The daughter of successful Hollywood screen-writers, Nora Ephron (born 1941) herself won acclaim during the 1980s for such screenplays as the Academy Award-nominated Silkwood and the highly successful comedy When Harry Met Sally. In the 1990s Ephron turned to film directing with such works as This Is My Life and the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.
Success has marked every phase of Nora Ephron's career as a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and movie director. Viewing her life and the lives of others, particularly intimates, as material for her works, she is famous for her observations of other people's lives, as well as for her own personal revelations. Ephron was a pioneer of "new journalism" in the 1970s, writing bold essays about social issues of the day, as well as other writers' views. The novel and movie Heartburn turned the very public breakup of her second marriage into a best-seller. Such screenplays as Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally followed and became box office hits. Destined to be in the director's chair, she directed Sleepless in Seattle, the 1994 romantic comedy blockbuster.
The daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Ephron and her three sisters grew up in Beverly Hills, amid its glamorous people and surroundings. Her parents had started their careers in New York collaborating on plays, but when Ephron was three, they decided to try parlaying their successes on stage to the screen and moved West. They were among the top screenwriters of the day, and such actors as James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy starred in movies they wrote. With such hits as Carousel, There's No Business Like Show Business, and What Price Glory, the Ephrons set high standards for excellence for their four daughters. Phoebe Ephron, especially, had high expectations and a determined, no-nonsense approach to life-yet, she added to that an infectious sense of humor. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Nora Ephron reminisced about her childhood, remembering singing rounds at the dinner table and playing charades afterward. "There was always a great deal of laughter," she said. The atmosphere was electric with creativity and famous people, as well as the daily traumas of raising a family of four.
A Mind of Her Own
As writers, the Ephrons thoroughly processed the rich material of everyday life and drew upon their experiences, as well as their children's-especially Nora's-for inspiration. Talking, often telling stories around the dinner table became a family ritual. More than her sisters, Ephron enjoyed and thrived in the nightly competitions to tell the best story. That environment helped her polish a budding humor, which in turn helped her compensate for being a skinny, dark-haired flatchested teen in Beverly Hills High School-a place where appearance was of utmost importance. A classmate recalled in Vanity Fair, "Her wit made up for not having the beauty; it was 'Don't mess with me."' Later, Ephron's letters home from college became the basis for Take Her, She's Mine. Family lore has it that Ephron was named for Henrik Ibsen's feminist protagonist in A Doll's House, her parents perhaps foreseeing their first born's gift as an outspoken, independent thinker.
Ephron learned how to make the best of what life offered. According to Leslie Bennetts in Vanity Fair, "'No matter what happens,' her mother was fond of saying, 'It's all copy."' Years later Ephron told a reporter for New Statesman & Society, "I think what I learned from my mother was a basic lesson of humor, which is, if you slip on a banana peel, people will laugh at you; but if you tell people you slipped, it's your story-you are in fact the heroine of slipping on the banana peel."
Comedy or Tragedy
From beneath the laughter, a dark side began to emerge. As Bennetts commented in Vanity Fair, it took the girls years to realize that their mother drank too much. Life became increasingly chaotic with their father suffering from manic-depression, and their mother suffering from alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver, which took her life at 57. The youngest daughter, Amy, added, "Mommy was this sort of closet alcoholic, where her best friends didn't know she drank … father was drinking, and it was horrible; my parents used to scream all night. I remember Nora coming home from college one year and she suddenly realized what was going on. We got different parents; she got the upswing, and I got the downswing." Ephron recalled visiting her mother in the hospital near the end and hearing her say, "Take notes, Nora, take notes."
