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Nora the Explorer

Among the injustices about the death of Nora Ephron is that she isn't around to tell us about it.

"She was so, so alive," says her friend Carrie Fisher. "It makes no sense to me that she isn't alive anymore."

Ephron, the essayist, author and filmmaker who challenged and thrived in the male-dominated worlds of movies and journalism and was loved, respected and feared for her devastating and diverting wit, died Tuesday in Manhattan of leukemia at age 71.

Born into a family of screenwriters, a top journalist in her 20s and 30s, then a best-selling author and successful director, Ephron was among the most quotable and influential writers of her generation.

She wrote and directed such favorites as "When Harry Met Sally," "Julie & Julia" and "Sleepless in Seattle." Her books included the novel "Heartburn," a knockout roman a clef about her marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein; and the popular essay collections "I Feel Bad About My Neck" and "I Remember Nothing."

She was tough on others and relentless about herself. She wrote openly about her difficult childhood, her failed relationships, her doubts about her physical appearance and the hated intrusion of age.

"We all look good for our age. Except for our necks," she wrote in the title piece from "I Feel Bad About My Neck," published in 2006. "Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. ... According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at 43 and that's that."

Even within the smart-talking axis of New York-Washington-Los Angeles, no one bettered Ephron, slender and dark-haired, her bright and pointed smile like a one-liner made flesh. Friends from Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep to Calvin Trillin and Pete Hamill adored her for her wisdom, her loyalty and turns of phrase.

"I feel like someone reached in and grabbed my compass from around my neck and threw it from a moving train. How will I navigate?" Nichols said. "I think a lot of friends and readers will feel like that. Nora was so funny and interesting that we didn't notice that she was necessary. She is absolutely irreplaceable"

As a screenwriter, Ephron was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for "Silkwood," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle," and was the rare woman to write, direct and produce Hollywood movies.

"I suppose you could say Nora was my ideal," Fisher said. "In a world where we're told that you can't have it all, Nora consistently proved that adage wrong."

"She thought fast, loved new ideas, processed swiftly, decided what was valuable and what was not with clarity," Streep said. "It's hard to credit how very smart she was, cause she was always deflectively feminine and funny, the sharpness of mind softened and smoothed by genuine charm."

The eldest of four children, Ephron was born in New York to screenwriters Harry and Phoebe Ephron, who moved to Beverly Hills, Calif., when she was 4 years old. Words, words, words were the air she breathed. Regular visitors included "Casablanca" co-writer Julius J. Epstein, "Sunset Boulevard" collaborator Charles Brackett, and the team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who worked on "The Thin Man" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

If the best humor is born out of sadness, then Ephron was destined for comedy.

She was 15, she recalled, when her mother became an alcoholic, finishing off a bottle of scotch a night. Her father, too, was a heavy drinker, "sloppy, sentimental," although "somehow his alcoholism was more benign."

Ephron began writing for Esquire and The New York Times and developed a national following as a throwback to the prime of Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman and a worthy peer of such new and hip journalists as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe.

The queen of the humorous aside ("Atlas Shrugged," she says in the story about Rand, is a book that cannot be put down so it probably should not be picked up), she earned readers' trust not just by presenting detailed and excellently observed portraits of people, places and themes but by reacting to them with a delicious tone of jaded optimism, a raised eyebrow and a twinkle in her voice.

She struck a more serious note in a commencement address at her alma mater, Wellesley, in 1996, urging the graduates to "choose not to be a lady."

"There's still a glass ceiling. ... One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don't take it personally, but listen hard to what's going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim."