Nora Ephron’s legacy lives on

The screenwriter and essayist represented the epitome of New York Jewish savvy.

n.ephron 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
n.ephron 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s only a little over a year since her death from leukemia at 71, but Nora Ephron’s legacy already seems pervasive.
She left behind hordes of writers who wrote gripping tributes to her; literary luminaries of all stripes spoke effusively about her immense talents as an essayist, playwright, novelist, screenwriter and movie director.
Ephron is probably best-known for writing the screenplay for Heartburn, which chronicled her sordid divorce from Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein when she was seven months pregnant with their second child. She is also famous for her hilarious movie script for When Harry Met Sally, which follows two difficult, smart and sassy New Yorkers who seem adept at everything except love.
More recently, Ephron was praised for her essay collections, such as I Feel Bad About My Neck, about aging and the trials and tribulations of modern womanhood.
This ironically coincided with the seemingly genuine joy of her last marriage to Nick Pileggi, who also wrote screenplays, most notably for Goodfellas and Casino.
For decades she held court as a fixture of New York’s elite literary scene, often hosting wonderful dinner parties where she would showcase her considerable culinary expertise. Ephron was, by almost everyone’s account, a marvelous conversationalist – intelligent and vivacious and irreverent. She loved mentoring younger talent, most recently assisting Lena Dunham, who created the smash HBO series Girls.
Ephron also knew where to find the best of everything, and reveled in sharing her discoveries with friends and colleagues.
She knew where to get the best manicure or haircut or facial. Where to eat. What doctor to go to. Even where to find the most perfect pastrami sandwich. Or strudel.
Or a great piece of pie; she was known to have a particular affinity for pie, which she would eat slowly with a tiny teaspoon, trying to make it last forever.
She was always dressed impeccably in a uniform of sorts; a crisp black turtleneck sweater to hide her neck, and dark slacks with a few gold bangles dangling comfortably on one arm. And the smile was incandescent, although it didn’t always match her eyes – which seemed sometimes to look a bit sad. You would take one look at her and think that she represented the epitome of New York Jewish savvy, and you would be both right and wrong.
Because Ephron seemed to have decided early to keep her deepest wounds to herself, and that both infused her writing with a stinging defiance and triumphant spirit, but also a certain hollowness.
Ephron refused to dwell on sadness and regrets, even after the horrible divorce and even without God, whom she never bothered to look for. Instead, she created a pseudo-intimate persona of someone who had trampled over the demons that threatened to annihilate her. And it worked; most of the time it worked brilliantly! Reading Ephron’s zesty prose is often a sheer and unexpected delight; it is challenging and provocative and laughout- loud funny.
This new 557-page compilation of Ephron’s work, The Most of Nora Ephron, contains a treasure trove of newspaper columns, magazine profiles, essays and the scripts of her major films, along with her more recent blog postings. Her take on contemporary figures is often refreshingly original and impish. Like her confession that president John F. Kennedy never made a pass at her while she interned at the White House – and how she couldn’t decide if it was because of the lousy permanent wave she had in her hair at the time, or her Jewish heritage. Or when she confessed that she had fallen permanently out of love with president Bill Clinton after he deserted the gays in the military after his election, and then because of Monica Lewinsky. Or when she riffed on how it was humanly possible for president George Bush to have a resting heart rate of 46 beats per minute, after the havoc he had wrought on the world. Or when she wrote about her small breasts, and her conviction that they in some way had determined everything that had happened in her life – and more importantly; everything that hadn’t.
Ephron was born in 1941 to Jewish parents, Hollywood screenwriters who were responsible for Carousel and There’s No Business Like Show Business. They were also raging alcoholics. Her mother died at 57 from cirrhosis of the liver, leaving Ephron, the eldest of four girls, motherless at 30. She admitted that her mother was not a hugger, and was unable to offer her solace while growing up in California.
When Ephron would attempt to get her advice, her mother would push her away and tell her that one day, all the awful things that were happening to her could be turned into copy.
Ephron seems to have heeded her mother’s advice, and has produced a terrific body of work that has brought joy to millions.
The Most of Nora Ephron By Nora Ephron Alfred A. Knopf 557 pages; $35