Remembering Nora Ephron, who pulled few punches but had many friends
"Take notes," the writer and director Nora Ephron was fond of remembering her mother telling her as a child. "Everything is copy."
It was one of many lessons from the lives of her parents, Hollywood screenwriters, that Ephron, who died yesterday at the age of 71 of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, applied to her life and brought into her work, and it is documented in several obituaries devoted to her memory today.
The experience of her divorce from famous Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein became Ephron's 1983 novel Heartburn, which reached theaters three years later as a film of the same name and cemented Ephron's place in the firmament of America's best loved contemporary writers, essayists and screenwriters.
But when she was diagnosed several years ago with myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemia condition, she successfully kept the information inside an intimate if large social circle. For Ephron this was not a paradox, and the privacy she was able to maintain about her declining health is unsurprising upon reading the vast number of remembrances from actors, writers, producers, directors, editors, journalists and novelists who counted themselves her friends and took to the web or gave interviews to newspapers to remember her.
“She had this thing about not wanting to whine,” Washington social maven and writer Sally Quinn told The New York Times' Chip McGrath in an interview. “She didn’t like self-pity. It was always, you know, ‘Suck it up.’”
Ephron's public never witnessed her struggling, instead continuing to connect with her through her writing, about a wide range of topics including politics, women, and aging, most recently in her book of essays I Feel Bad About My Neck and her columns for The Huffington Post.
"Whenever I was around her through the years the air crackled with energy and ideas and one-liners—and a sense of celebration," Arianna Huffington wrote in a blog post about Ephron, an inveterate humorist and "an integral part of the HuffPost family," as Huffington put it.
"Personally," Huffington's encomium continued, "she'll be cherished as a wife and mother, and a devoted, giving, treasured—and irreplaceable—friend. I know I have to accept that she's gone—but I still can't believe it."
Ephron was one of the earliest celebrity bloggers for The Huffington Post, having made her debut on the site shortly after its inception in May of 2005 with an essay about the revelation of the identity of "Deep Throat," Bernstein's famous Watergate source.
"For many years, I have lived with the secret of Deep Throat's identity," she wrote. "It has been hell, and I have dealt with the situation by telling pretty much anyone who asked me, including total strangers, who Deep Throat was. Not for nothing is indiscretion my middle name. "
Ephron also conceived one of The Huffington Post's many verticals—a divorce page that launched in 2010.
"Professionally, her legacy will be that of an exceptionally gifted and versatile artist who could do it all, and do it all incredibly well," wrote Huffington, whose media page honored Ephron with a look back at her earlier work as a journalist, a career that landed her byline in the pages of The New York Post, Esquire and New York magazine.
That was years before her then-husband, Bernstein, and his partner Bob Woodward, asked her to take a look at the screenplay for All The Presidents' Men, which they did not like. She re-wrote it, and though it wasn't used in the final version of the film the screenplay was passed around in Hollywood. She loved the work, and several who saw it loved it too.
“I think that was the beginning of her openly falling in love with the movies,” producer and director Mike Nichols told the Times' McGrath.
Ephron went on to write screenplays, and ultimately direct and produce movies; her major credits include Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, Julie & Julia and more.
In the Times, Janet Maslin wrote an assessment of Ephron's oeuvre, one of many that compared the writer to Dorothy Parker, a comparison occasioned by the inspiration Ephron drew from the famous Algonquin-set wit, a phenomenon she referred to as her "Dorothy Parker problem."
When Ms. Ephron veered into making movies, she left behind some of the candor that first made her reputation. She remained dependably entertaining, but the sharp edges were not so cutting any more. The sugary success of "Sleepless in Seattle" and "When Harry Met Sally" illustrated how and why her focus shifted and her priorities changed.
Another lesson from her parents, who would become alcoholics after struggling with the lack of power and creative control that accrued to screenwriters in the Hollywood system: Direct and produce your own work, or else risk oblivion.
But Maslin characterized Ephron's writing over the last six years as a return to form, if not to subject. And then, Ephron surpassed her idol, writing with a sharp edge but also a level of emotional depth and a connection to her readers Parker was never capable of. Maslin writes:
[The] essays that are her greatest legacy reach the readership that is most specific. They are treasured by women who are proud to have that Nora Ephron problem and never want it to go away.
One of Ephron's sons, Jacob Bernstein, followed in his parents' journalistic footsteps, becoming himself a prominent reporter in New York. (Her other son, Max Bernstein, is a Los Angeles-based rock musician.) Jacob is currently a regular contributor to the Times' Styles section and a contract-writer at Tina Brown's Newsweek-Daily Beast hybrid.
"The wit the warmth the wisdom of Nora Ephron," Brown tweeted last night. "God how I will miss her."
"Nora Ephron enjoyed and was very kind to all kind of folks," tweeted Times media columnist David Carr. "Not just big deals."
Media critic Michael Wolff, meanwhile, who worked on a script with Ephron in 2003, characterized her in a series of Twitter musings as a fulcrum for "the high, mighty, talented, and tough during a particular era in New York."
She seemed to know everything about everyone, according to Wolff.
"Nora Ephron was, hands down, the best source of gossip in New York," he wrote. "Nora Ephron knew more about what was happening than possibly anyone else. Always astounding. I wonder how many journalists had Nora Ephron as their secret and killer source ... Perhaps we were all just writing what Nora Ephron told us."
Ephron's death seemed particularly stunning not only because of how few people knew it was coming, but because of the curious manner in which it became known to the general public.
Speculation that Ephron was dead spread like wildfire late Tuesday afternoon after a strange essay that read like a eulogy from gossip doyenne Liz Smith appeared on the website wowOwow.
Smith's article referred to Ephron in the past tense, but never actually said explicitly that she had died. As it turned out, she hadn't died, though intimate friends had been told she was unlikely to survive the day; Ephron's publisher, Knopf, confirmed rather vaguely to Times publishing reporter Julie Bosman that Ephron was still alive, thus generating a second wave of Twitter-fueled speculation that perhaps the whole thing was just some cruel and unfortunate hoax.
But before long, a representative for Ephron clarified what was really going on to a few reporters, including Deadline's Nikki Finke, who wrote: "Yes, the famed 71-year-old writer-director-author is very ill but she wanted this to remain a private matter."
Ephron died shortly thereafter.
In the meantime, Smith's article had been taken down. (“I wish I hadn’t broken this one,” she later told W.W.D., explaining that she had pulled the trigger prematurely after learning of Ephron's condition from Jacob Bernstein earlier in the day.) But the piece was re-posted not long after the news became official.
"I won’t say, 'Rest in peace, Nora,'" wrote Smith, "I will just ask 'What the hell will we do without you?'”
In addition to her sons, Ephron, a native of Manhattan's Upper West Side, is survived by her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, and her three sisters, Delia Ephron, Amy Ephron and Hallie Ephron. A funeral is expected to take place later this week.