Acclaimed filmmaker and essayist Nora Ephron, who almost singlehandedly defined the romantic comedy genre of the 1980s and 1990s, died on June 26 of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.
Born in New York and raised in Beverly Hills, Ephron was the daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, who wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Desk Set.” Though life at home was often difficult — her father was in and out of mental hospitals and her mother was an alcoholic — writing became the family business. Nora and her sisters, Delia and Amy, all grew up to become screenwriters while her sister Hallie became a journalist and novelist.
After graduating from Wellesley College and working briefly as an intern in the Kennedy White House, Ephron moved back to New York City. There she toiled in the mail room at Newsweek, launched a satirical newspaper and became a reporter for the New York Post. Over the next four decades, Ephron would pen essays for numerous publications — including Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The Huffington Post — and develop a reputation as one of America’s best known humorists.
Ephron began working on screenplays in the 1970s after penning a rewrite of William Goldman’s script for “All the President’s Men.” Although her version was not used in the final film, the experience gave her the opportunity to begin writing for the big screen. Concerned that Hollywood wasn’t ready for films by or about women, however, Ephron decided to try her hand at directing as well. Her directorial debut was “This Is My Life,” co-written with her sister Delia, and starring Julie Kavner as a single mom who wants to become a stand-up comedian.
Ephron’s stories featured strong female characters, realistic heroes and a charming blend of humor and romance. Her tales of happily ever after were often scorned by critics, but they found a devoted audience of female moviegoers who were always eager to see the latest Ephron “chick flick.”
In 2008, “When Harry Met Sally…,” which Ephron wrote, was ranked #6 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 10 greatest films in the romantic comedy genre. “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” both penned and directed by Ephron and starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, became blockbusters at the box office, prompting studio execs to begin greenlighting more movies for and by women.
Hollywood also honored her creative achievements with three Academy Award nominations for screenwriting (“Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally…” and “Sleepless In Seattle”). Ephron’s most recent film, “Julie & Julia,” based on the life of Julia Child and a New York-based blogger who aimed to emulate her, garnered Ephron more than a dozen award nominations and earned Meryl Streep a Golden Globe for best performance by an actress.
When she wasn’t toiling on a script or a directing a film, Ephron also wrote several plays and essay collections, including “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which topped The New York Times bestseller list. In her final years, she continued to publish essays on a variety of subjects, from aging and feminism to politics and food.
“You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” Ephron told NPR in 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
Ephron wed three times. Her first marriage to novelist Dan Greenburg ended in divorce. Her second marriage to investigative journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame also ended in divorce after she learned he had cheated on her with a mutual friend. That experience inspired her to write the 1983 novel “Heartburn,” which was later adapted into a feature film starring Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Ephron is survived by her third husband, novelist/screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, with whom she was married for more than two decades, and two sons, Jacob and Max. As she noted in her six-word biography that was published in “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous and Obscure” edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser: “Secret to Life, Marry an Italian.”
In her 2010 collection “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections,” Ephron dedicated an entire chapter to the things she’ll miss after she dies. The top 5 were: “My kids, Nick, Spring, Fall, Waffles.”
(Photo by Charles Eshelman/Getty Images for AOL. Used with permission.)
–This obituary previously appeared in The Huffington Post