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Daddy's Girl : When Delia Ephron's father faced death, it was her he called. And called. Writing a novel helped her come to terms with their painful relationship

August 24, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You wouldn't expect such a sensible person to be like this. Through no fault of her own, Delia Ephron keeps finding herself toe to toe with that relentless fact of contemporary life: the mighty trend.

In the '70s, it was divorces. Ephron had one. Then everyone else did too.

Later it was dogs. Ephron acquired one. Then bestseller lists and movie sets were invaded by them.

"I'm horrified to notice that everything I do turns out to be trendy, that I never seem to have any true individuality," Ephron says, as proof of her assimilation--Daisy, her coffee-colored terrier mix--trots into the sunny kitchen of her home somewhere on the Westside. ("It's adjacent to everything--Beverly Hills adjacent, Beverlywood adjacent. It's very embarrassing from that point of view.")

And now the witty, best-selling author ("How to Eat Like a Child") and screenwriter (co-script doctor on "Sleepless in Seattle") is surfing the next wave of her generation with her first adult novel, "Hanging Up." The semi-autobiographical book, which has been bathed in warm reviews, traces the complicated relationship between the winning Eve Mozell and her waning father, Lou, a former sitcom writer who barrages her with phone calls and demented demands from his nursing home bed.

The book echoes Ephron's experiences with her father, Henry, who wrote a sheaf of successful films with his wife, Phoebe, including the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle "Desk Set," "Carousel" and "Daddy Long Legs," which starred Fred Astaire. As the "daddy's girl" of the four Ephron sisters, Delia early on shouldered much of the burden of dealing with his alcoholic and manic-depressive episodes, a role that re-emerged as he was dying.

"Your childhood roles start to come back when your parents get sick," Ephron says, perched on a couch in her pastel-washed living room sprinkled with funky collectibles. "I don't know why they do. I started to remember feelings about him and my anger, resentment and everything that I had put away.

"I considered myself a highly well-adjusted person, and I really love my life. My father was impossible, but basically I dealt with it. It was OK. But when he started to really die, I would go see him and it was as if I saw him when I was young and he was drunk. He wasn't drunk. He was dying."

Newsweek applauded "Hanging Up" as "a terrific debut," and the New York Times called it a "compassionate, funny and tremendously satisfying" account of Eve's dealings with an elderly father who was "nothing but trouble . . . a lifetime's supply of embarrassments and small offenses."

Ephron is not alone. As they usher their aging parents closer to mortality, it's the baby boomers' disturbing lot to be making the acquaintance of their own. In "Hanging Up," the middle-aged heroine nearly faints from the sight of her own sagging tushie and imagines turning a flagging memory into fun and profit with a game show for people over 40--"Name That Person You Already Know."

In real life, Ephron, who says only that she's older than her 44-year-old protagonist, detected disconcerting parallels between herself and her father during his last days at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills. He died three years ago at 81.

"Somebody said to me, 'He has the dwindles,' " she says. "I loved that so much I just never forgot it, and then I realized I had the dwindles too. His were a much more advanced case, but I also did, and that as a novel took shape in my head."

The afternoon is sultry, but Ephron is comfortably dressed in a black top and loose pants patterned like tiny graph paper. Her wavy brown hair falls like puppy ears around her face, which breaks into easy smiles. Indeed, of the lively Ephron sisters, Delia--the second oldest, after Nora--was considered "the nice one," as is her character Eve. (The other sisters are Amy, also a writer, who executive produced "A Little Princess," and Hallie Touger, who is trying to jump-start a writing career while she works for a computer company in Cambridge, Mass.) Delia's toastiness curried a special relationship with her father, but the closeness turned around and bit her on the butt.

Henry Ephron called her. A lot.

He would call Delia.

He would call Nora.

He would call Delia again, forgetting he'd already called her.

"Some part of me was conditioned from a very young age to expect these calls, and I must say I was never let down," Ephron says with a laugh. "I said to him, 'You've got to stop calling,' and he said, 'I live half my life in the real world and half on the phone.' And it was so powerful to me, that statement, that his entire real life disappeared when he got on the phone. His loneliness went away. His anxiety went away. For all I know, his desire to have a drink went away."

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