A lot has been written about Nora Ephron, much of it with her own pen. There was of course her semi-autobiographical 1983 novel “Heartburn,” about her marriage and divorce to Washington Post writer Carl Bernstein. Later, in essay collections such as “I Feel Bad About My Neck” (2008) and “I Remember Nothing” (2011), Ephron shared anecdotes — about her purse, her hair and other everyday crises — in a way that made her seem like she was a friend.
Now we have a book from someone who truly was a friend of Ephron, a man who dined and traveled with her and heard many an amusing anecdote that didn’t make it into an essay or a zippy line of film dialogue. Richard Cohen, a syndicated columnist for The Post, knew Ephron for decades, and in his new book, “She Made Me Laugh,” he pays tribute to Ephron, who died in 2012 at age 71. Ephron, he writes, was “my manager, my agent, my career counselor, my romantic adviser, my marital therapist.”
Ephron, Cohen writes, “had no trouble confronting people” and shares incidents he witnessed including the time she jumped out of a cab and confronted Secret Service agents who were diverting traffic to clear a D.C. street for a vice president’s limousine, and how, during a trip to Italy, she made an obscene gesture at a dozen waiters to show her dissatisfaction with a pizza she and Cohen had ordered at closing time. But Cohen also notes that “there was a softness to Nora, a sweetness, an endearing vulnerability that some friends occasionally saw and others just guessed at and that I knew to be there.” It was, he notes, something that came through in her films, particularly in the soundtracks of movies such as “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Critics sometimes mocked her for this sentimentality, “and she would be stung,” Cohen notes. “Her movies were authentic representatives of who she was.”
Cohen offers the nuanced perspective of a confidant. “She was a renowned cynic, adept at throwing a cloth napkin at the fool across the table who had not only said something wrong but insisted it wasn’t,” Cohen writes, and “she was urbane in a film noir sort of way, not a doll or a babe or anyone’s arm candy, but smart and wise to the ways of the world.” He also remembers Ephron through what his friendship with her revealed: her love of dinner parties, how she loved to cook for friends, the interest she took in the children of her friends and family members and the insecurities she had about her physical appearance.
He also writes about Ephron’s battle with cancer, how she kept her illness from most people even when she knew her life was almost at an end. Cohen still marvels that no matter how sick she was, she continued to write. “Nora worked because she was a writer and writing is not just something one does, but something one is. She worked, because to stop would have been like a death that precedes death.” Early in the book he writes: “For all her fame as a movie director, she remained a writer — a screenwriter, a playwright, an essayist, a feature writer, a newspaper reporter and a blogger. It was all about writing. It was what she could do, what she could always do.”
Carol Memmott also writes about books for the Chicago Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
By Richard Cohen
Simon & Schuster, 299 pp. $27