NEW YORK —
Nora Ephron, the essayist, author and filmmaker who challenged and thrived in the male-dominated worlds of movies and journalism and was loved, respected and feared for her wit, died on Tuesday of leukemia. She was 71.
Ephron’s son, Jacob Bernstein, confirmed her death. Her book publisher Alfred A. Knopf also confirmed it in a statement.
Born into a family of screenwriters, she was a top journalist in her 20s and 30s, then a best-selling author and successful director. Ephron was among the most quotable and influential writers of her generation. She wrote and directed such favorites as “Julie & Julia” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” and her books included the novel “Heartburn,” a brutal roman a clef about her marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein; and the popular essay collections “I Feel Bad About My Neck” and “I Remember Nothing.”
She was tough on others and relentless about herself. She wrote openly about her difficult childhood, her failed relationships, her doubts about her physical appearance and the hated intrusion of age.
“We all look good for our age. Except for our necks,” she wrote in the title piece from “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” published in 2006. “Oh, the necks. There are chicken necks. There are turkey gobbler necks. There are elephant necks. There are necks with wattles and necks with creases that are on the verge of becoming wattles. ... According to my dermatologist, the neck starts to go at 43 and that’s that.”
Even within the smart-talking axis of New York-Washington-Los Angeles, no one bettered Ephron, slender and dark-haired and armed with a killer smile. Friends from Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep to Calvin Trillin and Pete Hamill adored her for her wisdom, her loyalty and turns of phrase.
As a screenwriter, Ephron was nominated three times for Academy Awards, for “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally ...” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” and was the rare woman to write, direct and produce Hollywood movies. Meg Ryan was among the many actresses who said they loved working with Ephron because she understood them so much better than did her male peers.
The eldest of four children, Ephron was born in New York to screenwriters Harry and Phoebe Ephron, who moved to Beverly Hills, Calif., when she was 4 years old. Words, words, words were the air she breathed. Regular visitors included “Casablanca” co-writer Julius J. Epstein, “Sunset Boulevard” collaborator Charles Brackett, and the team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who worked on “The Thin Man” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Everyone was in movies, “the business.”
“People who were not in the business were known as civilians,” Ephron wrote in “I Remember Nothing.”
If the best humor is born out of sadness, then Ephron was destined for comedy. She was 15, she recalled, when her mother became an alcoholic, finishing off a bottle of scotch a night. Her father, too, was a heavy drinker, “sloppy, sentimental,” although “somehow his alcoholism was more benign.”
Determined by high school to be a journalist, Ephron graduated from the single-sex Wellesley College in 1962, moved to New York and started out as a “mail girl” and fact checker at Newsweek. A newspaper strike at the end of the year gave her a chance. Victor Navasky, the future editor of The Nation, was then running a satirical magazine called the Monacle. He was working on a parody of the New York Post, “The New York Pest,” and asked Ephron for a spoof of Post columnist Leonard Lyons.
She succeeded so well that the newspaper’s publisher, Dorothy Schiff, reasoned that anyone who could make fun of the Post could also write for it. Ephron was asked to try out as a reporter. Within a week, she had a permanent job and remained there five years.
Ephron began writing for Esquire and The New York Times and developed a national following as a throwback to the prime of Dorothy Parker and S.J. Perelman and a worthy peer of such “new” and hip journalists as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. She covered political conventions, the feminist movement and Wellesley, which she labeled a factory for “docile” women. Part of her gift was her fresh takes on such traditional subjects for women as food and fashion, like in the essay “The Food Establishment: Life in the Land of the Rising Souffle (Or Is It the Rising Meringue).”
Her screenwriting credits included “Heartburn,” the nuclear power drama “Silkwood” and the romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally ...” She twice directed the team of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” and also worked with John Travolta (in the fantasy “Michael”), Steve Martin (”Mixed Nuts”) and Nicole Kidman (”Bewitched”).