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. 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.
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 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.
© 2012 The New York Times