Journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote with intelligence, unfailing humor

Nora Ephron made having it all look easy.

Ephron, who died Tuesday at age 71 as a result of leukemia, was a journalist, novelist, humorist, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, playwright, director. It's a resume few of us could match. Yet Ephron was also a happily married wife (third time lucky), devoted mother, obsessive cook and a woman who, despite her lifelong feminism, wrote at hilarious length in her 2006 bestseller I Feel Bad About My Neck about her epic acts of vanity in the face of aging: "My hair-dying habit ... costs more per year than my first automobile."

Most people know her for the movies she wrote and in some cases directed, and rightly so. No modern screenwriter is better at romantic comedies — pretty much all the rom-coms that pass forgettably through theaters these days are pale imitations of Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally. One of my first thoughts on hearing of her death was a line she wrote for Billy Crystal in that last film: "I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I'll know how it turned out." (I hope she'd just read the last page of a good one.)

But to me Ephron was always foremost a journalist and essayist. I met her a couple of years ago at a party thrown by her publisher. She looked a bit frail — she was already ill, although she kept that very private — but was warm and witty. (And, of course, her hair was perfect.) Having been a fan of her work since the 1970s, I was so thrilled I sounded like an idiot; I think I said something like "Crazy Salad changed my life," and she said something funny and gracious, then circulated.

But it did. A collection of columns about women that she wrote for Esquire in the 1970s, Crazy Salad made me want to be a journalist. Writing about feminism and about relationships between men and women at a time when those were grim battleground subjects, Ephron brought to them a distinctive voice that combined intelligence, sharp observation, self-deprecation and unfailing humor.

A lot of the obituaries of Ephron compare her with Dorothy Parker. That's apt in many ways, but Parker, beneath her delicious wit, was a dark, dark soul; Ephron always had lightness and warmth. She could be biting but was never bitter. She could, it seems, turn anything into at least a rueful laugh — notably her nasty divorce from second husband Carl Bernstein, which became her 1983 novel Heartburn and in turn her first screenplay.

Ephron's parents were successful screenwriters, too, and she said that some of her mother's best advice to her was "Take notes. Everything is copy." That instinct to observe enriched everything she did, but especially her reporting, which may have been her first and best love. The evidence: The finest piece in her last book, I Remember Nothing, published in 2010, is the wonderful account of her days as a young reporter, "Journalism: A Love Story."

When she died, Ephron was working on several movies and a play. So the best farewell would be to enjoy her work. Watch the movies again (and if you haven't seen them, wise up). Head to Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, where Love, Loss, and What I Wore, a play she wrote with her sister Delia Ephron, is running in repertory through July 15.

Or get a copy of Crazy Salad and read the first essay, "A Few Words About Breasts." Ephron begins with her own comic teenage angst over late-arriving breasts and expands into a laugh-out-loud funny and quietly wise look at women's complex feelings about their bodies. First published in 1972, it's so fresh and real it reads like it could have been written last week.

On one hand, that's a reminder of how little some things have changed in 40 years. On the other, it's a great example of how good Ephron was at making us think while making us laugh.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Journalist and screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote with intelligence, unfailing humor

06/27/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 11:01pm]

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