Nora’s Secret

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

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.”

My crush on Nora began before I even met her, when I read her breakthrough pieces in college and watched her on The Dick Cavett Show. For anyone who wanted nothing more in life than to migrate to New York and somehow find a way into journalism, she was the most accessible of role models. Plus funny, smart, sexy, knowing—the Jewish girl of a Jewish boy’s dreams. I eventually realized that I had actually fallen for Nora before I’d read her (and even before she was a ­writer)—when I was still an adolescent in Washington and the Broadway comedy Take Her, She’s Mine, by Nora’s parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, came to town on tour. The play told of a father’s trials when his independent-minded daughter goes off to college. The cute ingenue in the role of Mollie Michaelson (Joanna Pettet, to put a finer point on it) introduced me to a teenage Nora by barely fictionalized proxy.

To my astonishment, I met Nora shortly after I moved to New York in 1973. I shouldn’t have been astonished; I’d later learn that Nora had a knack for meeting everyone, or at least everyone in the many tiers of Manhattan’s intersecting journalistic, literary, show-business, and political hierarchies. The first time we had dinner, it was at an Irish joint on First Avenue in the Fifties shortly after her first marriage had ended. When the meal was over, she asked me and my girlfriend Gail, later to be my wife, to join her on a little walk. We ended up on a side street, and Nora pointed to a darkened townhouse. “Do you see that beautiful house?” she asked. “That’s how much I wanted to get out of my marriage—I gave up that house.” Though Nora was only eight years my senior, she exuded a mixture of intimacy, world­liness, and wit well beyond my ken or experience. She was like the perfect, non-camp hybrid of all the female New York characters that animated my romantic view of the city before I lived there: Eloise, Betty Comden, Lillian Hellman, Auntie Mame, Mary McCarthy, Elaine May, ­Gloria Steinem, and Amy, the hopelessly articulate and vulnerable bride-to-be who’d been originated by a striking Nora look-and-sound-alike (Beth Howland) in the 1970 Sondheim musical Company.

Before long, Nora would help Gail and me find an affordable walk-up apartment above hers in another house a block away. Not long after that, she would give me crucial career advice and encouragement, soon persuading me to take a job at her reportorial training ground, the old, dilapidated, pre-Murdoch New York Post, even though she had recently written a legendary Esquire column trashing the place. It turned out to be the right call, and anyway, it was almost impossible to resist any of Nora’s judgments. She held them all fervently, whether the subject was small or large. She was as vehement about the perfidy of egg-white omelettes as she was about the Clintons.

Two marriages (for each of us), two grown sons (for each of us), and nearly four decades later, Nora seemed very much the same person I met then. She continued to give me invaluable advice about everything, from career to restaurants, from what to read to what to think. She was a cheerleader for my boys. She dove into a supportive friendship with my second wife, Alex, when she entered my life two decades ago. Over the years Nora certainly attracted her critics and enemies like the rest of us. She didn’t get where she did without being tough or breaking some eggs (whites and yolks). But what strangers often adored about Nora was what those closer to her did, too: She was incredibly approachable, and she put it all out there, whether it be the neck she absolutely could not stand or the man who broke her heart.

As many of her eulogists have reminded us, Nora was fond of crediting her mother with this transparency. Phoebe Ephron’s oft-repeated maxim, “Everything is copy,” was not only a fixture of Nora’s childhood but her parents’ own professional guidepost. In Take Her, She’s Mine (1961), they appropriated Nora’s letters home from Wellesley. In Three’s a Family (1943), produced on Broadway when Nora was still a toddler, her earliest months of life were plundered for comic fodder. Both plays ran a year in New York and were made into movies.

Nora followed her parents’ example most notoriously with Heartburn, her roman à clef about her disastrous marriage to Carl Bernstein—also turned into a movie. (Over a 50-year period, between her parents’ work and her own, a fictive iteration of Nora has been played onstage or screen by actors as diverse as Streep, Pettet, Elizabeth Ashley, Meg Ryan, and, unlikely as it may sound, Sandra Dee.) In Nora’s nonfiction writing, everything was copy as well, whether her most embarrassing mishaps in family, career, cookery, and sex; her parents’ alcoholism; or her mother’s grotesque death brought on by cirrhosis at age 57. In real life, Nora was riveting in part because of her remarkable ability to seem fully there in every moment—always candid, always looking you in the eye, and always quick to press back with a raised eyebrow and an uptick in her vocal register if she suspected you were withholding any thought, feeling, or information of your own. Her life was an apparently open book, and not just in her books.

And yet: Who knew that she had been struggling with a terminal illness for six and a half years, and had been in a hospital deathbed the last five weeks of her life? For nearly all of that time, only a half-dozen or so intimates, most of them immediate family, knew that Nora was ill—and not necessarily with much accompanying detail. At the memorial, Max Bernstein, her younger son, said that “even my brother and I were given the rosiest possible version of what could barely be called the truth up until when she was hospitalized” (on May 21). During that last hospitalization, as her acute ­myeloid leukemia worsened, the circle widened only slightly when Nora’s atypical failure to respond promptly to e-mails and phone messages required some ­explanation. But even then, few knew ­exactly what was going on. Not until the day or so preceding Nora’s death did many of her friends receive the shocking call, as Alex and I did from Max’s brother, Jacob, telling us that the Nora we’d seen in full bloom only yesterday (it seemed) was out of reach.

In her 2006 anthology, I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora has a chapter titled “What I Wish I’d Known.” It contains some classic Nora-isms—“There’s no point in making piecrust from scratch” and “Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from,” among others. But the last in the list—“There are no secrets”—is one of the rare examples of Nora being wrong. There are secrets; she had one, and it was kept ­until almost the end.

Streep didn’t sound seriously mad when she claimed to be pissed off at the ­memorial. But she hit on what so many of Nora’s friends wrestled with, along with our grief, in the immediate aftermath of this huge loss. Some of us—and that would ­include me—were pissed off at first. Her death was a gut-punch that initially landed like a sucker punch. And it came with a ­vexing mystery. In private, in her public ­persona, and in her literary voice, Nora ­exemplified self-awareness and truth-­telling, and yet she hadn’t let us in on the long battle for her life that finally consumed her. This might be expected if Nora had chosen a life of privacy despite her renown (witness the astronaut Sally Ride), but she was ubiquitous, both in her day-to-day rounds around town and in the mediasphere where she did her work. Her choice to keep her illness a secret was not just out of character but a Herculean task that ­required an unfathomable scale of compartmentalization and enforcement in the fishbowls of New York and L.A. she swam in. What, exactly, in Streep’s phrase, had Nora intended? What was she telling us by making her final chapter a secret? What, if anything, was she telling us about ourselves?

Like everyone else, Alex and I went searching for clues. We replayed our last encounters with Nora, trying to remember if we had failed to notice moments when she might have been under the weather or let her guard slip in conversation or been sending a coded message. But the truth was that Nora still looked younger than her years (she died at 71) the last two times we’d seen her, in April, and seemed as sharp mentally and physically as ever. Hendrik Hertzberg had it just right when he wrote in his New Yorker tribute that “physically and spiritually, Nora always seemed to be exactly the same age—say, 36.” (Which is just a bit older than the age she was back in the day when both he and I first met her.) As Alex and I cycled through every encounter, conversation, and e-mail we’d had with Nora over the past couple of years, we could find at most a few inklings. What had particularly stuck with me was a phone conversation about Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein. Nora and Wendy were more wary acquaintances than friends, but Salamon’s account of Wendy’s largely ­private struggle with cancer had made an outsize impression on her. “It’s just so sad, so depressing,” Nora had said when she called to talk about it, reiterating the thought several times without expanding on it. For her part, Alex recalled an e-mail earlier this year in which Nora, not often given to effusive emotional displays in our experience, wrote “I love you” in response to a thank-you note. “Nora wanted people to know how she felt about them” is how a longtime Nora friend and professional colleague now looks back on a similar incident awhile back, when during a lull in a workday she unexpectedly blurted out to him how much she treasured their collaboration.

