"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
In her essay “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less,” the late director and screenwriter Nora Ephron offered an uncharacteristically levity-free paragraph:
My sister Delia says this, and it’s true. When we were growing up, we used to love to hear the story of how our parents met and fell in love and eloped one summer when they were both camp counselors. It was so much a part of our lives, a song sung again and again, and no matter what happened, no matter how awful things became between the two of them, we always knew that our parents had once been madly in love.
If you take Henry Ephron’s word for it, he and Phoebe Ephron were madly in love until the day she died, at 57. “Each day in Doctor’s [sic] Hospital Phoebe seemed a little thinner, a little weaker,” Henry wrote in his seductive and strange 1977 memoir, “We Thought We Could Do Anything: The Life of Screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron,” which any Nora acolyte would do well to seek out. “I would tell her how pretty she looked and she’d always say, ‘I have a mirror, Henry. I know what I look like.’ We fell in love all over again.”
Phoebe died on Oct. 13, 1971; Nora was motherless at 30, and Amy, the youngest of the four Ephron sisters, at not quite 19. Phoebe had been hospitalized with cirrhosis brought on by years of full-bore drinking. Henry, too, was a drinker, but not in a self-punishing way, although he probably deserved some punishment: Nora and her sisters, all writers, have cited his devastating infidelity to the woman who was by his own insistence his partner and equal, domestically as well as professionally, as half of the Hollywood screenwriting duo responsible for gems like “Desk Set” and “The Jackpot” and the enduring musicals “Carousel” and “Daddy Long Legs.”
“We Thought We Could Do Anything” is packaged as an insider’s account of Hollywood’s golden age: The dust flap lists 60-odd celebrities whose names the book promises to drop. But the reader comes away from the book with the sense of having read not a survey of the mid-20th-century Hollywood moviemaking scene but a love story about a marriage that, from Henry’s perspective, worked.
Throughout his book, he wrote as a man abjectly and uncomplicatedly besotted with his wife. Schmaltz like “I looked at her: success had only made her more beautiful” oils the pages. Henry has a Tourette-like compulsion to make it clear that he’s having a lot of sex with Phoebe. But the rampancy of his comments about her incomparable desirability has the whiff of atonement to it. To be sure, his behavior while Phoebe was alive made it plain that he did not see her as the only one for him.
* * *
Henry met Phoebe Wolkind in 1933 in the Bronx, where she was throwing a party. He thought she looked like Katharine Hepburn.
There were other things to recommend her. Phoebe was quick-witted and bright, bookish and gutsy; she had read the erotic 1748 English novel “Fanny Hill” at age 12. Her social conscience had her marching for Sacco and Vanzetti when she was barely a teenager and, later, voting for Norman Thomas when he was the Socialist Party of America’s nominee for president.
After Phoebe and Henry were married and produced Nora, they wrote a comedic play, “Three’s a Family,” that would run for nearly 500 performances in New York and almost two years in London. “Three’s a Family” came to the attention of Twentieth Century–Fox, which offered Phoebe and Henry the moon, or at least its cash equivalent in 1943: seven-year screenwriter contracts starting at $750 a week. They went to Hollywood, where they got a big Spanish-style house, threw great parties and racked up more professional successes and children.
Phoebe and Henry’s creative partnership could not have even begun to succeed if they weren’t close, at least for a while. “Often, late at night when we came back from a party, we would talk about love, marriage, and divorce among our friends,” Henry wrote.
Once Phoebe told me about the time when she was eight and would sit up with her mother till the early hours of the morning, waiting for her father to come home. He had some other woman. Phoebe, remembering, over and over again begging her mother to divorce her father, but her mother, who had come to America at nineteen, had no courage for divorce, and, though she was attractive and very witty (that’s whom Phoebe got it from), she never believed she could get another man. Besides, she loved her husband very deeply.
It’s a stunning reflection, given who is parceling out sympathy for his betrayed mother-in-law.
When Henry went to studio head Darryl Zanuck to propose that the Ephrons expand their roles and become a producing team, he gave Henry exactly half of what he had asked for: He wanted Henry alone to produce. Zanuck’s pause-giving reasoning, as reported by Henry: “Now, you and I are going to quarrel a great deal, if you’re going to produce, and I don’t think Phoebe is made for that. She doesn’t like to fight; she walks away from it.” Henry transcribed a short recollected dialogue ostensibly about Phoebe’s disappointment in Zanuck’s verdict, but it’s his first acknowledgment to the reader that the marriage was troubled.
“But you don’t seem happy, Phoebe. This is a helluva time in our life to keep secret feelings from each other.”
Finally she said it: “All those available actresses,” and went upstairs.
I played some tennis and then came back into the house. Phoebe was lying on a couch, reading. I sat down beside her. She put the book down.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but you’re no saint, Henry, and, besides, you like women. You’re really the only man who ever talks to them at parties.”
