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date: 16 December 2019

Ephron, Norafree

(19 May 1941–26 June 2012)
  • Andie Tucher

Ephron, Nora (19 May 1941–26 June 2012), screenwriter, film director, journalist, and humorist, was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and grew up in Beverly Hills, California. Her parents, Henry Ephron and the former Phoebe Wolkind, were a successful screenwriting team best known for scripting such light-hearted fare as Daddy Long Legs (1955), Desk Set (1957), and, in 1963, the comedy-drama Captain Newman, M.D., for which they were nominated for an Academy Award. “Everything is copy,” Phoebe Ephron told her daughters, and at times the Ephrons’ home life itself seemed like a lighthearted script: Nora and her three younger sisters, Delia, Hallie, and Amy—all of whom became writers—joined their mother and father in lively dinner-table conversation spiced with songs, charades, and family stories, and they would peek over the banisters when their parents threw swanky parties for their Hollywood friends. And at times their home life actually was a lighthearted script: Nora’s birth provided some of the material for her parents’ first collaborative effort, the Broadway play Three’s a Family (1943), and when she went east to attend Wellesley College, her letters home became the basis for Take Her, She’s Mine (1961). Both plays were made into movies. But both parents became alcoholics, Henry had episodes of manic depression, and Phoebe, an accomplished and strong-minded professional in an era and a career inhospitable to working women, died of complications from cirrhosis at fifty-seven.

Nora Ephron graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1958 and enrolled at Wellesley, where she majored in political science and became an editor of the Wellesley News. She would later criticize her alma mater for what she called its irrelevance, arguing that a women’s college should have challenged gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them. In 1962, immediately after graduating, she moved to New York and found a job at Newsweek as a “mail girl,” one of the few jobs at the magazine then open to women. (Young men with identical qualifications, she noted, were hired straight away as reporters.) Within the year, however, she found her way into a reporting job on the scruffy tabloid New York Post. “I was in love with journalism,” she wrote in the aptly titled “Journalism: A Love Story” (2010). The Post was a “zoo” but it taught her the basics of covering everything from the romantically disinclined seals at Coney Island to an epic jewel heist, and “I loved the city room. I loved the pack. . . . I loved the speed. I loved the deadlines. I loved that you wrapped the fish.”

After five years at the Post, Ephron left to write for magazines, notably Esquire and New York, both of them promoters of the subjective, novelistic style known as New Journalism—a label she resisted, though she has often been listed among the pioneers of the movement. Her topics ranged from media criticism to food to celebrity profiles to cultural trends to feminism (which she strongly supported), but her tone was always intimate, frank, and very funny; in her breakthrough Esquire essay “A Few Words about Breasts” (1972), the breasts in question were her own, and, she reported, too small. She was no kinder to some of her other subjects. Among those she skewered were the New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff, the transsexual historian and travel writer Jan Morris, the political journalist Theodore H. White, and Pat Loud, featured in An American Family (1973), the ground-breaking cinéma vérité series on PBS.

Ephron’s first marriage, in 1967, to the writer and humorist Dan Greenburg, was childless and ended in an amicable divorce. Her second, in 1976, to the Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, then at the peak of his Watergate fame, ended in spectacle. While pregnant with their second son, Ephron discovered that Bernstein was having an affair with a married woman in their circle of friends. She turned their explosive breakup into pungent comedy in the 1983 roman-à-clef Heartburn. (“If I tell the story, I control the version. . . . I can make you laugh. . . . [and] it doesn’t hurt as much,” her alter ego explained at the end of the novel.) Ephron also wrote the screenplay for the 1986 film version, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. The couple’s divorce negotiations dragged on for five years, until 1985, in part because Bernstein, concerned over how he would be portrayed in the movie, demanded the right to review the script. His concern was understandable; in the novel, the betrayed wife declares that the cheating husband “is capable of having sex with a venetian blind.”

Ephron’s first attempt at screenwriting had been fortuitous. In 1974, she and Bernstein, then not yet married, tried their hands at rewriting a problematic script for the film version of the Woodward-and-Bernstein Watergate bestseller All the President’s Men. No one liked their version, but the experience proved valuable. Her next screenplay, for Nichols’s film Silkwood (1983), based on the true story of the mysterious death of a whistleblower at a plutonium plant, earned an Academy Award nomination for her and her co-writer Alice Arlen.

