Remembering Nora Ephron
The incredible influence of a groundbreaking writer, wit and director
Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.
Munawar Hosain | Fotos International | Getty Images
Not that this multitalented woman who excelled at whatever she turned her hand to, including journalism, screenwriting, directing movies, blogging, public speaking and cooking, had gone into the financial advisement business.
A checking account was merely a means to an end. That end for me was signing up for a subscription to Esquire magazine, for which Ephron wrote regularly. This was back in 1971; I was 15 years old.
Having a subscription meant that I wouldn’t miss a single one of her stories. Her pieces in Esquire offered a wider and more exciting view of the world than existed in my small town in central Pennsylvania. She was writing clever essays and articles about this new thing called the women’s movement, as well as about her own lack of cleavage, the Pillsbury Bake-Off and a hilarious profile of two maudlin literary superstars: Erich Segal, who wrote Love Story, and Rod McKuen, author of best-selling volumes of schmaltzy poetry. (As I recall, the piece on the two was headlined, “Mush” and Ephron wrote that she’d be hard-pressed to pick just one if they were the only options left in a round of the college girls’ game Who Would You Kick Out of Bed?)
I used to devour her stories under my desk rather than paying attention during biology class. She was far more entertaining and, yes, educational than most of my teachers. It’s not a stretch to say that I wouldn’t be who I am today, someone who has earned a decent living as a journalistic scribbler for more than three decades, if not for Ephron’s influence.
And I’m not the only one. Pretty much any female journalist of a certain age (mid-40s to mid-50s) would say the same. When Ephron moved on to writing movies then directing them (including When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia), she inspired aspiring female screenwriters and directors, paving the way with guts, grace and big helpings of humor.
When I grew up and moved to New York, I used to see her around town. She would be walking along the Upper West Side, her arm entwined with that of her third husband, Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi, or she would be at the movies or a Broadway play.
I never approached her in person because that seemed intrusive. Plus, I knew better. More than two decades ago, a female journalist friend told me about the night she found herself sitting next to Ephron at a movie — this was post-Heartburn, the 1983 best-selling autobiographical novel and subsequent movie about the breakup of her marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein; it was the book and movie that made Ephron a household name. Anyway, my friend told her that she, too, was a writer and rattled on about how much Ephron's pieces had meant to her growing up. “That’s nice,” Ephron said, patronizingly.
Maybe my friend caught her on a bad day. Or maybe she misread or misinterpreted Ephron’s inflection or tone. Plenty of others had encounters with Ephron before and after where she was kind, helpful and encouraging. And clearly she had a true gift for friendship, as evident in fond memorial encomiums in recent days from the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Mike Nichols.
I did have a brush with Ephron a little over a year ago when I was writing a magazine cover story on actress Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame. It wasn’t my first celebrity profile nor would it be my last. Every time I undertake one, I always keep foremost in my mind Ephron’s cautionary advice, as spelled out in one of her early pieces. When she sat down at the typewriter, she said, she always had to remind herself that it wasn’t her job to make the celebrity like her.
Ephron had directed Kudrow in a comedy called Lucky Numbers (2000). I emailed her, looking for quotes about having worked with Kudrow. She responded promptly, writing, “Hi Leah ... I wish I could remember telling anecdotes about anyone, but I never can. I think she is a genius.”
She added several more sentences in praise of Kudrow, pointed me to a commencement speech the actress had delivered the previous year at Vassar (I used it in my lede), and added that she would be happy to talk on the phone. “You are welcome to call me but I probably don't have a whole lot to say except for fulsome praise,” she wrote.
Ephron could just as easily have been describing herself. It was never my job to make her like me, but she was a genius at what she did. And deserving of nothing but fulsome praise.