“Of course I like women, or why would I have a wife and four daughters?”
She smiled. I said, “Let’s go upstairs.”
If Henry’s cheating began after the move to Hollywood, there was some logic in Phoebe’s yen to return to the East Coast. “Let’s get out of this town and go back to New York,” she would tell him. “I know I should be grateful, but it isn’t quite how I planned my life.” Henry was adamant that they stay put.
The easy, casual way of living in California was hard to put behind. The four children, Phoebe and I dined together every night we were home. Amy made it to the table at two. Between courses we played charades, sang rounds, quarreled about politics, and listened to stories about their friends.
In a 2011 interview, Amy Ephron elaborated on her mother’s ideas about the dinner hour. Phoebe “wanted the table perfectly set.”
We had sterling silver every night for dinner. We had sit-down dinner that was two or three courses … The ketchup had to be decanted. The mustard had to be decanted. The tartar sauce, preferably homemade, had to be decanted.
Phoebe wasn’t doing the decanting, though; that’s what the housekeeper was for. But Phoebe still felt pressure. ”I don’t know where she learned it, whether from the pages of Edith Wharton or Gourmet, but certainly not from my grandmother,” Amy wrote. Self-imposed or not, it was still pressure. Drinking took the edge off.
“I think she was very defensive about being a working woman in that era,” Nora said in 2007, “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.’ And it was years later that I realized that she could have come. She wasn’t punching a time clock at Twentieth Century–Fox.”
* * *
Henry anticipated the drying up of his screenwriting career, as television marched toward domination of the public’s free time, but he didn’t seem to have anticipated that Phoebe’s drinking would augur her ruin. He believed, or told himself, that it was her father’s death, from a heart attack, in 1955 that flipped the switch, changing her from a social drinker into a problem one.
She broke down. She cried almost steadily for two days. We fed her in bed, but she ate very little; she lived on Scotch and coffee … Since I had become a producer, we both drank more than we used to, but almost always stopped short of being drunk. We had to stop the practice of using whiskey to get us through a crisis. But Monday morning Phoebe was up and waiting for me to come down. “It’s over,” she said, “I’m all right again.”
But it wasn’t and she wasn’t, and in the last few dozen pages of his book, even Henry can’t put a polish on what was happening in their grand house on Linden Drive. In early 1956 Phoebe admitted that she was losing her hearing; she wrote it off to heredity. (Several decades later, studies were connecting hearing loss with alcohol abuse.) “The atmosphere in the house became strained and difficult,” Henry wrote. “Phoebe seemed to withdraw more and more into herself. Giving and going to big parties became an agony for her. We began to leave parties early, and I stayed up late in the bar, watering the whiskey.”
Throughout the drinking there was, of course, mothering going on, albeit of the arm’s-length sort. Maybe because it was less painful, Nora seemed intent on viewing Phoebe’s approach to parenting not as lack of interest but as calculation. In her eulogy for Phoebe, with which Henry concluded his book, she wrote,
When I think of my later years, my adolescence, I am stunned at her ability and willingness to treat me as an adult, to let go … I remember, on yet another of those nights when I came home from a date, going in to curl up and talk with her and, hesitatingly, asking her for some sexual advice. She looked at me and said, “Nora, you are sixteen years old and, if I haven’t raised you to make your own decisions, it won’t do [you] any good to tell you what I think.” I thought that was marvelous.
Hallie Ephron didn’t. She recently wrote in O magazine, “Our mother called her brand of mothering ‘letting them make their own mistakes.’ She was fairly useless when I got my first period.” Then there was the other big pubertal battleground. In “A Few Words About Breasts,” the May 1972 Esquire essay that made Nora famous, she wrote that Phoebe responded to her request for a bra with, “What for?” There were fireworks on Nora’s part — “Screaming. Weeping. Shouting” — but Phoebe held her ground of apparent apathy. Nora would buy her first bra herself.
Delia Ephron has written that her mother had the same hairstyle for 40 years; Nora wrote that Phoebe hated to shop for clothes. Phoebe had to take a strong position, and that included with her appearance: A career meant little time for vanity. She was a busy woman, and if chatting on the phone or lunching with ladies or shopping for training bras was a casualty of her protectiveness of her time, well, then others would have to accept it, and maybe even respect it or, in the case of her children, emulate it. “She had a lot of vision for the family,” Delia told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “Her daughters were all going to be successful women. ‘You’ll leave home, you’ll go to college, you’ll go to New York, you’ll have careers.’ She was full of goals, and we were different from all the other girls around.” Nora wrote, “My mother was a career woman who had successfully indoctrinated me and my sisters that to be a housewife was to be nothing.”
