He'd have sex with a Venetian blind… That was Nora Ephron's typically withering response to her husband's affair
12:47 GMT, 28 June 2012
A real heroine: Nora Ephron passed away on Tuesday six years after being diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplasia
Nora Ephron died on Tuesday evening. For millions of fans, her death was a terrible shock as few outside her immediate circle knew that the writer and Oscar-nominated film-maker had become so gravely ill.
The giant talent behind romantic comedies such as When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail was diagnosed with the blood disorder myelodysplasia six years ago. She was 71-years-old.
‘At some point, your luck is going to run out. You are very aware with friends getting sick that it can end in a second,’ she said in an interview two years ago.
Her philosophy at the end of her life was true to her exuberant spirit. ‘Eat delicious things while you can still eat them, go to wonderful places while you still can and not have evenings where you say to yourself; “What am I doing here Why am I here I am bored witless!” ’
A certain farcical element attended her passing. Her great friend, the American columnist Liz Smith, accidentally posted an obituary online before Ephron had actually died. It included Ephron’s musings on her own funeral (‘I want a big deal and I want everyone to be basket cases’) and was hastily taken down, but not before the damage had been done.
Speculation swirled, wires were humming, news of Ephron’s death was gently exaggerated throughout a long evening of denials and confusion. Nora would have found it vastly amusing. For her, most things were comical sooner or later.
‘At some point, you have to get the joke,’ she once said. She believed that everything in life, up to and including your husband leaving you, is kind of hilarious in the end. Seeing the funny side is only a matter of time and attitude — and only someone with her talent could actually prove it.
Famously, back in the Seventies, Ephron discovered that her then husband, the Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein was having an affair with Margaret Jay.
Timeless: One of Ephron's greatest creations' When Harry Met Sally, starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, set the precedent for a new style of romantic comedies
Talented: As well as being a great writer, producing classic films such as When Harry met Sally starring Meg Ryan, Nora Ephron also had a deep understanding of human nature
At the time, Mrs Jay was married to
the British ambassador to Washington, Peter Jay, and Ephron was seven
months pregnant with her second child (‘So I couldn’t even date’).
was shocked and devastated. Yet when the marriage fell apart, she did
not. She took her children, moved back to her native New York and wrote a
book about her husband’s betrayal. The lightly fictionalised Heartburn —
which was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack
Nicholson — was a bittersweet comedy and a smash hit.
Hollywood legends: Nora Ephron with director Steven Spielberg after accepting the Screenwriter Award at the 2009 Hollywood Awards
Nora, being amused was a strength, not a weakness. In later life,
giving advice to young girls, she once said; ‘Above all, be the heroine
of your life, not the victim.’
was a woman who lived by her own inspiring rules. ‘I knew even when the
affair was happening that it was funny — I just wasn’t laughing at the
time. The whole thing was just too ludicrous,’ she once told me.
She recalled how, in the middle of the ‘mess’, Mr Jay rang her up and said they had to meet, suggesting an out-of-the-way restaurant in a Washington back street. She had to say to him: ‘Peter, we are not the ones who are having the affair.’
Yet it was still an affecting meeting. He was emotional, she was sobbing.
‘I was pregnant, totally stunned, betrayed, miserable and psychologically beaten. I was weeping and saying: “Isn’t this awful” And he said: “Yes. What is happening to this country” He was such a classic Brit. So repressed. He could never be personal. Even in that moment, it had to be about cosmic forces.’
It is part of Heartburn’s joyous brilliance that not only does it contain great recipes — please note, the best vinaigrette ever — it could do useful service as an anthology of insults.
In one chapter, Ephron wrote that her husband would be ‘capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.’ Bernstein never lived it down.
Nora Ephron was born in 1941 in New York City and raised partly in Beverly Hills by her screenwriter parents. She worked briefly as a White House intern before going into journalism, quickly developing a reputation as a great wit and humorist.
Writing ran in the family. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, brought up four daughters while working on assorted screenplays.
With Tom Hanks: Ephron wrote Sleepless in Seattle and also directed the 1998 film
Tear-jerker: Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in Sleepless in Seattle which became a big hit
Another hit: Ephron also wrote and directed You've Got Mail – again starring Hanks and Ryan
Among their film credits were Carousel, The Desk Set (for Spencer Tracy) and The Jackpot, which starred James Stewart.
The girls themselves all went on to became best-selling writers; novelist and screenwriter Delia (67), who collaborated with Nora on several projects; novelist and journalist Hallie (64), and novelist Amy (59).
When they were young, the girls had to spend family mealtimes relating everything that had happened to them during the day. Much of it ended up on screen. ‘Everything is copy,’ their mother would tell them.
