I'll Have What She Had

Article excerpt

Byline: James Atlas

It was a life lived to the hilt. Nora Ephron: writer, filmmaker, maven, wit. She was one of a kind.

It came out of nowhere.

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, June 26, the first reports began to circulate on the Internet. "Nora Ephron is gravely ill," reported New York magazine, "and is not expected to live through the night"--"which we know," it added in a caustic detail Ephron would have appreciated, "because Liz Smith pre-published her obituary," on wowOwow. At 5:09, still two hours premature, a new bulletin was issued: "Nora has died. She was 71." Within minutes, the ether was flooded with tweets, tumblr dispatches, Facebook entries, blogs. Soon would follow list upon list of "Favorite Nora Ephron Quotes" and "Most Memorable Movie Scenes" (Meg Ryan's canonical faked orgasm in When Harry Met Sally invariably at the top). The next day's front-page obituary in The New York Times, accompanied by a large color photograph, was "above the fold"--a subtle but significant distinction she would have appreciated.

Ephron once expressed her wish for her funeral: "I want everyone to be a basket case." They were. "I loved her to pieces, but I was too close to her to see how big she was," said The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, one of Ephron's closest friends (there were many "closest friends," but he really was one) for almost 40 years. "I've been getting emails from people who didn't even know her, but knew that I was a friend." Marie Brenner, another friend "from the beginning"--the early '70s, when legions of America's most talented young writers converged on New York--overheard a young woman walking down Lexington Avenue say on her cellphone: "I feel so terrible, and I didn't even know her."

The best way to handle this would have been just to deal. "I got the news very late," said Meryl Streep, who appeared in three of Ephron's films. "I started to clean and make dinner. There are female activities that make things OK--'and now the next minute you'll do this and everyone has to eat--and that's how you get through the day.'" Parsing a major theme in Ephron's life, she added: "That's what recipes were to Nora."

At this point, Ephron might have said, "Do you really believe"--a trademark challenge--"I'm that important? It's very, very sad that I'm dead, but it's not some earth-shattering event." And she would have been turned off by the "Nora and me" anecdotes pouring onto the Internet from anyone who ever had the tiniest cameo role in her life--like Elizabeth Wurtzel, who scanned and posted a letter Ephron had written her declining to supply a blurb for Prozac Nation (though the rest of us should be secretly glad because it's funny): "I don't give quotes, took myself out of the quote business years ago when my veterinarian wrote a book and asked for a quote." Then the generous deflection of her own barb: "Not to link you with my vet."

And yet Ephron's death was some earth-shattering event. It was more than just a death (which is enough of a problem as it is). She was so many things to so many people in so many worlds: a screenwriter, journalist, playwright, novelist, director, mother, "food person"; and, perhaps more than any of these, friend. At the memorial service for Alice Trillin, along with her husband, the writer Calvin Trillin, another (genuine) closest friend, Ephron described Trillin's numerous mourners as "anyone she loved, or liked, or knew, or didn't quite know but knew somebody who did, or didn't know from a hole in the wall but had just gotten a telephone call from because they'd found the number in the telephone book." Ephron's own phone number was in the Manhattan phone book; she might have been the most famous person to be listed since W.H. Auden.

That virtually no one in her circle was even aware she had been ill for six years made the whole thing worse. Only her husband, Nicholas Pileggi, screenwriter and author of Wiseguy (the basis for the movie Goodfellas); her two sons, Max and Jacob (a contributor to Newsweek and The Daily Beast); and a handful of, yes, close friends, knew that six years earlier she had been diagnosed with "a rare auto-immune disease. …