The news of writer Nora Ephron’s illness, and subsequent death, arrived in a way that Ephron would have truly appreciated.
On Tuesday afternoon, her good friend, gossip columnist Liz Smith, prematurely posted an obituary about Ephron on the website Women on the Web.
Those close to Ephron soon reported – and tweeted – that she was suffering from cancer or leukemia. One friend, Margo Howard, who is also an advice columnist at Women on the Web, tweeted, “A very accomplished writer died. Nora Ephon, from cancer.”
She then tweeted a few seconds later, “Well, to those of you who can't find the news of Nora Ephron's death, the funeral is Thursday — and maybe that’s the way she wanted it.”
But was she dead?
Ephron’s publisher Knopf released a statement that stated that she wasn’t dead but rather critically ill. Then, the bad news. Indeed, Ephron, 71, had died from pneumonia, a complication of acute myeloid leukemia.
The 21st century mix-up could have worked as humorous source material in one of Ephron’s entertaining movie scripts.
Ephron wrote, co-wrote, produced and/or directed some of the best-loved romantic comedies of the last 30 years, including “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” The latter, while not as great as the first two, used email as a love connection hook betweenthe characters played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
What writing student hasn’t wanted to be Nora Ephron?
Witty, funny and, yes, brilliant, Ephron had talent in the genes from the get-go. Her parents were both screenwriters. Two of her sisters, Delia and Amy, are also screenwriters. Another sister, Hallie, is a journalist and an author.
Like many writers, Ephron was attracted to other writers. Her first marriage was to Dan Greenburg, a writer. Her second marriage was to, yes, a journalist – the famed Carl Bernstein of Watergate notoriety, who worked for The Washington Post. She had two children with Bernstein, Jacob and Max. (Jacob inherited the writing bug and writes for Newsweek/ Daily Beast. Max is a musician.)
She helped, according to political journalism lore, rewrite the screenplay to “All The President’s Men.” In the end, that script wasn’t used but it put Ephron onto her screenwriting path.
Like romantic comedies, real life is sometimes far from orderly. Her marriage to Bernstein ended on a sour note. Like writers often do, she took a page from real life and turned it into a novel, “Heartburn,” that became the 1986 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. (She remarried a third time in 1987 to Nicholas Pileggi, a playwright and author.)
It was Ephron's quotable screenplay “When Harry Met Sally” that became her biggest success in 1989. With Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in starring roles, Ephron captured a moment in relationships for an entire generation. Fake orgasms, wagon wheel coffee tables and dog scenarios inevitably still come up at dinner parties when the discussion turns to dating.
Ephron could have probably settled into writing romantic comedies forever. She was, after all, nominated for three Academy Awards and won many other prestigious awards. But she stretched her boundaries. She wrote for the stage. She authored a collection of essays. She blogged. She did what writers are supposed to do: She wrote.
In Liz Smith’s obituary, or memorial (whatever you call these things these days on the Internet), Smith quoted a letter that Ephron wrote to her: “Came home (from Claudia Cohen’s funeral where you, Liz, say you want nothing like it). Told Nick to make sure when I died there was a funeral and not a memorial service. Please remind him. This is the real effect of all these funerals. They give us ideas for our own. I want a big deal, and I want everyone to be basket cases.”
How lovely. It sounds like the opening of an Ephron movie.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker