A one-woman creative dynamo, Nora Ephron learned from her screenwriter mother that, in the lives of writers, "everything is copy."
Nora Ephron is older than she looks. Way older. Sixty-nine going on 50. If you factor in vivacity and chic stilettos, subtract another few years. She is also brainier than she looks. In the 1970s she was one of the few female stars of journalism. Today she is the most bankable female film director in America. She's an author, playwright, essayist, sought-after public speaker, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, the inventor of the modern romantic comedy and the mastermind behind Meg Ryan's career. Such a person should have a bulbous cranium like a goldfish bowl.
Ephron must be fatter than she looks, too. She is a Nigella-Ina Garten-Martha level foodie yet remains trim as a greyhound. When she made the Julia Child movie "Julie & Julia," which produced amazing leftovers, the whole crew got fat except her. She is a renowned chef with radical theories about tomato sauce (butter, not olive oil). She will give you a copy of her self-published personal cookbook containing her crazy red sauce and Joan Didion's Mexican Shrimp and Liz Smith's Biscuits if she likes you.
She gave me a copy. I didn't take it personally. I suspect that Nora Ephron likes almost everybody. She turns out clever articles, fun films and delicious food like a one-woman factory. She likes to deliver pleasure. She wants people to be happy.
Her latest book is "I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections" (Knopf, 137 pages, $21.95). It is a companion volume to her No. 1 bestseller from 2006, "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman."
It continues her thoughts on aging, eating, literary feuds and Ephron family history. It is breathlessly funny about bald spots, temporary amnesia, divorce and other battle scars. It is nostalgic about her days as a mail girl at Newsweek and a cub reporter at the New York Post. Ephron is no Pollyanna, though. When she has a grudge, whether the target is dietary ("It is time to put a halt to the egg white omelet") or personal (she is not a fan of playwright/memoirist Lillian Hellman or New Yorker writer Lillian Ross), she is elegantly lethal.
Destined to write
Like her writing, Ephron is chatty, witty, self-effacing and candid. On a recent afternoon in her opulent Upper East Side apartment, Ephron said that one quality that fascinated her about Julia Child was that she didn't become Julia Child until age 50, when "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published. Ephron, by contrast, always understood it was her fate and genetic destiny to be a writer.
Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, co-wrote Broadway plays, then moved to Los Angeles, where they wrote and produced such classic movies as "Desk Set" and "Carousel." Writing, Ephron says, is something she and her sisters do because of "the magnetic field" of her parents' influence. Nora was the first of four daughters (Amy is a writer and film producer, Delia an author and playwright, Hallie a mystery novelist) and living proof of her mother's mantra "Everything is copy." The Ephrons' first stage hit, 1943's "Three's a Family," drew from their experiences as harried first-time parents. Little Nora was the direct inspiration for the squalling baby offstage. Her parents, she said, were like primitive bloggers, "like all these people writing about their personal lives for an audience of 42."
"My sister Delia got her head stuck in the wrought-iron upstairs railing one night. That ended up in a Jimmy Stewart movie they were writing eight months later. If anything good happened, they were going to use it. It all felt kind of harmless," she said. The girls competed to say clever, quotable things at the dinner table. Sometimes the notion that the family's life was an open book went to surprising lengths. Ephron's departure for Wellesley College inspired "Take Her, She's Mine," her parents' play about a Southern California family whose daughter goes off to a women's school Back East. She did not know until she went to see it that they had liberally quoted from her letters home. It became a Jimmy Stewart movie with the sort-of Nora character played by blond, bouncy Sandra Dee. This is not the sort of thing a Wellesley woman dreams of.
Fifty years on, "I'm still sort of interested that they never said to me, 'Oh, and by the way, we're going to quote from some of your letters,'" she said. Still, "it made me laugh. It was exciting and I wanted my parents to have lots of success and be happy."
After a pause she added, "That was a little bit more than was going to happen."
Not all laughs
In the new book, Ephron writes, "Alcoholic parents are so confusing. They're your parents, so you love them; but they're drunks, so you hate them." Her mother drank herself to death at the age of 57, in 1971. On her deathbed, Phoebe Ephron told Nora, "Take notes."
One day's tragedies could be comic stories the next. In 2000, eight years after her father's death, Ephron wrote and produced "Hanging Up," featuring Walter Matthau as a wisecracking old lush screenwriter whose advancing dementia has his daughters (played by Diane Keaton, Meg Ryan and Lisa Kudrow) in a tizzy. Everything was copy.
Much of Ephron's writing can be classified as nonfiction fiction. "Why would anyone write fiction when what actually happens is so amazing?"
Her 1983 novel "Heartburn" pluckily spun her train-wreck second divorce into rueful comedy. (Her first marriage, to humorist Dan Greenburg, ended after seven years.) The husband in "Heartburn," modeled on Ephron's cheating spouse, Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, is described as being "capable of having sex with a venetian blind."
"Heartburn" launched Ephron, establishing her as a relatable public personality, a woman who stood up when she was wronged and said loud and clear, "Hey, wait a minute, buddy!" She bought a house with the money from the novel. When she wrote the screenplay for Mike Nichols' film adaptation, she had the eerie experience of watching Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep re-create the collapse of her relationship. "She really nailed me in ways that are mortifying," Ephron said. And then the movie flopped.
'Get over it'
She doesn't let these things get to her: "My religion is 'Get over it.'" People began asking her to write screenplays. She received Oscar nominations for "Silkwood," "When Harry Met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle." She became a brand name to filmgoers, creating pleasing new movies that feel comfortingly like old movies.
She has never had a moment's regret about going public with the lightly fictionalized details of her breakup. "There are many things I think I shouldn't have done. Really a lot. But that's not one of them."
Writing "Heartburn" "changed my life so completely that I have never known whether to be grateful to my ex-husband or to hold onto a little bit of irritation because it was not a kind thing that he did. If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have done this, and it's good I did this, you know?"
For Ephron, misfortunes are things to be survived, to be cannibalized for funny stories, occasionally to make money from.
Leaning against the wall of her white-on-white apartment's entryway is a fire-engine-red door with cartoonish folk paintings of dry goods dancing across it. It's a prop from one of her biggest box-office disappointments, "Mixed Nuts." A person prone to brood over failure would not keep such a memento. Maybe that's why she is still going strong while most directors flame out around 50.
Her next challenge involves coordinating the new divorce section of the Huffington Post, which was launched Monday. It is offering news on celebrity divorces, advice columns by lawyers, financial advisers and psychologists, and a forum for readers to discuss their own experiences.
Ephron professes to be a bit mystified about how she wound up with the responsibility. It sprang from her offhand suggestion to publisher Arianna Huffington. The next thing Ephron knew, she was named its founding editor and put in charge of the thing. She's eager to dig into the topic, though. "There's so much you don't know about a relationship until it breaks up," she said. "Even your own."
Ephron has established some familial boundaries in her endless quest for material. She hasn't written much about her sons by Bernstein, Jacob and Max, though "God help them" if she ever becomes a twice-a-week columnist. She is now two decades into her third marriage, to crime reporter/screenwriter/producer Nicholas Pileggi ("Goodfellas," "Casino," "American Gangster"). She has written about him, loosely, in "Julie & Julia," putting notes of his personality into Child's doting husband, Paul.
"There are pieces in the relationship between Paul and Julia that are Nick. Nick is just the most totally -- the word supportive makes it sound not as great as it is. He's like an army of 10,000. I really identified with the feeling of having a husband who thought you could do anything." Beyond that, she said, he is not copy.
"I don't think I would ever, ever write about my husband. As long as we're still together."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186