Nora Ephron was magical.
Incisive, witty, and incredibly smart, Ephron left behind journalism, essays, movies, and plays when she died a decade ago. She also left a legion of fans.
Ephron was one of those rare people others flock to because she was so warm, giving, and right. No matter the situation, she could see through the nonsense and advise. By doing so, she built a tribe of loyal devotees.
Young women journalists and screenwriters wanted to be like her. A few have somehow convinced themselves that they now wear her crown. Luckily, Kristin Marguerite Doidge, author of “Nora Ephron: A Biography,” doesn’t fall into this trap. She wisely does not try to be Ephron.
Still, Doidge’s book is the work of a fan, albeit one who spent seven years laboring over it. She follows the logical chronological path for this, tracing Ephron’s life from birth to death. She details how, along the way, Ephron helped pioneer New Journalism, ruffled feathers, won an Oscar, and had plays on Broadway.
Ephron was a genuine chronicler, brilliant at so many forms of writing. The child of two writers, she had been raised that way, taught to be a dispassionate observer. When, as an adult, she went to visit her dying mother in the hospital, the woman urged her to take notes. “Everything is a copy,” she told her daughter.
Ephron was born in New York in 1941, the eldest of the four daughters of playwrights and screenwriters Henry Ephron and Phoebe Wolkind. The family moved to California, where Ephron’s parents wrote for the movies. It was a privileged Beverly Hills life, but Ephron was determined to return to Manhattan.
The two passions – words and food – that guided Ephron started early. Her mom taught her to read by the time she was 4. At the time, reading wasn’t a skill expected to be mastered until first grade.
When Phoebe asked her oldest daughter to help the cook plan menus, Nora had another idea – she always had another idea – and this one led to the other guiding force in her life. Instead of helping to plan, she learned to cook. And she was learning the art of what makes a great dinner.
“A certain schedule and elegance was maintained each and every day: Phoebe and Henry would arrive home at four-thirty, and while they sipped cocktails in the den, the children would join them for crudités,” Doidge writes. “Dinner would follow promptly at six-thirty – prepared by the family cook – and by seven-fifteen, they’d be on to the next of their evening activities: playing charades, reading poetry, perhaps, or singing rounds.”
Well-planned dinner parties were one of Ephron’s signatures, as were fostering friendships. People relied on her for sound advice. Doidge traces some friendships back to Ephron’s summer camp days.
At Wellesley from 1958 to 1962, Ephron made more lifelong friends. She later upset some when she published a typically honest and biting piece, quoting friends and not asking for permission before publishing.
After graduation, Ephron followed her dream to New York, landing a job in Newsweek’s mail room. She encountered the typical sexism of the time.
“‘Why do you want to work here?’ the man interviewing her asked.
‘Because I hope to become a writer,’ she replied.
‘Women don’t become writers at Newsweek,’ she said. ”
Ephron wrote during her time off and during the 1962 newspaper strike produced a parody of Leonard Lyons’ gossip column in the New York Post. Its publisher at the time, Dorothy Schiff, was savvy enough to hire people for the paper who could write well enough to parody it. When the strike ended, Ephron was on her way with a $ 98-a-week job as a reporter.
As she would prove throughout her life, Ephron could write gracefully about everything. She was assigned all, from murders to celebrities.
“It may not have been glamorous,” Doidge writes, “but it was everything she’d dreamed of since her mother’s gift of ‘A Treasury of Great Reporting’ she’d received for Christmas as a little girl.”
Around the time she became engaged to her first husband, Dan Greenburg, Ephron decided to try magazine writing. Newspaper writers had been taken to freelancing and producing longer, deeper, and more personal pieces during the strike. Ephron would go on to publish several books of profiles and essays.
All three of Ephron’s husbands were writers. Her widower, Nicholas Pileggi, wrote “Goodfellas.” She had two sons with her second husband, Carl Bernstein. She cheated on her, but she exacted revenge in “Heartburn,” a roman-a-clef novel about an adulterous husband.
Doidge’s book recounts a delicious quote from Ephron about Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward.
“For many years, I have lived with the secret of Deep Throat’s identity,” Ephron had said. “It has been hell, and I have dealt with the situation by telling anyone who pretty much asked me, including total strangers, who Deep Throat was. Not for nothing is indiscretion my middle name. ”
Those two sentences explain why she spoke to women whose husbands had cheated on them and why she is a goddess among the writers who followed her.
The bio follows Ephron through her hard work with her sister, Delia Ephron, as they wrote together. Ephron’s screenplays included “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Michael,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and “Julie & Julia,” several of which she directed.
Three years after her novel “Heartburn” was published, it was released as a film. Ephron’s mentor Mike Nichols directed, and Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson starred.
As she was moving into films, Rob Reiner recalls lunch meetings with Ephron and how she ordered: “I’ll have the avocado and bacon sandwich with sprouts, please, but I’d like the mayonnaise on the side, the bread toasted and slightly burnt, and the bacon crisp. ”
The director knew that he had to go into the script for “When Harry Met Sally.” Ephron made ordering food an art. That specificity became so famous that later, while ordering on a plane, the flight attendant asked Ephron if she had ever seen the movie.
Her final play, “Lucky Guy,” about former Daily News and Post columnist Mike McAlary and the usual newsroom denizens, starring Tom Hanks, opened on Broadway after she died.
What comes through is that Ephron made everyone feel special; her opinion mattered, her presence was vital. And how, even towards the end, when she had been diagnosed with myelodysplasia, she didn’t stop – not to tell friends and certainly not to wallow. She had too much to do.
Plus, if it leaked out, then her movie projects would not get funded. Ephron was determined to keep her diagnosis secret. Only her closest circle knew.
From all accounts, Ephron was inclusive and collaborative on movie sets, listening to ideas, collaborating, and ensuring everyone was very well fed. Actors would worry about the weight they packed on during Ephron’s movies.
“She was organized and as precise as a surgeon when it came to the way she approached the story, her collaborators said, and on the business side, she had developed a reputation for turning in movies on time and on budget.”
Along the way, she kept encouraging people, especially young journalists whom, she told, “keep scribbling.”