Bloomberg News

Nora Ephron, Wry Writer of ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ Dies at 71

June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron, the author, screenwriter and playwright whose wry take on life, love and loss informed the hit films “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” as well as the novel “Heartburn,” about the breakup of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, has died. She was 71.

Ephron died yesterday after a battle with leukemia, according to a statement from her publisher, the Alfred A. Knopf unit of Random House.

Through her writing and filmmaking, Ephron was a fixture at the crossroads of New York City, where she was born, and Hollywood, around which she was raised by her screenwriter parents. Starting with a post-college job in the mailroom at Newsweek, Ephron rose swiftly in journalism, writing for the New York Post and New York magazine and landing a column in Esquire.

Unsentimental and cynical in much of her early writing, she found fame in romantic comedies for the big screen. “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) starred Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as two friends finally drawn into love. Ryan paired with Tom Hanks for “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) and “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), which likewise end with attraction conquering obstacles.

Ephron was nominated for the Academy Award for screenwriting for “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” as well as for “Silkwood” (1983), written with Alice Arlen. She directed “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” She also wrote and directed “Michael” (1996) and “Julie & Julia” (2009), among other films.

Showing Differences

In a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose, Ephron said some of her best-known works were “completely about men and women and how different they are.”

Her last two books, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman” and “I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections,” were collections of essays on the surprises and indignities of getting older. In one essay, “On Maintenance,” she counted up the time she spends on fighting the effects of aging:

“Eight hours a week and counting. By the time I reach my seventies, I’m sure it will take at least twice as long. The only consolation I have in any of this is that when I’m very old and virtually unemployable, I will at least have something to do. Assuming, of course, that I haven’t spent all my money doing it.”

In a 2009 review of their play, “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” Bloomberg News chief drama critic Jeremy Gerard called Ephron and her sister, Delia, “literary alchemists expert at mixing the sentimental and the satirical and turning out something poignant.”

Troubled Parents

Ephron was born on May 19, 1941, in New York City, the first of four daughters of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose collaborations included “Desk Set,” a 1957 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She and her sisters were raised in Los Angeles. Her mother became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis at 57, and her father spent time in mental hospitals in his later years and attempted suicide, according to a New Yorker profile in 2009.

Ephron said her mother would say, “Everything is copy,” instilling in her four daughters the principle of turning pain into funny stories. All four became writers.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1962, Ephron moved to New York City to test the waters in journalism. Given a career break when hired by Dorothy Schiff, owner of the New York Post, Ephron later repaid her with a scathing profile in Esquire. The piece opened, “I feel bad about what I’m going to do here.”

Ruined Marriage

Ephron’s first marriage, to writer Dan Greenburg, ended after nine years. In 1976 she married Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward had broken the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post a few years earlier. “Heartburn,” her 1983 novel, found humor in the ruins of her marriage to Bernstein, who, she said, had an affair while she was pregnant with their second son. The Bernstein-based character was played by Jack Nicholson, the Ephron-based character by Meryl Streep, in the 1986 film version.

Streep had also starred three years earlier in the Mike Nichols-directed “Silkwood,” a drama based on the real-life story of a labor organizer at a nuclear-processing plant whose whistle-blowing was abruptly ended when she died in a car accident.

‘Goodfellas’ Author

Ephron’s third marriage was to journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who adapted his 1985 book “Wiseguy” into the movie “Goodfellas” (1990), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Pileggi survives her, as do her two sons from her marriage to Bernstein, Max and Jacob.

“If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there’s all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it but move on,” Ephron told the New Yorker in 2009.

“I don’t mean that you can’t have your feelings hurt or that you can’t sit at home and feel sorry for yourself -- briefly,” she said. “But then I think you have to just start typing and do the next thing.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Laurence Arnold in Washington at larnold4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net


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