Ephron was determined to leave the West Coast and assert her independence. "I grew up in L.A. knowing that if I didn't get out of there I would die," she later recalled. From Wellesley she headed straight to New York, where she started honing her craft as a reporter at the New York Post. Soon she was making the rounds to magazines and getting assignments from Esquire and New York. On the surface, it appears that she intended to follow the career path of her parents, but the opposite is true. Going into journalism as far away as she could from Hollywood, movies, and screen-writing was her form of rebellion. She became one of the wittiest essayists of the 1970s, challenging the wisdom of luminaries of the day, including Betty Friedan and Brendan Bill. No subject-or person-was off limits; she described male oppression in an article on women in magazine publishing, and took public the stories of famous women betrayed by their husband's infidelity. She gained stature as a respected writer, and notoriety for her no-holds-barred approach. One of her greatest pleasures was criticizing celebrity journalists. During this time her marriage to humorist Dan Greenburg ended acrimoniously after she learned he was having an affair with her best friend.
Then, in an ironic twist of fate, Ephron married the epitome of celebrity journalists, Carl Bernstein, who, along with Bob Woodward, wrote the famous Watergate expose of then President Richard Nixon. The popular "perfect couple" made headlines. It appeared as if they had it all-until the day Ephron learned, after everyone else, that her husband was having an affair with the wife of the British ambassador. To make matters worse, Ephron was pregnant with their second child. In addition to feeling angry, hurt, and humiliated, she felt-and was made to look-stupid. She told Vanity Fair' s Bennetts, "I think probably the feeling I like least in the whole world is feeling dumb. I think it was foolish and pathetic of me to have thought it could have worked." The lessons of her youth paid off; she had learned how to take whatever cards life dealt and turn them into a winning hand. She vowed to regain control of her life and not to be a victim.
A Return to Independence
In the wake of her failed second marriage, Ephron returned to home base, which she considered to be New York, re-established herself, and settled in to exorcise this episode from her life by writing the novel Heartburn. An article in Time summarized: "The humiliation described in the novel is that she, the witty observer of other people's lives, was unaware of what was going on in her own. The book was her way of ending up knowing more than anyone else…." She evidently hit a nerve because her (by then) ex-husband Bernstein spent years in court trying to prevent her from making the book into a movie. Eventually a watered-down version was made into a film that had mediocre box office results. In the end, Ephron succeeded-she got the satisfaction of revenge and made money on the book and movie.
As a single mother, financial security became a primary concern, and Ephron turned to screenwriting hoping it would prove to be as lucrative for her as it had been for her parents. She began collaborating with Alice Arlen, with whom she wrote Silkwood and Cookie, among others, but saved the screenplay of Heartburn as a solo venture. When Harry Met Sally, another independent project, was a huge success. Vindicated personally and professionally, she decided to risk marriage a third time. In 1981, Ephron married author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi.
The more time Ephron spent shepherding her work from paper to film, the more she yearned for full control. She set her sights on directing, and in 1992 broke through Holly-wood's gender barrier to direct her first movie, This Is My Life, co-written with her sister Delia. Somewhat surprisingly for a woman with two bitter divorces under her belt, the film that solidified her reputation as a director was the 1994 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle. When asked by a reporter from Rolling Stone how she managed to remain a believer in romance, she replied, "If I weren't a romantic, why would I keep doing it? There's no one who's more romantic than a cynic."
It's All Copy
Directing provides Ephron with long-sought professional fulfillment. She admitted in Rolling Stone that some friends even say her sharp tongue is mellowing and attribute the change in disposition to Pileggi. Others partially agree, but add, "She's a very hungry woman…. hungry for all the things her parents had-ability, power, the right friends." However, as a commentator in Time noted, if Ephron listens to herself, she'll remember that one of the themes in Heart-burn "is that no one can have it all, that life unravels faster that you can weave it back together." So, make the most of today.
Further Reading on Nora Ephron
New Statesman and Society, June 30, 1995, p. 32.
New York, April 11, 1994, p. 7.
Rolling Stone, July 8, 1993, pp. 73-75.
Time, January 27, 1992, pp. 62-63.
Vanity Fair, February, 1992, pp. 76-90.