Ephron, Nora Louise

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EPHRON, Nora Louise

(b. 19 May 1941 in New York City), journalist, screenwriter, producer, and director, perhaps best known for her screenplay When Harry Met Sally (1989). She began her career as a reporter for the New York Post in 1963 and by the end of the 1960s had established herself as a social commentator on women, the feminist movement, and popular culture.

Ephron is the eldest daughter of Henry and Phoebe (Wolkind) Ephron, Hollywood writers who together and with others wrote plays for the stage and screen, most notably Daddy Long Legs (1955), Carousel (1956), and Desk Set (1957), in addition to producing films and directing stage plays. Along with her three sisters, Ephron was indoctrinated early by their mother, a Hunter College graduate and career woman, implicitly "that to be a housewife was to be nothing" and overtly to "take notes. Everything is copy." Ephron has stated that when "you grow up with your mother working … you pretty much know that you're going to." Ephron was student editor of the Beverly Hills High School newspaper and was filing sports and news items for publication in the Los Angeles Times during the late 1950s.

It is this early orientation to independence of thought and action that fostered Ephron's feminist sensibilities and the irreverence in her writing. As an adolescent her dream was to go to New York City and become another Dorothy Parker (a writer for the New Yorker), "the only woman at the table. The woman who made her living by her wit." Establishing her credentials as a journalist first and then as a writer on society, Ephron would say, "I care that there's a war in Indochina, and I demonstrate against it; that there's a women's liberation movement, and I demonstrate for it." In spite of these events, Ephron explained, she still went to the movies and had her hair done once a week. She observed, "Much of my life goes irreverently on, in spite of larger events." It is the irreverence of Ephron's chosen subject matter and commentary that makes her a quintessentially 1960s personality.

Ephron did her undergraduate work at Wellesley College (1958–1962). A political science major, she served as an intern in the office of the White House press secretary Pierre Salinger during the Kennedy administration. In her senior year she was associate editor of the Wellesley College News. On summer vacations she worked in New York City as a copygirl for the Columbia Broadcasting System and later in a similar position for Newsweek, where she was promoted to article clipper. After graduating she worked as a reporter for the New York Post (1963–1968). Discussing the early progress of her career, Ephron noted, "I didn't sell a magazine piece until I had been a reporter for about four years. The point is I worked up very slowly." On 9 April 1967 she married Dan Greenburg, himself a writer. She quit her job at the New York Post and began freelancing. During this period (1968–1972) Ephron contributed articles to such national magazines as Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Oui, McCall's, New York, and Esquire.

From the articles published in 1968 and 1969 she selected twelve that would become her first book, Wallflower at the Orgy (1970). In it she addresses such subjects as the food establishment ("Food became, for dinner-party conversations in the sixties, what abstract expressionism had been in the fifties"), Helen Gurley Brown, the Arthur Frommer budget travel books, and her own professional makeover. Her signature use of humor and her own experience in her writings—which have been described as acerbic, iconoclastic, brazen, and malicious by some and witty, irresistible, perceptive, and original by others—enabled Ephron to infuse her material with her personal ambivalences and biases while diffusing some of the tensions inherent in her subject matter.

Revealing her "hopelessly midcult nature," in Wall-flower at the Orgy, Ephron wrote about the menswear industry, the boon in publishing on the occult, and the merit of Jacqueline Susann's writing while the larger events of the decade played silently in the background. Ephron's interests, humanity, and critical intelligence were never overridden by politics. She would say of her approach to writing on the women's movement that "you could be very funny on the subject and be fundamentally serious about it." Giving weight to the lightness of her subjects, Ephron offered insight into then contemporary American culture, revealing its mores and biases by examining its mainstream.

In her interview with the fashion designer Bill Blass published in Wallflower at the Orgy, he stated that in the 1950s a menswear manufacturer told him that "there were two minority groups that doomed every fashion development—the homosexuals and the Negroes. Acceptance by these groups supposedly made fashion unacceptable to the rest of the population." It was the young, he pointed out, that began to set the trends in the 1960s. The boom and profit made on parapsychology in the publishing business, she speculated, were due to "people [being] unwilling to look within themselves for the source of their difficulties." In her assessment of Jacqueline Susann, she remarks on her own penchant for gossip columns and makes the impolitic statement there is a "streak of masochism in most women." Ephron's commentary is radical in a matter-of-fact way.

Wallflower at the Orgy was followed by Crazy Salad (1975), a selection of her writings from 1972 to 1974, during which time she progressed from freelance contributor to regular columnist and contributing editor for New York magazine and similarly progressed to senior editor at Esquire. Ephron would go on to change the focus of her columns in Esquire to the media, and from these columns she published Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media (1978). She divorced Greenburg in the early 1970s and married Carl Bernstein (14 April 1976), the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame, with whom she had two sons. Their divorce in 1979 is the subject of her first novel, Heartburn (1983). In 1987 she married the writer Nicholas Pileggi; they had two sons. She wrote and collaborated on the screenplays Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). At the turn of the twentieth century she was at work on a film script based on Larry McMurtry's novel Desert Rose (1983), which she planned to direct.

During the 1960s Ephron established herself as a journalist and as an irreverent and witty cultural commentator. In her social criticism during the decade, she simultaneously articulated and bolstered the spirit of questioning and self-exploration that were emblematic of the period.

Biographical essays on Ephron are in Current Biography Year-book (1990), Women Filmmakers and Their Films (1998), and Authors and Artists for Young Adults (2000). Ephron also was featured as Wellesley College Person of the Week (21 Aug. 2000).

Annmarie B. Singh

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