Like many others, I also revisited Nora’s writing, looking for the copy that might tell us Everything. This was more productive. As was widely noticed among Nora’s obituary writers, her slender last book, I Remember Nothing, published in 2010, could be seen in retrospect as a good-bye. It ended with elegiac summing-up lists titled “What I Won’t Miss” (“Funerals … Joe Lieberman … Panels on Women in Film”) and “What I Will Miss” (“My kids … Nick … Coming over the bridge to Manhattan … Pie”). The acknowledgments page that followed listed the expected family, friends, and editors—“and also, of course, my doctors.” For a book largely collating previously published material, Nora had also written a new final essay, not much noticed in 2010, in which she confronts the realization that she may have only a few more “good years” and broods about what she might do with them: “I try to say to myself, if this is one of the last days of my life, am I doing exactly what I want to be doing?” Deciding that she wants to “aim low,” she moves on to a joke defining an ideal day as “a frozen custard at Shake Shack and a walk in the park. (Followed by a Lactaid.)”

Such were the recent hints hiding in plain sight. So was the announcement that her upcoming project, a play for Broadway, took on the life of Mike ­McAlary, the New York tabloid columnist who did his most powerful work while being treated for colon cancer prior to his death, at age 41 in 1998. Reading further back, you’d discover that Nora had also addressed “the D word,” as she put it, directly in an earlier essay titled “Considering the Alternative,” published in Vogue (and reprinted as the concluding chapter in I Feel Bad About My Neck). The piece appeared in the summer of 2006, the year she learned of her illness. It was pegged to the imminent approach of her 65th birthday, but also to the recent deaths of friends. She writes at the outset that “denial has been a way of life for me for many years” but that she was leaving it behind in her sixties, now that she was seeing the “long shadows” of illness and death everywhere: “Death is a sniper. It strikes people you love, people you like, people you know, it’s everywhere. You could be next. But then you turn out not to be. But then again you could be … You can imagine you’ll be brave, but it’s just as possible you’ll be terrified. You can hope that you’ll find a way to accept death, but you could just as easily end up raging against it.” Nora also writes about the “Exit” file Henry Grunwald left behind, but she “can’t quite figure out how any of it applies” to herself.

It was not for nothing that Nora’s movies were comedies, with the happy endings the form demands (in Hollywood, anyway). The few morbid pieces aside, most of her work remained funny in the final years. “The D Word” returns as the title of a chapter in I Remember Nothing, but in its final outing, the D is not for death but divorce, a topic she helped turn into a section at the Huffington Post and one that, from Heartburn on, she always navigated with humor. Nora’s later blog posts could be riotous. The phenomenon of the Scottish amateur singer Susan Boyle as a contestant on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent prompted this in 2009: “That song is worse than all of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it’s worse than ‘It’s a Small World After All.’ That song from Les Misérables that Susan Boyle sings is the all-time most horrible song ever in history.” This is not gallows humor; it comes from a spirit that is alive to every vicissitude of the culture, down to the ephemeral trivia. It’s not the kind of writing we have come to expect from a dying writer. We’re more likely to think instead of the example of Hitchens, who, denied the option of hiding his ­physical decline, turned his last eighteen months of life into a multimedia torrent of interviews, philosophical debate, and testimonials he could still be on hand to witness. He wrote enough about dying to fill a book, Mortality, to be published next month.

Nora chose the un-Hitchens way to go. I can imagine her saying that this had something to do with the differences between men and women. (They did not differ in their disdain for religion.) Since her death, there has been plenty of theorizing among those who knew and loved her about the motives for her secrecy. For sure, Nora had some cause for hope until nearly the end. She had responded to earlier treatments. Also for sure, Nora wanted to keep working; she might well have assumed that a Hollywood studio would think twice about bankrolling a movie like Julie & Julia were there a serious chance the director might not be able to finish it. Another strain of conjecture had it that she was just too used to being in control, to being disciplined and strong-willed, to surrender to illness. “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” Nora said in her oft-quoted 1996 commencement ­address at Wellesley. She hated complaining. She did not want to become her ­cancer. She did not want her illness to change the weather of any room she entered. She did not want to spend ­every day fending off an onslaught of concerned questions. She didn’t want to be thought of as a lesser person. She did not want friends to see her falling apart.