In 1971, she died of alcoholism (as did her husband 21 years later), which at least one daughter wrote about at length.
Broken heart: Nora wrote Heartburn after husband No. 2, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein – seen together in 1978 – had an affair with a mutual friend Margaret Jay
Lasting love: Nicholas Pileggi and Nora Ephron, at the Oscars in 2010, had been married for 20 years
‘She wouldn’t have minded a bit,’ Nora
once said. ‘Even on her deathbed, she was saying: “Take notes, this is
good stuff.” Nora even used her parents as characters in Heartburn,
depicting them as complete nutcases.
‘That was the deal in our family,’ said Ephron. ‘Anyone would write about anyone. We were all picking over the carcass.’
John Travolta starred in the comedy Michael written, directed and produced by Nora Ephron
She was an incredibly gifted writer,
one who never wasted a word and who would instinctively pan the gold and
discard the debris in every sentence on every page.
it was not just her ability to hand in a finely-tooled screenplay or
manuscript that made her such a success. Behind those shrewd brown eyes,
Ephron had a real understanding of the human condition in all its
glories, frailties and doomed desires.
had the ability to sum it up in a trenchant and witty way and to create
female characters who were strong, complicated, anxious and tremendous
all at the same time — in the way that real women are.
of her early film successes was Silkwood, the true story of an
However, it is her romantic comedies such as When
Harry Met Sally and Sleepless In Seattle that really struck a chord
with the public, becoming some of the most popular and quotable films of
make it in Hollywood, but Nora Ephron did, becoming one of the most
influential women to work in the industry, totally in command of her own
projects as a director, screenwriter and latterly a producer, too.
Her recent film credits included the
2009 film Julie & Julia, starring her friend and longtime
collaborator, Meryl Streep, who said this week; ‘Nora just looked at
every situation and cocked her head and thought, “Hmmmm, how can I make
this more fun” ’.
met Ephron in 1999 when she came to London to promote her film, You’ve
Got Mail, which starred Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. It is and was my least
favourite thing she has ever done, something she preternaturally divined
almost immediately. ‘Did you like it’ she kept asking. ‘How much did
you like it’
director: Ephron won a 2011 Director's Guild of America award for
directing actress Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. She also wrote the
Another hit: Meryl Streep portraying Julia Child in a scene from Julie & Julia written and directed by Nora Ephron
All star cast: Nora Ephron with cast members of the film Julie & Julia, from left to right, Chris Messina, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams
I can still recall the damp February day, the gloomy room in the Savoy hotel and the small, chic Ephron dressed from top to toe in her trademark black. She was 57 years old at the time, one of those smart-as-a-whip Manhattan women whose forthright manner can sometimes be intimidating.
Former British Ambassador to Washinghton Peter Jay with his wife Margaret
‘What are you doing’ she asked, when I turned off a noisy heater because of my tape recorder. ‘You’re not broadcasting this interview, are ya Turn it back on.’
She was interested in everything and everyone. At the time we met, Margaret Cook, the spurned wife of the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, had just published her furious book about her husband’s infidelity.
Nora thought this was hilarious. ‘Hey,’ she said. ‘When is that woman going to lighten up’
She wanted to have a good old gossip
about her former nemesis, Margaret Jay — today Baroness Jay of
Paddington, whom she was, even after all those years, not terribly
kindly disposed towards.
not kid each other — I do not wish her well,’ Ephron told me. ‘I don’t
feel any animosity towards her, but I certainly do not wish her well —
and why should I’
Jay was depicted in Heartburn as
Thelma Rice, a ‘fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm, a nose
as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet,
which are sort of splayed’.
in Washington knew that Thelma was having an affair, Heartburn readers
were told, because she got her legs waxed and it wasn’t even summer.
Ephron married three times. Her last
marriage, to Goodfellas author Nicholas Pileggi, was a long and happy
one, and when recently asked to write a six-word biography, she decided
upon: Secret To Life, Marry An Italian.
few years ago, when contemplating death, she wrote a list of What I
Won’t Miss. This included dry skin, email, dead flowers, the sound of
the vacuum cleaner and small print.
I Will Miss included her husband and children of course, but also
spring, waffles, bacon, fireworks, twinkle lights, coming over the
bridge to Manhattan, and pie.
What a marvellous woman she was. A heroine, not victim, all the way, right to the very end.
Bewitching: Nicole Kidman and Will Farrell starred in Bewitched directed by Nora Ephron
Wise words: Nora Ephron during a Women in Literature conference in New York City, 1972
Young writer: Nora Ephron, who was the editor of Wellesley News at Wellesley College, pictured in the newsroom in her 1962 yearbook
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