a small press devoted to fine printing, which published the works of A.D. Hope, her friend David Campbell, James McAuley and R.F. Brissenden. She had input as editorial adviser and proofreader.

Taking pleasure in her husband's publishing endeavours, Rosemary continued to publish her own work, winning many prizes. She also gave lectures and published critical articles and reviews, as well as editing anthologies. Equally, her work was appraised in journals by critics, including Alec Hope's 1972 essay in Quadrant.

She visited other countries, representing Australian literature, and took a particular interest in producing translations of Russian poets with David Campbell, and ancient Chinese literature. She believed poetry to be a vocation and that in attempting to write poetry "one enters a world of privilege". In the preface to Selected Poems, 1973, she wrote of bringing the poem to fruition:

...the poems presented here are part of a search for something only fugitively glimpsed; a state of grace which one once knew, or imagined, or from which one was turned away. Surely everyone who writes poetry would agree that this is part of it—a doomed but urgent wish to express the inexpressible.

She self-described as a "flexible traditionalist", while others have called her work "hard won" and "mutli-layered" with meaning; austere, lucid and compressed; celebratory and expectant; intangible and ironic; vivid and contrasting; consisted and varied. Occupied with contrasts and balance, we find "tradition and innovation, wit with compassion, ancient myth with contemporary life, domesticity with culture, and above all Australia with Europe." 

Collected Poems was published by Angus & Robertson in 1991, but she continued to publish into her 80s, most recently publishing two collections, Untold Lives and Later Poems (2000) and Folding the Sheets and Other Poems (2004). She comments in 'Over My Shoulder', "As one grows older one also requires a return to essentials and structures, a turning-away from ornamentation and inessentials." Rosemary died age 92 in Canberra.

Sources: Rosemary Dobson, A Celebration, Friends of the National Library of Australia, 2000

Nora Ephron with her husband, journalist Carl Bernstein,
New York, 1978
Nominated three times for Academy Awards and among the most quotable and influential writers of her generation, having written and directed films such as Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Julie & Julia, and Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron – who died aged 71 this week after a battle with leukaemia – set a precedent for female writer/directors to come.

"In a world where we're told that you can't have it all, Nora consistently proved that adage wrong," said her friend, the actress Carrie Fisher. "A writer, director, wife, mother, chef, wit — there didn't seem to be anything she couldn't do. And not just do it, but excel at it, revolutionize it, set the bar for every other screenwriter, novelist, director."

Perhaps too high. Nora herself conceded that the world of film is still challenging for women, as far as director/writers are concerned, for pragmatic reasons, not necessarily philosophical.

"The director thing, I don't think is going to even out, or the screenwriter thing is going to even out, until women drive the marketplace as much as men do," she told the Academy of Achievement. "I'm not sure that's ever going to happen. In about 20 years, if not sooner, I don't even think people will go to the movies the way they do now. So that will be different."

Nora's wit will be sorely missed, especially by women who found consolation in her true-to-life works, most recently the books I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts About Being a Woman and I Remember Nothing.

A cynic and wit, she was a rule-breaker, once telling an audience of young female students at Wellseley College, which she attended from 1958 to 1962 and later described as a factory for "docile" women, in an address:

"Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women."

Born on May 19, 1941, in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, Nora was the first of four daughters to Jewish screenwriters Harry & Phoebe Ephron, who referred to non-movie-business people as "civilians" and encouraged their children to tell interesting stories about their day at the dinner table, turning the mundane into something "a little bit entertaining".

But behind the facade of two successful parents in the entertainment business were two people struggling with addiction. "All that fabulous, sunny, perfect life dissolved in alcohol," she said, describing how alcohol became increasingly a part of their lives when Nora was in her teens. Her mother died of cirrhosis at 57; her father spent time in mental hospitals in his later years.

"I don't think all humor comes out of unhappiness or pain," she once said. "There are simply too many funny people who had a completely, you know, normal childhood. Not necessarily happy, but who had a really happy childhood. Almost nobody worth knowing has a happy childhood."

Her mother, whom she refers to often in her interviews, worked out of choice at a time when that was frowned upon, and she defended that choice at the expense of her daughter.

"I think she was very defensive about being a working woman in that era, and every so often, there would be something at school, and I would say, 'There is this thing at school,' and she would say, 'Well, you will just have to tell them that your mother can't come because she has to work,'" she recalled.

"And it was years later that I realised that she could have come. She wasn't punching a time clock at 20th Century Fox. When I had children, I had no problem getting to the stuff at school. I just don't think that she wanted to go to school and be perceived as that kind of mother, but I can't ask her about it now."

This view was formed after Nora brought up her own two children, as a single mother, a point of pride being she was a strong presence in her sons' early lives due to the flexibility of her writing career. But reflecting on directing This Is My Life, she points to history repeating. "It interested me later, when [my sons] complained about it, that I hadn't quite been sensitive to it, because it was time for me to do this. I had to do it, and it was only ten weeks."

She attended college at a time when "the happy homemaker" was still the preferred path for women ("if you were interested in medicine, you were supposed to marry a doctor"), before Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique as the second-wave of feminism was about to begin. She believed in self-determination.

"If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there's all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it but move on," she told the New Yorker in 2009. "I don't mean that you can't have your feelings hurt or that you can't sit at home and feel sorry for yourself – briefly. But then I think you just have to start typing and do the next thing."

