Sally Quinn shares memories of her friendship with Nora Ephron

June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron was always The Director, whether she was on set or not.

“You certainly are not putting bidets in your bathroom,” Nora said to me. “Nobody actually uses bidets. They’re just for show.”

We had just bought a house in East Hampton, and I was renovating; Nora would soon own the house across the street. She and her husband, Nick Pileggi, were there all summer, so she had the place scoped out before I arrived. It would be dinner parties and babies’ birthday celebrations and poker nights and charades and antiquing and movie screenings and clambakes.

And she always told us what to do. Nora would find the perfect thing to eat or drink or root for, and we would all follow suit. One summer, it was champagne grapes. Another year, it was Campari and blood-orange juice. Another, it was tres leches shipped in ice from an Austin restaurant. It was relaxing, really.

We’re going to Howard and Jennifer’s tonight, she would announce. Sounds good to me. On Saturday night, Ken and Binky are having people over. It’s on my calendar. Here’s who you should invite to Ben’s birthday party. Great guest list. And then she would map out the seating arrangements: Nora dissecting Hamptons society was one of the great anthropological events each year.

Nora and I met at George Plimpton’s Fourth of July fireworks party in Amagansett. It was love at first sight. We were in our 20s then. I remember seeing her across the room, and we moved toward each other. We began talking and hardly spoke to anyone else all night. The now-defunct Spy magazine used to write about how we were never going to last. But last we did.

She was writing for the New York Post when we met, and married to humorist Dan Greenburg. Nora had a lavender apartment and cats. Lavender and cats! I had never liked either one — who knew they were going to be the next hot things? I learned quickly that Nora was always in front of the wave. Even then, she was often cooking. Everything she prepared was a masterpiece, something none of us had ever eaten that turned out to be the most delicious thing we had ever put in our mouths. Nora directed her dinner parties as though they were movies.

Soon after, she began writing her books — “Wallflower at the Orgy” and “Scribble Scribble,” collections of her columns that took New York by storm. She became an editor and writer at Esquire, writing talked-about essays, among them a well-known piece about her breasts. Watergate brought us closer. She and Greenburg had divorced, and she and Carl Bernstein had gotten together about the same time my husband, Ben Bradlee, and I did. (She later would become godmother to our son, Quinn.) Nora moved to Washington, but she was a New York girl all the way; the minute she and Carl split up, she moved back to New York.

Divorced with two babies, she wrote the best-selling book “Heartburn” about the end of her second marriage, then turned it into a script. The movie, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep, put Nora on the map as a screenwriter, and she went on to write many more films, including “When Harry Met Sally,” “Silkwood” and “Julie and Julia.” Nora was not openly sentimental, except in her movies. If you want to know what she was really like, just look at the fairy-tale happy endings in her romantic comedies. Yes, she was sharp and clever and witty and brilliant. But that was a total cover for the hopelessly sentimental person she was.

People thought Nora was the strong one, but it was really Nick. He was her rock. In the old days, Nora wrote famously about her shrinks, Mildred and Bernie, and how her group therapy session was robbed. But after she met Nick, she stopped seeing shrinks. And she had never really believed in God. “You don’t need a shrink or even God,” I once joked, “you’ve got Nick.” Her sons — Jacob, a reporter at the Daily Beast, and Max, a rock musician — were the delight of her life. Nora hardly ever bragged, but she couldn’t help it with Jacob and Max.

I knew she had been sick for several years, but she wouldn’t talk about it. She hated whining and complaining: Only her closest friends had seen her break down, and then almost never. Even facing death, she didn’t want anyone to know. She had written two bestsellers, “I Feel Bad About My Neck” and “I Remember Nothing,” since she learned of her illness. Although they were ostensibly about aging — and, on the surface, very funny — I felt that there was a deep sadness in them, a longing.

Last Christmas, we had a wonderful lunch. Not so much gossiping, as we were wont to do, but reflecting. As we left the restaurant, we hugged goodbye. “I wish we saw more of each other,” I said wistfully. “I know,” she said, “I feel like there’s a hole in my heart.” I smiled knowingly. She turned to walk away, as did I. Then I turned back to look at her again, and she had done the same. That was the last time I saw her.

Now I’m the one with a hole in my heart. And it will always be there.

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