(New York Times) In “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan asks Tom Hanks why it is that men quote “The Godfather” all the time. Tom Hanks explains that “The Godfather” is the I Ching. “ ‘The Godfather’ is the sum of all wisdom,” he says. “ ‘The Godfather’ is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation? ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli.’ ”
That’s what “The Godfather” is for men. For women, Nora Ephron is the I Ching, the sum of all wisdom. And wit. And what to eat. Basically, anything worth saying about love, loss and, yes, what I wore, was said by Nora somewhere, be it “Heartburn,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Julie & Julia” and every blog, book and recipe she ever published.
So it was more than perfect that Nora married Nicholas Pileggi in 1987 and they lived so happily ever after. Theirs is an implausible yin-yang matchup — Nick, the author of “Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas,” is a Mafia movie; Nora is a romantic comedy. Together they lived up to every lush movie score and snappy line that Hollywood could devise, more glamorous than even the he-and-she of “The Thin Man.” Nora understood the need for a twist, so of course in their partnership, Nick, the Calabrian who hung out with made men, capos and squealers, was the softie; Nora, a Wellesley graduate in an apron and capri pants, was the killer.
They were both veterans of previous marriages, and her second, to Carl Bernstein, was a doozy (“Heartburn”). Their midlife courtship was love at last sight: the triumph of experience over hope.
And happiness, even more than journalism, screenwriting, directing, cooking, blogging, was Nora’s gift to her fans and to her friends. In 1986, when a Newsweek cover put a metaphorical bullet through the single career women over 40, she refuted all by herself the fear that powerful women repel men, that funny girls go home to their cats, that having it all means enjoying it alone.
Nora was powerful. She made Hollywood moguls buckle. She was ambitious, and early on wrote that she wished she could be Barbara Walters. She was competitive, as anyone who played her in Scrabble or the parlor game Mafia can attest. (The rules are hard to explain, but involve psyching out the loser.)
And she had a brilliant career, actually several at once, and took risks in all of them. She had two sons and true love. She was a feminist who despised self-pity and self-importance. There are many bad things about losing her, but one of them isn’t that she died before having a chance to set the world straight about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay on not having it all in The Atlantic Monthly. Nora did it in 1996, in a Wellesley commencement address that was, of course, surprising, hilarious and dead-on: “Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
Most of all, Nora was happy. It made her generous, with her friends, with collaborators who needed a screen credit, with younger writers looking for a break — or a party invitation — and even with hairdressers. She invited the two young Russian stylists who blew out her hair to the premiere of “You’ve Got Mail.” She let her friends — and their kids — be extras in her movies. And then took them to dinner at Balthazar during breaks.
It’s hard to be funny without malice, and discontent is so often the flint for humor. Nora turned dross to gold and didn’t hold on to rancor. She suffered fools. That fundamental good humor was a high octane fuel that let her produce five times as much as anyone else and still find the time — effortlessly — to host a dinner, show up at a protégé’s book party, or make a photo album to celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday. She not only showed up at a last-minute Super Bowl party, she brought a huge block of chopped liver she had molded into the shape of a football — with ketchup lacing.
A lot of female writers are famous for not having happy endings — besides Virginia Woolf. Nora admired and wrote a play about Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman, two writers famous for fighting each other in old age, and also for fiery love affairs that didn’t last. (Though Mary McCarthy did apparently find happiness with her last husband, James R. West, a diplomat).
A lot of women write humor pieces now. Almost everyone writes a blog. Some of the memoirists are shrewd and funny about themselves. Nora wrote about herself but she was shrewd and funny about the world.
She drew lessons not just from her own life but those around her. Literally. I was a fan long before I became a friend, and it took a while to know what “everything is copy” really meant. I laughed out loud the first time I read in “Heartburn” that the character Mark refers to his ex-wife as “The first Jewish Kimberly.” It was 10 years before I realized that one of Nora’s great friends, the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, had been married briefly to a Kimberly and came up with the line.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that it finally clicked that the reason Ken Auletta and Amanda (Binky) Urban have a huge, unwieldy wagon wheel coffee table in their Bridgehampton house is that one of their early fights about it inspired a scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” As Binky said: “What could I do? Once she put it in the movie, I couldn’t throw it out.”
“My Blue Heaven” was a 1990 movie Nora wrote that starred Steve Martin as a Mafioso under witness protection; it didn’t occur to me then that Nick was the inspiration — Nick, who not only wrote about the mob turncoat Henry Hill, but also took Hill’s phone calls from undisclosed F.B.I. locations and even lent him money. And it’s likely that plenty of memorable Nora Ephron lines were first uttered by her husband. One story Nora’s son Jacob tells is that Nora was dating the serial bachelor Mort Zuckerman when Nick, who always liked her, asked a mutual friend if she was single. “She’s dating Mort Zuckerman,” he was told. “Oh, in that case, I’ll call her in a few weeks,” Nick said. He did call, and kept calling. And that brings things back to Nick and Nora.
Nora didn’t just invent love stories. She lived one.