I’m not used to having my heart broken by Nora Ephron. Her movies always promised a happy ending. The Empire State Building lights up for Meg Ryan, or Auld Lang Sang turns into a love song, or the right dog comes bounding through Riverside Park, followed by the right owner. The television twinkles and the credits roll, and the world seems a warmer place — for a few hours, at least. But when I heard that Ephron had died today at 71 after a secret battle with leukemia, I felt, for the first time, some Ephron-inspired heartbreak. The world felt, suddenly, a little colder.
Ephron’s widest reach came as a director and writer of those beloved big-studio romantic comedies, but she got her start, fresh out of Wellesley, as a journalist at Newsweek and the New York Post in the sixties, moving on to places like Esquire and New York Magazine, where she carved out a reputation as a charismatic essayist and columnist, and the best-selling author of beloved essay collections like Wallflower at the Orgy and Crazy Salad. Late in her career, she landed at the Huffington Post, where she started its Divorce section, which was criticized by Jezebel and others for “paint[ing] a bright and shiny view of the end of marriage.” But that was the point: Ephron was a Nora Ephron character — a charming and charmed reporter, falling in love with bold-faced writers, delivering effortless one-liners, and hosting dinner parties full of interesting people. Even Heartburn, the book and movie she penned about the end of her marriage to Carl Bernstein, managed to avoid bitterness. Hearts get burned in her world, but not broken, at least not publicly or permanently.
I’m sure there are women of her own generation in New York who were consumed by envy for the way the road seemed to rise up to meet her (Her neck? Is that all she has to feel bad about?). But for someone like me, her career was just as much of a delightful, enjoyable fantasy picture as Sleepless in Seattle. The New York she emerged from doesn’t exist anymore, but for lots of girls like me, she helped shaped the contours of the imaginary city we wanted to live in.
Ephron was part of an iconic early wave of feminism — including falsely signing a public statement in Ms. that she’d had an abortion — but she was more casual about it than many of her peers, comfortable in it, absolutely certain that puzzling over love and the deeper meanings of kitchen renovations and wrinkles were perfectly acceptable subjects for a hard-won career. She wrote, for instance, an essay about breasts in the seventies; it was not about the radical body politic or patriarchal representation. It was just about her breasts and how she wished they were bigger! I’ve sometimes thought that third-wave feminism might have been better described as Nora Ephron feminism.
When Lena Dunham curated a series of films at BAM this spring, the opening selection was Ephron’s relatively obscure directorial debut, This Is My Life. It made all kinds of sense: the chronicle of aspiring memoirist Hanna Horvath’s stumble through Greenpoint is an obvious dart aimed at Ephron’s soft-focused rom-com happy endings New York, yet it’s one thrown with obvious love. Lena Dunham wouldn’t have figured out how to become who she is — to borrow a phrase from Horvath — if she hadn’t first wanted to be Nora Ephron. How could she not? Ephron was good. Conversational and confessional, sharp and wry, and funny and cutting, without, somehow, turning mean — even when she meant to be, as in her first column for New York, which was one big crowing snipe at Sally Quinn. Charm was her stock in trade and saving grace.
In later years, Ephron wrote lots about the aging process, new territory upon which she could ply her gimlet eye and breezy one-liners. Of course, now that we know she’d been sick, it seems a little darker. “You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” she told NPR in 2010, promoting a collection of essays called I Remember Nothing. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
Writing in New York that same year, Ephron described her first year in the city, cycling through apartments and roommates and jobs. She had wanted to return to New York since she’d left as a 5-year-old. “I thought it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place that you could ever live in; a place where if you really wanted something, you might be able to get it; a place where I’d be surrounded by people I was dying to be with. And I turned out to be right.” She wasn’t just good at endings, she was good at it all.
Nora Ephron wrote many great columns and features for New York. A selection: