Novelist, Screenwriter, and Humorist Nora Ephron has Died

This is very sad news.

Nora Ephron, who gained a devoted following for her perceptive, deeply personal essays and parlayed that renown into a screenwriting career of wistful romantic comedies such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail,” the marital exposé “Heartburn” and the whistleblower drama “Silkwood,” died June 26 at a hospital in New York. She was 71.

The death was confirmed by her friend Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist. She died of complications from the blood disorder myelodysplasia, with which she was diagnosed six years ago.

As a young woman, Ms. Ephron modeled her self-deprecating and deadpan writing style on Dorothy Parker, part of the Algonquin Round Table of sophisticated New York writers and humorists that also included Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman. Of the philandering husband in her 1983 novel “Heartburn” — modeled on her marriage to former Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein — Ms. Ephron wrote he was “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.”

In time, Ms. Ephron became a social confederate of New York playwrights, filmmakers and wits, including Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Calvin Trillin; Washington journalists including former Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and his journalist wife, Sally Quinn; and a Hollywood coterie that included Rob Reiner, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and Steven Spielberg.

The New York Times calls her a “woman of letters.”

She was a journalist, a blogger, an essayist, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a movie director — a rarity in a film industry whose directorial ranks were and continue to be dominated by men. More box-office success arrived with “You’ve Got Mail” and “Julie & Julia.” By the end of her life, though remaining remarkably youthful looking, she had even become something of a philosopher about age and its indignities.

“Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger?” she wrote in “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” her 2006 best-selling collection of essays. “It’s not better. Even if you have all your marbles, you’re constantly reaching for the name of the person you met the day before yesterday.”

Nora Ephron was born on May 19, 1941, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the eldest of four sisters, all of whom became writers. That was no surprise; writing was the family business. Her father, Henry, and her mother, the former Phoebe Wolkind, were Hollywood screenwriters who wrote, among other films, “Carousel,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Captain Newman, M.D.”

“Everything is copy,” her mother once said, and she and her husband proved it by turning the college-age Nora into a character in a play, later a movie, “Take Her, She’s Mine.” The lesson was not lost on Ms. Ephron, who seldom wrote about her children but could make sparkling copy out of almost anything else: the wrinkles on her neck, her apartment, cabbage strudel, Teflon pans and the tastelessness of egg-white omelets.

Ephron married three times.

Ephron’s first marriage, to writer Dan Greenburg, ended after nine years. In 1976 she married Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward had broken the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post a few years earlier. “Heartburn,” her 1996 novel, found humor in the ruins of her marriage to Bernstein, who, she said, had an affair while she was pregnant with their second son. The Bernstein-based character was played by Jack Nicholson, the Ephron-based character by Meryl Streep, in the 1986 film version.

Streep had also starred three years earlier in the Mike Nichols-directed “Silkwood,” a drama based on the real-life story of a labor organizer at a nuclear-processing plant whose whistle-blowing was abruptly ended when she died in a car accident.

Ephron’s third marriage was to journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who adapted his 1985 book “Wiseguy” into the movie “Goodfellas” (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Pileggi survives her, as do her two sons from her marriage to Bernstein, Max and Jacob.

I loved Ephron’s humorous essays, and her novel Heartburn was absolutely hilarious. I had no idea she was the model for the Sandra Dee role in Take Her, She’s Mine–a romantic comedy starring Jimmy Stewart as the worried father of an attractive teenager. I wasn’t wild about some of Ephron’s sappy movies like You’ve Got Mail, but Silkwood is one of my all-time favorites. As an aside, I don’t think most people really believe Karen Silkwood’s “accident” was anything other than murder.

Rest in peace, Nora. You’ve left us far too soon.

13 Comments on “Novelist, Screenwriter, and Humorist Nora Ephron has Died”

  1. dakinikat says:

    She certainly was involved with a lot of great projects and wore a lot of hats. She’ll be missed. I loved her last film about Julia Child.

  2. ecocatwoman says:

    bb, I’m with you on Silkwood 100%. It’s one of my all time favorite films. Accident my a$$. I remember reading the story in the long ago defunct New Times magazine (miss it so much). I did, however, love her Meg Ryan triumvirate: When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail & Sleepless in Seattle. She was & will always remain the icon of demonstrating that only women can really write women characters, warts & all.

  3. ecocatwoman says:

    I know this is completely OT, but if ya’ll haven’t seen Jon Stewart’s interview with Marco Rubio on last night’s show – you have to watch it. NO ONE does an interview like Stewart, IMHO. Rubio, whom I generally find intolerable, really did a good job – not that I agree with him, but it was obvious that he is going to go far politically. He’s been tempering his nasty rhetoric lately & it was really evident in the interview.

  4. Pat Johnson says:

    bb, I am so pleased that you did not let the passing of Nora Ephron go unnoticed. She was a true wit and a prolific writer.

    “Heartburn” was my introduction to Nora and the movie stayed on point.

    She will be missed but her writing will live on.

    • Fannie says:

      Yes, the words she created yesterday, will live on with all the tomorrows…………R.I.P. Nora

  5. bostonboomer says:

    OT– Both Orrin Hatch and Charlie Rangel won their primaries.

  6. bostonboomer says:

    Lawrence O’Donnell had a nice tribute to Nora Ephron at the end of his show.

  7. Seriously says:

    Sorry to hear that. I went through a period when I was a kid when I watched Heartburn over and over and over. I also remember watching a profile of her where Richard Cohen made these really snotty, condescending remarks about her work, it made me realize how hard it must have been to be in that social circle with all these guys who never let the fact that they were complete hacks stand in the way of their bloated egos and delusions of grandeur.

  8. joanelle says:

    Thanks, BB – she made us think, laugh and cry – sorry she left us so soon

  9. dakinikat says:

    “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” – Nora Ephron.

  10. purplefinn says:

    Thanks for this tribute, BB.

    @Seriously, I watched “Heartburn” over and over as an adult. Some seriously funny scenes.

    “I Feel Bad About My Neck” is nice mix of funny and profound thoughts on aging.