After Silkwood, Ephron homed in on the genre that would become her specialty, the romantic comedy, often involving antagonistic or oblivious characters who wittily banter their way to their destined pairing. Her reputation, and her second Academy Award nomination for screenwriting, were secured with the hit When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989). Directed by Rob Reiner, the film stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as longtime platonic buddies who decide—at first—not to have sex, since it would inevitably ruin their friendship. (They do, it does, they reconsider, they live happily ever after.) Other of her screenplays were explicitly modeled on classic romantic movies. In Sleepless in Seattle (co-written with two others, 1993) a character who has been seen weeping over An Affair to Remember (1957) eventually finds her own new love on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and You’ve Got Mail (co-written with Delia Ephron, 1998) relaunches the romantic confusion of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with AOL screen names instead of anonymous pen-and-ink letters.

By the 1990s, she was directing and producing as well, a rare achievement for a woman in an industry whose most powerful decision-makers were overwhelmingly male. Her third Academy Award nomination for screenwriting came for Sleepless in Seattle, which she also directed, and on four other films—including You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia (2009), her final movie—she earned triple-barreled credits as screenwriter, director, and producer. Critical response to her films was mixed. While many reviewers praised the boy-meets-girl comedies as sympathetic and credible explorations of the dilemmas of modern romance, to others they were “sappy” or “schmaltzy.” And several of her movies, including Hanging Up (2000), based on Delia Ephron’s novel about an ailing curmudgeon much like their father, and Bewitched (2005), were widely panned.

As Ephron entered her sixties her personal writing took new directions. She often addressed the indignities of aging; the bestselling 2006 collection I Feel Bad About My Neck includes the title essay lamenting her wrinkles as well as “What I Wish I’d Known” and “Considering the Alternative.” She took up blogging for the Huffington Post, where she was the editor-at-large of its “Divorce” section, and enjoyed the freshness and freedom from solemnity allowed by the online form. And she became a playwright. In the short-lived Broadway play Imaginary Friends (2002), the writers Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman meet in the afterlife to discuss their legendary feud. Love, Loss, and What I Wore (co-written with Delia Ephron, 2009), a play about women and their wardrobes that she described in the Huffington Post in 2011 as “sort of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ but without the vaginas,” ran Off Broadway for two and a half years. The staging in 2013 of her last completed work, Lucky Guy, based on the life of the archetypal New York tabloid reporter Mike McAlary, marked the Broadway debut of Tom Hanks, who had worked with her in both Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail.

Ephron married her third husband, the writer and producer Nicholas Pileggi, in 1987. Diagnosed in her mid-sixties with an aggressive blood disorder, she continued to write, direct, and produce while keeping her illness secret from almost everyone for the remaining six years of her life. Her death, in a Manhattan hospital, led to shock as well as grief among friends and colleagues. Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein speculated in the New York Times Magazine that her silence was meant to protect her career: nobody would entrust a new movie or play to a person known to be mortally ill. But as he also acknowledged, her lifelong strategy of controlling the story by making it funny may finally have failed her. “The thing is,” he wrote, “you can’t really turn a fatal illness into a joke. It is almost the only disclosure that turns you into the victim rather than the hero of your story.”

As a writer, Ephron found comic gold everywhere, including in the most commonplace topics: egg-white omelettes, overstuffed purses, George W. Bush’s annual physical. As a filmmaker, she created successful movies featuring smart, funny, flawed, believable women—women who would be commonplace anywhere except Hollywood, where, as she pointed out in her 1996 commencement address at Wellesley, Oscar nominations went that year to actresses playing “hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker, and nun.” She herself, she wrote in an Afterword to When Harry Met Sally . . ., was very much like Sally: cheerful, almost chirpy, and in love with control.


The hefty anthology The Most of Nora Ephron (2013) includes essays, journalistic works, autobiographical pieces, and the complete texts of Heartburn, When Harry Met Sally . . ., and Lucky Guy. Individual collections published throughout her career include Wallflower at the Orgy (1970); Crazy Salad: Some Things about Women (1975); Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media (1978); and I Remember Nothing (2010). Nora Ephron: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (2015) gathers four interviews conducted between 1974 and 2012. Among the many noteworthy profiles of Ephron are Ariel Levy’s “Nora Knows What to Do,” New Yorker (6 and 13 July 2009), and Frank Rich’s “Nora’s Secret,” New York (19 Aug. 2012). Richard Cohen's She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron (2016) is an intimate memoir of their friendship of nearly forty years. Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post on 26 June 2012. Jacob Bernstein wrote in the New York Times Magazine (6 Mar. 2013) about his mother’s death, and in 2015 produced the HBO documentary Everything Is Copy, which includes interviews with many friends and colleagues.