While her mother's influence was to profoundly shape her life and work and propel her onto success, the key influence in her chosen career in journalism was a teacher named Charles Simms who taught her the art of writing a story lead.

"I just fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point. You could not miss the point. That would be bad," she said. "So he really kind of gave that little shift of mind a major push. I just fell in love with solving the puzzle, figuring out what it was, what was the story, what was the truth of the story.

After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in political science in 1962, and interning at the White House with John F. Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, Nora started out as mail girl, "clipper", researcher and fact-checker at Newsweek in New York. "The men wrote these stories and then the women checked them. That's how it worked in those days," she said.

She got her big break when she was asked to write a parody of the New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons for Monacle. The Post's publisher, Dorothy Schiff, was so impressed by Ephron's efforts that she was invited onto the paper as a reporter. "If they can parody the Post, they can write for it. Hire them," Schiff is reported to have said.

Nora had a disdain for the Post, she conceded that it taught her how to hunt for story sources and the small staff allowed for more women to write, and write freely. "You were allowed to write very much with a sense of humor and a certain amount of derision even. We were not The New York Times, and we knew that, and it was a great way to become a writer because you could really find your voice."

Still, she longed to write for the more prestigious New York Times, and she later did. One of a few "new and hip journalists", whose contemporaries included Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Nora gained a cult following. She covered politics and the feminist movement and found a niche in turning humdrum women's interests, such as food and fashion, into spectacles in print.

"The New York Times Magazine, the first assignment I got from them in 1968 or '9 was a fashion assignment, and I had never written about fashion in my life. I knew nothing about fashion. I cared less, but I thought, 'Well, I'll do this. I'll write this, and then they'll see I can write for them, and then I won't have to write about fashion anymore,' and I never did."

She turned her poison pen to everyone and everything, including Schiff, whom she profiled for Esquire, drawing on life's peculiarities, hurts and pains – and observations of the social circles she mixed within – and turning them into highly readable and often controversial prose.

Her 1983 novel Heartburn, which was later turned into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, was based on her second marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, who had unearthed the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward. He had an extramarital affair when Nora was pregnant with her second child and threatened suing her over the book.

She was married three times to three writers. "How pathetic is that?" she once mused. "But they're interesting. You know, Superman is the key to everything. Lois Lane didn't know that Clark Kent was Superman, but I did. Writers are interesting people."

After finding success in the world of print, it was time to turn her energies to film-making, which she did in her mid-30s, though Silkwood was made after she turned 40.

"At a certain point, you get to a place where you kind of know what you're doing, and you kind of know that you're going to be repeating yourself if you go on doing it much longer," she said. "So when the chance to do something else comes along, you go, 'Well this might be fun. This might be interesting.' And it was interesting, 'cause I really didn't know what I was doing, writing screenplays."

"Everything is copy," is the credence her mother lived by and Nora took it on as her own, producing films, essays, books and plays at a prolific rate drawing on the triumphs and tragedies of her own life, and everything in between, allowing herself to become the "hero of her own jokes".

"I'm always horrified at – especially the women I know – who go through things like divorces, and five years later, they're still going, 'Oh, look what he did. Look what the bad boy did to me'," she said.

"Right? Get over it! Turn it into something. Stop being a victim. That is one of the most important lessons of 'everything is copy,' is you must not be the victim of what happens to you. You must own it. You must get above it. It's just an unbelievable lesson in terms of how to live your life, especially if you're a woman. Especially. It was always one of my most fundamental irritations with the women's movement, in my era of it, was how quickly they embraced victims and victimization and still do."

Though she wasn't as open about her battle with leukaemia, which she was diagnosed with in 2006, Nora lamented the indignity of getting older, and the eight hours a week she spent on physical maintenance. She wrote a piece called 'I Feel Bad About My Neck' for Vogue and it proved to be a popular piece, so she began to pen a book about getting older by the same name, which drew applause.

She has said it is not the writing that gets you through life's troubles and obstacles, but getting through it to write that is the point; that is the cathartic thing. And if you are young, journalism is a profession that will allow for you to learn how other people get through things.

"We all grow up in the most narrow worlds, and then we go to another narrow world, which is college, where no matter how different everyone is, they're all the same. Suddenly, they're all wearing the same thing suddenly, and reading the same books suddenly, and thinking about the same philosophical question suddenly. You know, if you have a chance to be a newspaper reporter for three or four years – before you do whatever you want to do – do it, because you will know so much," she said.

"If you want to go into the movie business, what are you going to write a movie about when you're 22 years old? I'll tell you what. You're going to write your coming-of-age movie, and then you're going to write your summer camp movie, and then you're going to be out of things, because nothing else will have happened to you. So, I think it's very good to become a journalist."

While she didn't believe in God, her cynicism was tempered by the happy endings of her romantic comedies. Art was, perhaps, the saving grace of her life. 

"Your first memory of each of your parents is a kind of key to many things about your life, and mine is: I am sitting next to my mother, and she is teaching me to read and I can read, and she is so happy. So imagine what that is to a child. I mean, all you want to do is read because you know it will make your mother happy, and of course, reading is so great. So I was an avid reader, just constantly reading, reading, reading, reading."

Sources: AP; Academy of Achievement, 'Nora Ephron Interview', 2010.

Girl With a Satchel


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