It was a friendship that began, indirectly, in the Washington Post newsroom. Cohen writes about how, when he started at The Post as a 27-year-old in 1968, his desk was next to that of Carl Bernstein, “who would introduce me to Nora Ephron, who would introduce me to the world that I would inhabit for the next forty years or so.”
The book is a fascinating look at Cohen and Ephron’s decades-long friendship — through marriages beginning and ending; illnesses; career successes and failures; and many dinners, trips and fabulous parties. Cohen writes about attending Bernstein and Ephron’s small wedding ceremony in 1976, and of being there for her after their marriage fell apart. “I loved Nora, and while I did not hate Carl, I hated what he had done,” Cohen writes. (Bernstein cheated on Ephron when she was seven months pregnant with their second child; she left him and wrote a novel, “Heartburn,” based on the experience, which also became a movie.)
The book is also sprinkled with juicy tidbits about Ephron’s movies and the real-life events they’re based on. Here are 10 behind-the-scenes details from some of her rom-coms, as told from Cohen’s perspective.
1. In real life, Ephron poured red wine on Bernstein’s head at a dinner at Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee’s home in 1980. As Cohen tells it, Ephron had found evidence that Bernstein was having an affair, confronted him about it and he admitted it. They then went to a dinner at the home of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn (then The Post’s executive editor and reporter, respectively). At dinner, conversation turned to a woman the Bradlees knew who was cheating on her husband. Quinn recalls: “I said that there was absolutely no way a spouse could be cheating and the other spouse not know about it.” Ephron asked for a bottle of red wine and proceeded to pour it over Bernstein’s head. “The wine ran down all over his clothes and he just sat there. He didn’t move. And she just kept pouring, glug, glug, glug. It was like slow motion. Nobody said a word,” Quinn notes. “Ben and I were staring at each other. Finally she finished emptying the bottle and put it down, and Carl was sitting there with his hair all down. It was this long silence, and finally Ben said, ‘Well, we all go through troubled times.’ One of them said, ‘I think we better go,’ and they got up and left.” In the book and movie versions of this scene in “Heartburn,” Rachel Samstat (played by Meryl Streep) uses a key lime pie instead.
2. Mandy Patinkin was cast as Mark, or the fictional Bernstein, in “Heartburn,” but was fired because he didn’t have enough chemistry with Meryl Streep. Patinkin was replaced with Jack Nicholson, which prompted another problem: Nicholson had already won Oscars for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Terms of Endearment” and therefore was a big star with an oversize ego to match. He was starting to command more of a presence than his character warranted and Streep had to step in to regulate, telling him: “This is about a person who got hit by a truck. It’s not about the truck.” Apparently, that did the trick.
3. Before filming began, Bernstein got a first look at the script for “Heartburn.” Cohen quotes from Bernstein and Ephron’s separation agreement, stating that, in their divorce, Bernstein wanted joint custody of their sons and to be portrayed in the movie “at all times as a caring, loving and conscientious father.” Which meant some changes had to be made to the film. By 1985, “after more than five years of often bitter and always expensive negotiations,” Cohen recalls, “Carl and Nora were finally divorced. Heartburn, more or less a work of fiction, was ready to shoot.”
4. Cohen is not and never has been Harry of “When Harry Met Sally.” Apparently this rumor exists, and Cohen would like to refute it once and for all. “I am not Harry,” Cohen writes. “I need to say that because for a time — and continuing past Nora’s death — it was sometimes rumored that the Harry character in When Harry Met Sally … was based on me.” Cohen makes clear that they never had an affair, but that they did love each other. He imagines her response to this rumor: “Richard, I love you, but not in that way. … Then we both laugh.”
5. However, it is true that Cohen and Quinn wrote a four-page movie treatment about a relationship that went from friendly to sexual. They presented it to Ephron at a lunch in Washington, Cohen writes. He says that Ephron did base Sally on Sally Quinn. Who didn’t have a hand in inspiring this film? “It is also true,” Cohen writes, “that the idea for the movie originated with Rob Reiner, who would wind up directing When Harry Met Sally …”
6. The famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the deli — Ephron didn’t write it. Rather, it was a team effort. Meg Ryan, who played Sally, suggested the orgasm imitation: “As written, the scene was limited to Sally merely saying that women fake orgasms and Harry expressing disbelief. Ryan had a better idea,” Cohen writes. “She felt that her character had to be funnier, but the humor had to be physical. ‘She doesn’t necessarily have punch lines in that script, but she’s behaviorally funny. It came out of understanding that,’ Ryan said.” Billy Crystal was the one who suggested the memorable line. In the movie, “I’ll have what she’s having,” was uttered by Estelle Reiner, Reiner’s mother. Cohen notes that, while the scene isn’t controversial now, it once was: Airlines used to edit the scene out of their in-flight showings, and some audiences did not understand it. “Nora reported on the phone to me that when the scene was shown to a Las Vegas convention of movie distributors, the men in the room did not react at all. They didn’t get it. The women, however, did,” he writes. “They laughed, and their laughter became infectious until, one by one, the men joined in.”
7. In early drafts of “Sleepless in Seattle,” Sam Baldwin was the one to call the radio therapist, not his son, Jonah. Cohen notes that David S. Ward, a writer who worked on the script with Ephron, made a key change: He had the kid call the radio station asking for relationship advice for his dad, instead of Sam (played by Tom Hanks) calling directly. “Ward recognized that the audience might feel that a man who calls a radio shrink is not a worthy hero,” Cohen writes. “Nora recognized that the change saved the script. She fought for Ward to get a writing credit. He did.”
8. Joe Fox, the love interest in “You’ve Got Mail,” is based on a boyfriend of Ephron’s by the same name. Ephron and Fox, a senior editor at Random House, dated after her marriage to Bernstein and before she married her third husband, Nick Pileggi. According to Cohen, Ephron had just had her thyroid gland removed and Fox, “a man of resolute, virtually metronomic habits,” took off to his weekend place even though she was still in the hospital. “That did it for her,” Cohen writes. “She ended the relationship, and they both seemed to suffer little afterward.”
9. Ephron was sick while filming “Julie & Julia,” but didn’t tell the crew. Throughout his book, Cohen writes about how Ephron, who died of the blood disorder myelodysplasia in 2012, kept her sickness a secret. She continued lunching with friends and colleagues, Cohen writes, and kept making movies and writing plays. She and her sister Delia even continued to work on scripts from the hospital. Cohen relays a story about how, while working on her last film, “Julie & Julia,” she said a goodbye of sorts to producer Lawrence Mark, telling him: “I just want you to know that I love that we’re getting to make this movie together. I love that you’re here and I love you.” It was a rare moment, Mark said, because “she never wore her emotions on her sleeve.” Ephron kissed him on the cheek, and they got back to work.