Nora Ephron, writer-filmmaker, dies at 71

Associated Press Modified: June 26, 2012 at 11:16 pm •  Published: June 26, 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) — Among the injustices about the death of Nora Ephron is that she isn't around to tell us about it.

"She was so, so alive," says her friend Carrie Fisher. "It makes no sense to me that she isn't alive anymore."

Ephron, the essayist, author and filmmaker who challenged and thrived in the male-dominated worlds of movies and journalism and was loved, respected and feared for her devastating and diverting wit, died Tuesday in Manhattan. She was 71.

Ephron died at 7:40 p.m. at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, her family said in a statement Tuesday night. She died of leukemia.

Born into a family of screenwriters, a top journalist in her 20s and 30s, then a best-selling author and successful director, Ephron was among the most quotable and influential writers of her generation. She wrote and directed such favorites as "Julie & Julia" and "Sleepless in Seattle," and her books included the novel "Heartburn," a knockout roman a clef about her marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein; and the popular essay collections "I Feel Bad About My Neck" and "I Remember Nothing."

She was tough on others — Bernstein's marital transgressions were immortalized by the horndog spouse in "Heartburn," a man "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind" — and relentless about herself. She wrote openly about her difficult childhood, her failed relationships, her doubts about her physical appearance and the hated intrusion of age.

"We all look good for our age. Except for our necks," she wrote in the title piece from "I Feel Bad About My Neck," published in 2006. "Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. ... According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at 43 and that's that."

Even within the smart-talking axis of New York-Washington-Los Angeles, no one bettered Ephron, slender and dark-haired, her bright and pointed smile like a one-liner made flesh. Friends from Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep to Calvin Trillin and Pete Hamill adored her for her wisdom, her loyalty and turns of phrase.

As a screenwriter, Ephron was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for "Silkwood," ''When Harry Met Sally ..." and "Sleepless in Seattle," and was the rare woman to write, direct and produce Hollywood movies. Fisher and Meg Ryan were among the many actresses who said they loved working with Ephron because she understood them so much better than did her male peers.

"I suppose you could say Nora was my ideal," Fisher said. "In a world where we're told that you can't have it all, Nora consistently proved that adage wrong. A writer, director, wife, mother, chef, wit — there didn't seem to be anything she couldn't do. And not just do it, but excel at it, revolutionize it, set the bar for every other screenwriter, novelist, director."

"Nora Ephron was a journalist-artist who knew what was important to know; how things really worked, what was worthwhile, who was fascinating and why," said "Sleepless in Seattle" star Tom Hanks. "At a dinner table and on a film set she lifted us all with wisdom and wit mixed with love for us and love for life."

The eldest of four children, Ephron was born in New York to screenwriters Harry and Phoebe Ephron, who moved to Beverly Hills, Calif., when she was 4 years old. Words, words, words were the air she breathed. Regular visitors included "Casablanca" co-writer Julius J. Epstein, "Sunset Boulevard" collaborator Charles Brackett, and the team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who worked on "The Thin Man" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

Everyone was in movies, "the business."

"People who were not in the business were known as civilians," Ephron wrote in "I Remember Nothing."

If the best humor is born out of sadness, then Ephron was destined for comedy. She was 15, she recalled, when her mother became an alcoholic, finishing off a bottle of scotch a night. Her father, too, was a heavy drinker, "sloppy, sentimental," although "somehow his alcoholism was more benign."

Determined by high school to be a journalist, Ephron graduated from the single-sex Wellesley College in 1962, moved to New York and started out as a "mail girl" and fact checker at Newsweek. A newspaper strike at the end of the year gave her a chance. Victor Navasky, the future editor of The Nation, was then running a satirical magazine called the Monacle. He was working on a parody of the New York Post, "The New York Pest," and asked Ephron for a spoof of Post columnist Leonard Lyons.

She succeeded so well that the newspaper's publisher, Dorothy Schiff, reasoned that anyone who could make fun of the Post could also write for it. Ephron was asked to try out as a reporter. Within a week, she had a permanent job and remained there five years. The Post, she later wrote, was a "terrible paper," and she envied her peers at The New York Times and elsewhere who had more time to work on stories and had better access to people they wanted to interview.

"But the point is this. I was better off ..." she wrote in the introduction to the essay collection "Wallflower at the Orgy, published in 1970. "I learned to go through the clips, find the names of people from the subject's past, hunt them up in old telephone books, track them down, and pull out anecdotes they knew. What I'm saying may seem obvious; but one of the things that stuns me is how seldom reporters do this."



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