Six Degrees of Self-Help, Nora Ephron and ‘Mommie Dearest’

“How do people get to be the insecure, weak, self-deprecating wretches to whom this book is addressed?” Harry Schwartz wrote in his Times review of “How to Be Your Own Best Friend,” a self-help book that celebrated its 26th week as a best seller 50 years ago this week.

Scathing predictions aside — Schwartz thought it was “improbable that this pablum should be of use to anyone” — “How to Be Your Own Best Friend” went on to sell more than three million copies. According to its publisher, there are still about 240,000 copies in print. (No shade to, say, “Cellulite” or “Plants Are Like People,” two other supposedly helpful books that were all the rage in the ’70s but don’t appear to have stood the test of time.)

Harry Schwartz’s review of “How to Be Your Own Best Friend” appeared on Oct. 12, 1973.

“How to Be Your Own Best Friend” has an interesting back story, one that proves the power of relationships beyond the limited scope promised in its title. Written by Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz, a married pair of psychoanalysts, with Jean Owen, who later became a psychoanalyst herself, the book sold a respectable 12,000 copies as a self-published title. This “psychiatric pep talk” (Schwartz’s words) caught the eye of the famously well-connected Nora Ephron, who introduced the first-time authors to her agent friend, Lynn Nesbit, who then sold “How to Be Your Own Best Friend” to Random House for the tidy sum of $60,000.

While Gore Vidal’s “Burr” dueled with Graham Greene’s “The Honorary Consul” for the top slot on the fiction list, “How to Be Your Own Best Friend” followed “Alistair Cooke’s America” and “The Joy of Sex” on the nonfiction side.

The circle of trust doesn’t end there! A few years later, Newman and Berkowitz got a sneak peek at 60 pages of a harrowing memoir by their friend Christina Crawford, daughter of the actor Joan Crawford, describing a childhood rife with abuse. The couple introduced Crawford to Nesbit, who brokered a healthy deal for “Mommie Dearest,” which became “one of the most sensationally successful books in today’s marketplace,” according to a 1979 Behind the Best Sellers column by Herbert Mitgang.

The first moral of this story is yawn-worthy: It helps to know people, especially in a tightknit (one could say insular) industry like publishing. The second has to do with an awareness of ourselves as part of a larger whole — a timeless concept that won’t get lost in the remainder bin, and one that brings us back to “How to Be Your Own Best Friend.” Not surprisingly, the authors encourage a healthy regard for oneself as a foundation for connecting with others. “When we compliment ourselves, the glow stays with us,” they wrote. “This is the tragedy of some marvelous performers, who need endless applause to tell them how great they are, but who feel a chill as soon as they enter their dressing rooms. They have never heard it from themselves.”

Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”

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