June 27: Nora Ephron, an essayist and humourist in the Dorothy Parker mould (only smarter and funnier, some said) who became one of her era's most successful screenwriters and filmmakers, making romantic comedy hits like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, died last night in Manhattan. She was 71.
The cause was pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia, her son Jacob Bernstein said.
In a commencement address she delivered in 1996 at Wellesley College, her alma mater, Ephron recalled that women of her generation were not expected to do much of anything. But she wound up having several careers, all of them successfully and many of them simultaneously.
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. Her later box-office success included You've Got Mail and Julie and 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 bestselling 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, MD.
"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 Ephron, who seldom wrote about her own 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 omelettes.
She turned her painful breakup with her second husband, the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, into a best-selling novel, Heartburn, which she then recycled into a successful movie starring Jack Nicholson as a philandering husband and Meryl Streep as a quick-witted version of Ephron herself.
When Ephron was four, her parents moved from New York to Beverly Hills, where she grew up, graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1958. At Wellesley, she began writing for the school newspaper, and in the summer of 1961 she was a summer intern in the Kennedy White House. She said later that perhaps her greatest accomplishment there was rescuing the speaker of the house, Sam Rayburn, from a men's room in which he had inadvertently locked himself. In an essay for The New York Times in 2003, she said she was also probably the only intern that President John F. Kennedy had never hit on.
After graduation from college in 1962, she moved to New York, a city she always adored, intent on becoming a journalist. Her first job was as a mail girl at Newsweek. (There were no mail boys, she later pointed out.) Soon she was contributing to a parody of The New York Post put out during the 1962 newspaper strike. Her piece of it earned her a tryout at The Post, where the publisher, Dorothy Schiff, remarked: "If they can parody The Post, they can write for it. Hire them."
Ephron stayed at The Post for five years, covering stories like the Beatles, the Star of India robbery at the American Museum of Natural History and a pair of hooded seals at the Coney Island aquarium that refused to mate.
In the late 1960s Ephron turned to magazine journalism, at Esquire and New York mostly. She quickly made a name for herself by writing frank, funny personal essays ' about the smallness of her breasts, for example ' and tart, sharply observed profiles of people like Ayn Rand, Helen Gurley Brown and the composer and bestselling poet Rod McKuen.
Some of these articles were controversial. In one, she criticised Betty Friedan for conducting a "thoroughly irrational" feud with Gloria Steinem; in another, she discharged a withering assessment of Women's Wear Daily.
But all her articles were characterised by humour and honesty, written in a clear, direct, understated style marked by an impeccable sense of when to deploy the punchline. (Many of her articles were assembled in the collections Wallflower at the Orgy, Crazy Salad and Scribble Scribble.)
Ephron made as much fun of herself as of anyone else. She was labelled a practitioner of the New Journalism, with its embrace of novelistic devices in the name of reaching a deeper truth, but she always denied the connection. "I am not a new journalist, whatever that is," she once wrote. "I just sit here at the typewriter and bang away at the old forms."
Ephron got into the movie business more or less by accident after her marriage to Bernstein in 1976. He and Bob Woodward, his partner in the Watergate investigation, were unhappy with William Goldman's script for the movie version of their book All the President's Men, so Bernstein and Ephron took a stab at rewriting it.
Their version was ultimately not used, but it was a useful learning experience, she later said, and it brought her to the attention of people in Hollywood. Her first screenplay, written with her friend Alice Arlen, was for Silkwood, a 1983 film based on the life of Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances while investigating abuses at a plutonium plant where she had worked.