The Story Nora Ephron Refused to Tell

Posted on December 18, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Memorial
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Before her death, filmmaker Nora Ephron had one last important story to tell.  But, quite intentionally, she elected not to tell it.

Ephron, who passed away on June 26, 2012, at the age of 71, had been living with a death sentence diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia for more than six years.

Outside her immediate family and a few others, this writer whose material was often heavy on personal reveals, kept the illness to herself.

In Everything is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted, a documentary by Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, her lack of disclosure is explored.

“For decades, my mother put her private life front and center, writing about her feelings of physical inadequacy, the indignation of aging, and the break-up of her marriage to my father,” Bernstein says in Copy.  “But at the end of her life, she chose to stay silent about the blood disorder that killed her.  Why, after being so open about everything else, did she choose not to address the most significant crisis of her life?”

Ephron was a protean talent:  an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director, newspaper reporter, columnist, essayist, accomplished chef, and scintillating talk show guest, her resources seemed limitless.

She was also an early feminist hero — as The Los Angeles Times pointed out, Ephron’s toughness could be accompanied by a wink.  “The women’s movement may manage to clean up the mess in society, but I don’t know whether it can ever clean up the mess in our minds,” the Times quoted her as saying.

Raised in Beverly Hills, California by two screenwriters, Ephron was accustomed to viewing intimate family moments on film.

Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose credits included Carousel, Desk Set (with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy), and Captain Newman, MD, were comfortable using real life in their work.  For instance, Nora’s letters home during her college years at Wellesley became the basis for the 1961 Broadway comedy and 1963 film, Take Her, She’s Mine.

Alcoholism claimed Phoebe’s life at the age of 57 in 1971 — reportedly, on her deathbed, she told Nora to take notes for potential future use.

Years later, after Nora was well established, she said: “My religion is get over it.  And I was raised in that religion.  That was the religion of my home — my mother saying ‘Everything is copy, everything is material.  Someday you will think this is funny.’ My parents never said, ‘Oh you poor thing.  It was: work through it, get to the other side, turn into something.’ And it worked with me.”

The achievements Ephron left behind are a testament to that force:  films like Julie & Julia, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail.   Her screenplay When Harry Met Sally, although collaborative with the cast, is a letter-perfect blend of what words and construction translate best in movies.

Ephron is remembered as a romantic comedy writer with upbeat, feel good endings – this is a vast underestimation of her talents.

Screenplays Silkwood and Heartburn, both directed by Mike Nichols, are dark meditations – Silkwood was focused on the tragic true story of a whistleblower set in rural Oklahoma; Heartburn was based on her novel of the same name, a fictional and gritty account of Ephron’s divorce from Carl Bernstein, Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame.

Ephron’s collections of essays, blogs and plays further expose the emotional range of her writing.  Witty, informed, and, as her sister and writing partner, Deliah said, “ruthless…take-no-prisoners.”  Nora’s essay, The Making of Theodore H. White, wasn’t mean-spirited, it was mean.  Her omelets were made with more than a few cracked eggs.

In Losing Nora, Deliah Ephron evocatively described her sister’s silence about illness.  From a career viewpoint, Nora would not have been able to make her final, and perhaps best film, Julie & Julia.  Studios don’t make a habit of financing terminally ill directors.

Additionally, Delia suggested that Nora wouldn’t want the strain of her diagnosis to impinge upon the time she had left with friends — the shadow of death inevitably would alter those encounters.

Lastly, Delia wrote: “Telling is also a loss of control.  Of power… I am glad she didn’t tell, because one of the things I admired the most about her was her refusal to go down…to let people feel bad for her.”

Some of Nora’s best friends were disappointed with her decision.  They felt she did not afford them the opportunity to say goodbye.  Actually, Nora Ephron said her goodbye the way she thought best.

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