In his talk at the memorial, her son Max acknowledged some of these theories and added another of his own: “I think that she just kept quiet so the rest of us could keep enjoying being with her as much as possible.” He recalled some happy times with his mother over the past six years and contemplated how they would have played differently if everyone had known how ill she was. “All of those moments would have been bittersweet or sanctimonious, flanked by an asterisk, leading to a footnote that says, ‘There aren’t many of these left,’ ” he said. “I am so glad they weren’t that way.”

I don’t have my own theory. But like most everyone else, I look at Nora differently through the prism of the secret she kept so well. I am in awe of her courage; I doubt I would have the ability to keep an illness of this magnitude to myself, to not complain, to spare most of my friends the gory details. And while I am grateful to have had some joyous recent occasions with Nora that were not rendered bittersweet by knowledge of her terminal condition, that’s not what I will remember most. What haunts me instead from these last years is how she acted when the chips were down for others.

Far from aiming low in the last days of her life, she aimed as high as ever, if not higher. I will give just one example, one I witnessed firsthand. In February, after a grueling battle with breast cancer, my wife’s sister, Phoebe, died at the age of 44. Nora barely knew my sister-in-law—they had met only once—and we were not in constant touch with Nora about Phoebe’s illness. Good friends as Nora and Nick were, we were not extended family. And yet after Phoebe’s death, Nora sussed out the logistics of the shiva on her own and schlepped downtown to mingle at length with mourners she mostly didn’t know, engaging with (and charming) every stranger she met. A few weeks later, she and Nick were adamant about having us over for a home-cooked dinner of chicken and brilliant mashed potatoes to try to have some laughs and ease back into the world. Alex was still picking herself off the floor emotionally; she talked very little as Nick, Nora, and I kept the conversation going. Later we looked back on that night as one of the most healing of that entire period, even though it would be hard to articulate the alchemy that made it work. Knowing now that the evening took place a little more than two months before Nora entered the hospital for the last time, we realize that the intimacy, on that night at least, was a one-way street. Which is ­exactly what Nora intended.

She had chosen, as is her right and ­everyone’s, to leave part of her unknowable. For all the instructions she gave us and everyone else about life, she was teaching us something about dying, and we had no idea at the time she was doing so. But what if we had learned in a timely manner that Nora was herself near death? What if we could have had that final conversation with her? Would she have benefited? Would we? My own “What I Wish I’d Known” list-in-progress has for some time included the dictum “There is no closure.”

Of all the Nora writings I reread after her death, perhaps none is more pertinent than an article she wrote not in the past six years but back in 1975, shortly after I met her, when she was 34. Titled “The Mink Coat,” and published in ­Esquire, it is mostly an account of her mother’s final off-and-on hospital stay. Though Phoebe Ephron had “managed, almost until the end, to keep up appearances,” Nora writes, her voice was so clotted that it was impossible to understand a word she was saying. Her mother was furious that her daughter couldn’t understand her, and Nora was furious in return. She was desperate for her mother to give her “some kind of answer” about life and mortality in her final days. But “what kind of answer?” Nora wrote. “What was the question? I don’t know, but I wanted one, a big one, and there was no chance of getting it.” She could not easily forgive her mother for being in a hospital, dying and “going off without having explained any of it.” And yet she could not and did not stop loving her either.

Like her mother, Nora managed, ­almost until the end, to keep up appearances. She entered the hospital to die, answered no questions, and went off without having explained any of it. But if action is character, and she believed that it is, perhaps we have the answer after all. What doesn’t matter is whether we got to say good-bye or not. What does matter is that she was here for those she loved and those who loved her, and that now, while we were napping, she has gone.

Nora’s Secret