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Nora’s Secret

“Everything is copy,” Nora Ephron learned from her mother. She kept one thing to herself, though—and left many of us wondering why.

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Ephron at a Q&A with Lena Dunham at BAM on April 2, less than three months before her death.  

In the meet-cute opening of Nora Ephron’s most beloved romantic comedy, a freshly minted University of Chicago grad named Sally tells Harry that she’s moving to New York to seek a career as a reporter. Harry is skeptical. “Suppose nothing happens to you?” he asks. “Suppose you live there your whole life and nothing happens. You never meet anybody, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts into the hallway?”

When Nora wrote those words nearly a quarter-century ago, she had long since made good on her own move to Manhattan, via Beverly Hills and Wellesley College, to be a reporter. She had met everyone, had become one of the most admired journalists of her time, and had aced two additional trades (novelist, screenwriter)—with two more (film director, playwright) yet to come. And while her death in June was a New York death all right, it was the inverse of the one imagined by the dismissive Harry. Nora’s passing prompted nearly twenty articles or blog posts in the Times, more than a dozen in Newsweek/Daily Beast, six in The New Yorker, and multiple entries in others, including New York, where she had been a columnist during the magazine-writing career that first made many, including me, fall in love with her. Nora’s memorial service at Alice Tully Hall, attended by some 800 designated mourners, had enough showbiz gentry stirred in with the media folk to merit mention on television’s tabloid entertainment shows. It was as close to a state funeral as New York’s cultural world can muster—matched only in recent times by the memorial to Christopher Hitchens, which Nora had attended in April, looking glowing in a Vanity Fair photograph showing her seated next to Sean Penn. (And, as Nora might say parenthetically at this point in a piece, I’ll get back to Christopher Hitchens later on.)

I tried to read all the articles about Nora through her gimlet eye. A few of them did rise to the level of grandiosity, self-promotion, and superciliousness that she mocked over the years in writers as various as Theodore H. White, Brendan Gill, Ayn Rand, Leonard Lyons, the staff of the old Gourmet, and Mimi Alford, the former JFK intern whose tell-all memoir will be remembered only for Nora’s delicious spin on it. For me, the most moving remembrances of Nora were by Lena Dunham, the young auteur of HBO’s Girls (and much else; she’s a Nora-like multitasker), and James McAuley, even younger, an editorial-page staffer at the Washington Post. Both told their stories of the unexpected support and encouragement Nora gave to them in their still-early careers, of how she made a point of staying in touch and giving direction when she had no reason to do so except sheer generosity. That was my story with Nora when I was in my twenties, and often since, so no doubt that’s in part why I responded so strongly to theirs. (A bit more about that in a minute, too.) What made Dunham’s and McAuley’s narratives doubly moving is that when Nora was mentoring them, we now know, she didn’t have all the time in the world for elective kindnesses to strangers. She was fighting the illness that would kill her.

The memorial tribute was planned by Nora herself in advance, in emulation of the elegant 2005 memorial blueprint her friend the Time editor Henry Grunwald had left behind in a computer file titled “Exit.” Nora’s own show was as laced with funny and touching moments as any of her pre-posthumous productions. She had even cast some of the same actors. Everyone who came onstage killed, so to speak—they could get away with nothing less before this crowd. Every phase of Nora was vividly summoned back to life for a Monday morning: Nora the loyal friend, Nora the loving (and sometimes exasperating) mother and sibling, Nora the quintessential in-the-know New Yorker and social-cultural-political-fashion-decorating arbiter, Nora the consummate professional, Nora the unyielding feminist, Nora the insatiable foodie, Nora the 24/7 concierge, Nora the twice-­divorced woman who would at last make a marriage that was a keeper with her partner in love and wit, Nick Pileggi. But as was also true of most print tributes to Nora, one aspect of her death was largely relegated to the memorial’s cutting-room floor: the hard fact that most of those in the hall, not to mention the legions of Nora friends, worshippers, and fans beyond it, had not known she was dying until it was too late to say good-bye.

Not all of her friends were comfortable with that. They wondered how much they had really known Nora after all. At Alice Tully, it was Meryl Streep who directly addressed the unspoken truth that “we’ve all been ambushed” by her death. “She didn’t like surprises, except happy ones,” Streep said of Nora while fighting back tears. “And she didn’t want ever to be caught unawares. But she really did catch us napping. She pulled a fast one on all of us. And it’s really stupid to be mad at somebody who died, but somehow I have managed it.” Finding that she had been on Nora’s “Exit” list of speakers, Streep said, left her feeling “so privileged and so pissed off and so honored and so inept all at the same time that I can’t help thinking that this is exactly what she intended.”


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