Nora Ephron: How a secret fortune almost stopped Harry meeting Sally

How a secret fortune almost stopped Harry meeting Sally: In the second part of a sparklingly witty series, Hollywood screenwriter Nora Ephron tells a very cautionary tale

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UPDATED:

09:31 GMT, 2 July 2012

Nora Ephron, who died last week, was one of Hollywood’s best-loved scriptwriters — but she also wrote two gloriously funny and perceptive books about her own life. In the second part of our exclusive series celebrating her writing, she describes how a squabble over an inheritance almost tore her family apart… but helped launch her best-known film.

Nora Ephron describes how a squabble over an inheritance almost tore her family apart

Nora Ephron describes how a squabble over an inheritance almost tore her family apart

Why my mother wasn’t close to her brother Hal I never knew. I can guess.

It’s possible that he didn’t help out financially with their parents. It’s possible that she didn’t like his wife, Eleanor.

It’s possible that she resented for ever the fact that her parents found the money to send him to Columbia but made her go to a public college. Who knows The secret is dead and buried.

In any case, I grew up without meeting my uncle Hal. We lived in Los Angeles and Hal lived in Washington DC, with the aforementioned Eleanor.

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Nora Ephron proved a huge hit but goes on to tell a cautionary tale in her book

He would hang up. I always hoped that he would show some interest in my kids, Max and Jacob, but he didn’t even remember their names. One day, Jacob answered the phone and my father said: ‘Is this Abraham or the other one’ I consider it a testament to Jacob that at the age of seven, he knew it was funny.

Still, it made me sad. You always think that a bolt of lightning is going to strike and your parents will magically change into the people you wish they were, or back into the people they used to be. But they’re never going to.

And even though you know they’re never going to, you still hope they will.

My father’s bulletins about my uncle Hal were never about Hal himself but about Hal’s vast estate, which, according to my father, was being left entirely to my three sisters and me. ‘I talked to Hal and you’re in the will,’ he would say. ‘You’re still in the will,’ he would say.

‘Four-way split among you four girls,’ he would say.

‘Big bucks,’ he would say.

My father had minimal credibility at that point in my life, so it never crossed my mind to think he was telling the truth, that I was going to be the recipient of inherited wealth. And Uncle Hal was in fine health.

But then, one summer day in 1987, as I sat at my desk struggling with a screenplay I was writing in order to pay the bills, the phone rang; it was an administrator at a Washington hospital, calling to say that Hal was dying of pneumonia and I should, as his next of kin, be prepared to make an end-of-life decision.

I hung up, stunned.

The phone rang again. It was the hospital. Hal had died.

I called my sister Delia. ‘Prepare to be an heiress,’ I said.

Neither Delia nor I had the slightest idea of what Hal’s estate was worth.

There were profits from the houses he and Eleanor had flipped, and from large developments they had built, block after block of upscale suburban dream homes with indoor pools and rec rooms and breakfast nooks and the like. And there was also the Famous Puerto Rican Thing.

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, pictured during their starring appearance in When Harry Met Sally

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, pictured during their starring appearance in When Harry Met Sally

Hal and Eleanor had bought a huge parcel of land somewhere in Puerto Rico and had begun a development there, in partnership with Irwin the dentist.

Every so often I would ask Hal about it, and Hal would reply that it was coming along great, that he’d just been to Puerto Rico, that they were meeting with the architect, that the plans were terrific, that they’d seen the models, that they were looking for more investors.

It seemed to me he had to have been worth at least $3 million. Divided by four it came out to $750,000 for each of us. I couldn’t believe it. It was a fortune. It would change everything.

OK, maybe it was only $2 million. That would still be a half million each. On the other hand, perhaps it was four. A million dollars each. A million dollars each! I kept estimating, and dividing by four, and mentally spending the money.

American writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron passed away on the 26th June

American writer and filmmaker Nora Ephron passed away on the 26th June

My husband and I had recently bought a house on Long Island, and the renovation had cost much more than we’d ever dreamed. There was nothing left for landscaping. I went outside and walked around the house. I mentally planted several trees. I ripped out the scraggly lawn and imagined the huge trucks of sod I would now be able to pay for. I considered a trip to the nursery to look at hydrangeas.

My heart was racing. I pulled my husband away from his work and we had a conversation about what kind of trees we wanted. A dogwood, definitely.

A great big dogwood. It would cost a small fortune and now we were about to have one.

I went upstairs and looked at the script I’d been writing. I would never have to work on it again. I was just doing it for the money and, let’s face it, it was never going to get made, and besides, it was really hard. I shut down the computer. I lay down on the bed to think about other ways to spend Uncle Hal’s money. It crossed my mind we needed a new headboard.

Thus, in 15 minutes, did I pass through the first two stages of inherited wealth: glee and sloth.

The phone rang. It was my father. ‘Hal died,’ he said.

‘I know,’ I said.

‘He was leaving his money to the four of you,’ my father went on, ‘but I told him to cut you out of the will because you have enough money.’

‘What’ I said.

He hung up.

I couldn’t believe it. I looked outside at the lawn. So much for the sod. I called Delia. ‘Wait till you hear this development,’ I said, and told her what had happened. ‘Well, we’ll just even it out,’ Delia said. ‘We’ll each give you whatever percentage of what we inherit and that will make it fair.’

‘One-fourth,’ I said.

‘You were always better at maths,’ she said. ‘I will call the others.’

She called the others and called me back. ‘Amy is willing,’ she said. ‘Hallie is not.’

I couldn’t believe it. The four of us had always had an agreement that if any one of us was cut out of my father’s will, the others would cut her back in. Surely that applied to Uncle Hal, too.

Nora Ephron, pictured with Meryl Streep, at the 35th Annual Deauville American Film Festival in 2009

Nora Ephron, pictured with Meryl Streep, at the 35th Annual Deauville American Film Festival in 2009

The day was not even over, and we had entered the third stage of inherited wealth: dissension.

The next day I got a phone call from Hal’s lawyer. My father had turned out to be wrong: Hal had not cut me out of his will after all. He had left half his estate to the four of us, and the other half to Louise the housekeeper.

I was happy for Louise. She deserved the money. As for me, I was down to one-eighth. Not as good as one-fourth, but if the estate turned out to be $4 million dollars, it was still a bundle of money.

‘How much money is there’ I asked the lawyer.

‘Not much,’ he said. ‘Not much meaning what’ I said.

‘Less than half a million,’ he said. Way less than a half million, it turned out.

Thanks to Irwin the dentist, Hal had lost almost all his money in the Puerto Rican adventure. What was left, divided by eight, would buy sod, but it was not going to rescue me from the screenplay I was writing.

I called Delia and Amy and told them. I didn’t call Hallie. I was never speaking to my sister Hallie again. I went upstairs, turned on my computer and went back to work. The next week Amy called to say she had heard from Hal’s lawyer that there might be a Monet. There was a painting in the closet and they were sending it to the appraiser. /07/02/article-2167485-13E2D1E1000005DC-574_634x1449.jpg” width=”634″ height=”1449″ alt=”Growing old It's a pain in the neck!” class=”blkBorder” />