SAN FRANCISCO, June 30, 2012 — Nora Ephron was the most famous person I ever knew – before she got famous.
We started work at the New York Post at the same time in 1963, where we both wrote features and celebrity profiles. After that, I kept a close and envious eye on her smooth and steady career climb, measuring it against my own frenzied scramble. She was clever and deft at career building, which annoyed me.
I craved her success, but it was honestly earned, partly because she was so adept at meeting major players, never my strong suit, and knew how to mix with important people I could but observe from afar. She gave parties and invited the Right People – Calvin Trillin, whom Nora and everyone but me called “Bud,” Pete Hamill, and Tom Wolfe, whom she briefly dated.
I was stunned to hear of her death at 71 this week, because she had always seemed so indomitable; anyone who knew Nora figured she would live to be 110. Her credo, learned at the deathbed of her screenwriting mother, was “everything is copy,” which she abided by, turning her female experiences into clever essays and then movies that especially touched women.
A Cultural Flash Point
Her first best-known piece was a gutsy confession about her small breasts, which captured attention and admiration from women and curious men; she reprised that piece with her recent essay about feeling bad about her aging neck. She could write wickedly of other people, but her first and best target was herself, part of her appeal.
Always in the center of the cultural flash point, she wrote a column for Esquire on women and later on the media. Ephron seemed to know everyone famous who mattered and she even married famous men, most famously Carl Bernstein, at the height of his Watergate fame, and she later turned his affair with a diplomat’s wife into a bestselling revenge memoir, “Heartburn.” She included recipes at the end of each chapter, almost anticipating her final film on Julia Child, “Julie and Julia.”
Ephron first married Dan Greenburg, author of the best selling “How to Be a Jewish Mother,” but her third and best marriage was to Nicholas Pileggi, author of “Wiseguy,” “Casino” and other Mafia-based books and later films. I cynically claimed she married Pileggi to match the earlier famous Nick and Nora team of “The Thin Man” films.
As I recall her in this month’s American Scholar magazine in a piece titled “Yellow Journalist,” a recollection of my first fumbling years at the New York Post, Nora was always fearless, mingling easily at 23 with hardboiled editors who struck terror in my heart. She argued with them as equals.
We often ate lunch at the seedy Post luncheonette, where she held forth with easy authority, laying down lines with utter certainty and wit that defied dispute. If you dared take issue, she would say with bemused disdain, “Oh, Jerry, how can you possibly say that?” But she was equally quick with compliments, and even 45 years later, when I ran into her on a book promotion talk for her memoir, “I Remember Nothing,” she still remembered a profile I had done of Jack Benny where he fell asleep on me.
Nora had a withering way of with a wisecrack, always batting her large eyes while delivering the punch line with the precise comic timing that she later used to great effect in her screenplays. She might have had an equally big career as a standup comedian.
The outpouring of major TV tributes from every corner — PBS, CNN, NPR and network news shows — with heartfelt remembrances by Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw, Ariana Huffington, etc., all eager to make sure we know they were close personal pals of Nora, revealed that Ephron was truly a media darling. I would guess that most Americans likely never heard of her until she died.
Wisecracking and Romantic
Nora would have winced at the sentimental mourning, though she was a romantic beneath her wisecracking façade, at least in her films. Listening to the emotional outpouring upon her death, I wondered what it was about her that captivated the media beyond her popular, pleasant but unexceptional films. She turned out smart, engaging but traditional movies, but she was no Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges.
In fact, Ephron leaves behind a fairly small body of work —only six major movies —“Silkwood” (as co-writer) and (as writer and/or director) “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Heartburn,” “Julie and Julia” (and about half a dozen forgotten works – “This Is My Life,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Michael”), plus five collections of magazine pieces. One critic said that she lost the sharp candor and sardonic edge of her essays in her films, which settled for pat, romantic, Hollywood endings. My hunch is that she didn’t want to disturb her popularity with anything too challenging.
What made her unique was that she became one of the few female film directors who came to movies as almost a total outsider, like Woody Allen. Her leap from writing to directing startled colleagues and friends. Her parents were screenwriters, but she didn’t make her first movie until her mid-40s, and seemed, as always, to have no doubt that she could master it.
Ephron didn’t break any ground, as Allen has, nor turned out nearly as many films, but even now you can count the number of contemporary women movie directors on one hand, if that. I actually can’t think of more than one or two, whose names escape me.
Something about Nora Ephron resonated beyond her talents as a writer and a movie director. She became a personality, a go-to wit who could be relied upon for a clever wisecrack on deadline, a role model for women writers and would be female directors. She also had fierce passions and a love for New York life, again like Woody Allen.
Amazingly (at least if you knew her as just a hustling cub reporter), her death made the front page of the New York Times, every journalist’s fondest if most far-fetched dream. Yet again Nora had triumphed, but she would have had something funny to say about it.
Gerald Nachman is the author of several humor and entertainment books, most recently Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America; Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s; and Raised on Radio about the golden age of radio. For years Nachman was a critic and syndicated columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News. For more on Mr. Nachman go to: geraldnachman.com
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