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Nora Ephron dies at 71; writer of sharp-edged romances

An author and the screenwriter of the smart, romantic comedies 'Sleepless in Seattle' and 'When Harry Met Sally,' Nora Ephron drew upon her marriage to Carl Bernstein for the novel 'Heartburn.'

June 26, 2012|By John Horn and Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • A rare author and screenwriter whose works appealed to highbrow readers and mainstream moviegoers, Nora Ephron wrote fiction that was distinguished by characters who seemed simultaneously normal and extraordinary.
A rare author and screenwriter whose works appealed to highbrow readers… (Charles Sykes / Associated…)

This article has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Nora Ephron, who cast an acerbic eye on relationships, metropolitan living and aging in essays, books, plays and hit movies including "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally..." and "Julie & Julia," died Tuesday in New York. She was 71.

Ephron died at New York Presbyterian Hospital, where she was being treated for acute myeloid leukemia and pneumonia, said her close friend and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

A rare author and screenwriter whose works appealed to highbrow readers and mainstream moviegoers, Ephron wrote fiction that was distinguished by characters who seemed simultaneously normal and extraordinary. Like many people, they wrestled with commitment, principles and fame, but often exhibited keen, comic insights about their predicaments.

PHOTOS: Nora Ephron | 1941-2012

Her protagonists, who included the chef Julia Child and the whistle-blower Karen Silkwood, were often women and typically were just as capable as the men around them, if not more so.

Ephron directed eight feature films, including "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" (both featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) and had screenplay credits on more than a dozen productions. She earned three Oscar nominations — for writing "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally..." and "Silkwood." As a playwright, she wrote "Imaginary Friends" and, with her sister Delia, "Love, Loss, and What I Wore."

Ephron also wrote extensively about her own life, often in a sly, self-deprecating style. Her books included "I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," "I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections," "Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women," "Wallflower at the Orgy" and "Heartburn," a roman à clef about her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. The 1983 novel was so withering in its depiction of her former husband (the loosely fictionalized book character was "capable of having sex with a Venetian blind") that Bernstein threatened legal action.

Even though she wrote strong female characters and said male filmmakers had little interest in women besides "girlfriends or wives," Ephron's brand of feminism was winking rather than strident. At a Hollywood awards event several years ago, she looked about the room and said, "When they write the history of the feminist struggle in America, I always wonder how this lunch will exactly fit in. We are definitely the best-dressed oppressed group."

In a business that seems to have little room for women past middle age, Ephron continued to work steadily. "Julie & Julia," a film biography of chef Julia Child told through the eyes of a young admirer, was released when she was 68. Adapted from Child's autobiography and a cooking memoir by Julie Powell, the film was the best-reviewed of her career, and took in nearly $95 million at the U.S. box office. At the time of her death, she was writing and hoped to direct a movie about a Jane Austen fan who switches places with one of the British author's fictional characters. She also had been developing a movie about the singer Peggy Lee and the play "Lucky Guy" about crime reporter Mike McAlary for frequent collaborator Hanks.

Yet she did not ignore her own mortality.

"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," she wrote in "I Remember Nothing," published in late 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 was born May 19, 1941, in New York City and grew up in Beverly Hills, the oldest child in a family of writers. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, wrote screenplays, and based Sandra Dee's college girl character in the 1963 comedy "Take Her, She's Mine" on Nora's letters home from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Ephron's sisters Delia and Amy are also screenwriters, while sister Hallie is a journalist.

After graduating in 1962, Ephron worked for a short time as an intern in the White House during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. She said she was "probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the president did not make a pass at." She then pursued a career as a journalist, starting as a mail clerk at Newsweek, then as a reporter at the New York Post.

In 1968, she left the Post, eventually writing monthly columns in the 1970s for Esquire and New York magazines. She promptly established a sharp and witty voice as a writer. In a 1972 essay called "A Few Words About Breasts," Ephron wrote, "If I had them, I would have been a completely different person."

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