* * *
Amy traced Phoebe’s unraveling to around 1958, when she was about 6 and Nora was out of the house, attending Wellesley College.
It was evident, at least to those of us inside, that my mother’s complex (albeit fragile) but until then reliable response system was about to become unstable. Did it turn on a dime? I don’t know. Was there a defining moment—like an incident that causes post-traumatic stress disorder—or just a series of events that collected: an affair of my father’s, a play that wasn’t a hit, the loss of a loved one?
It ran counter to everything she’d told us, those kind of upbeat missives about being strong and pulling yourself up after a fall.
Henry, who could be a hothead, especially on the job, alluded to some quarrels with Phoebe (“we … broke a set of dishes the first year”), but you wouldn’t know from his book that they really went at it. Hallie wrote, “Alcohol ignited her anger, and sometimes they fought from midnight to dawn. By the time Delia and I were both in college, things got so bad that Amy ran away and ended up moving in with Nora and her first husband in an apartment near Central Park.” Phoebe’s mother hadn’t left her cheating spouse, and Phoebe wouldn’t leave hers. Divorce was evidence of failure, and Phoebe and Henry were about the appearance of success, which in Hollywood was success.
“On the surface everything seemed fine,” Amy wrote.
Soft-boiled eggs were served in egg cups. Mommy’s saccharine still stored on the lazy Susan in a slim silver Tiffany’s box … No store-bought cartons were allowed on her table.
It wasn’t a disorder (at least, I didn’t think so at the time), it was Mommy’s sense of elegance and style. But I wonder, now, if it was the last façade of appearances as the fashionable suits and high heels were gradually replaced by red stretch pants and strange sparkly harlequin slippers and prone became her position of choice.
Henry sensed that Hollywood was dead, torpedoed by the television, and with Nora, Delia and Hallie living on the East Coast, the case for staying in California was weak. Sometime in the mid-1960s — Henry wasn’t explicit about the year — he and Phoebe moved back to New York with designs on returning to their first love: playwriting. Amy would write about Phoebe taking her to Saks Fifth Avenue, where she bought her youngest daughter “a truly extraordinary Julie Christie/Dr. Zhivago coat, the color of calfskin, shearling, long to mid-calf (to ease the sting of the fact that my parents were so dysfunctional my only permanent address was going to be a boarding school in Woodstock, Vermont, where the temperature was regularly 30 below in winter).”
The Ephrons had family and friends in town, but they had lost their street sensibility, having grown accustomed to the gentler pace and climate of California. And their living situation was a step back — their apartment on East 75th Street wasn’t the airy Linden Drive showpiece. It was becoming clear to Henry that New York would not be the opportunity for marital and professional rejuvenation that he had hoped for. “We tried writing, but no good ideas came to us,” he lamented.
If Phoebe had intended for her new surroundings to inaugurate a lease on sobriety, it didn’t take. In the summer of 1971, Delia phoned and invited her parents for a weekend visit to Providence, where she was living with her then husband. After Henry accepted the invitation, Phoebe refused to accompany him; he believed that she had either convinced herself that Delia had really invited just Henry, not her, or realized that it might be better not to be seen in the pickled state that she was semi-chronically in.
Henry went to Providence without her and returned to find that Phoebe had drunk all the alcohol in the apartment, “even the green menthe, with which her lips were coated.” Following “the most cursory examination — it didn’t need more,” Phoebe’s doctor committed her to the Upper East Side’s Doctors Hospital, which catered to well-heeled New Yorkers and where she worsened by the day.
In the hospital, Phoebe gave her eldest daughter the now iconic advice, “You’re a reporter, Nora. Take notes.” It was the morbid context that was remarkable, not the sentiment itself; Phoebe had been telling her children that “everything is copy” all their lives.
In the end, not everything was copy for Phoebe. She apparently never wrote of Henry’s infidelities, the sting of which might or might not have accelerated her drinking. But Nora took her advice.
My mother taught me many things when I was growing up, but the main thing I learned from her is that everything is copy … As a result, I knew the moment my marriage ended that someday it might make a book—if I could just stop crying.
When it was put to her, Phoebe did not accept the label “feminist.” Meanwhile, Nora wrote at length of being influenced by the women’s movement — as a reporter in New York in the 1960s and ’70s, she was in its maelstrom, after all — and a by-the-book feminist interpretation of her decision to broadcast the story of her leave-taking of her high-profile marriage to a faithless man in the best-selling 1983 roman à clef “Heartburn” might go something like this: She was showing the world that women should not put up with shabby treatment from their partners, that a woman was better off with no man than with a bad one. A quieter but no less feminist interpretation is that with “Heartburn,” Nora was speaking for less than an entire movement but for more than just herself: She was speaking, and writing, for two.
Nell Beram is a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor and coauthor of Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Abrams, 2013).More Nell Beram.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)