For a generation of women -- especially women who love books and movies, women who endlessly analyze relationships, women who've tried to balance work and motherhood, women who have spent great amounts of their lives on the phone with their female friends, women who've seen their marriages splinter on the harsh rocks of modern life -- the news of Nora Ephron's death tonight landed like a blow to the gut.
My reaction to a friend's email and a barrage of Twitter warnings was simply: No. And when I called my friend, writer Lauri Githens to tell her, I broke it to her gently: "Have you heard about Nora Ephron?" She answered, "Don't tell me this."
Why does it matter? Because she had a voice -- a writer's voice -- like no other. Because she helped us laugh at ourselves when crying made more sense. Because she was us, perhaps funnier, more high-flying, more urbane, but every bit as vulnerable.
"In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind," she wrote in an early column. Vintage Ephron.
For women journalists and writers, the identification was even more complete. She was everything we wanted to be. "Above all," she wrote, "be the heroine of your own life, not the victim."
In her early essays and columns, what came across was that undeniable gift of sounding exactly like herself and no one else at all times.
Her sharp opinions on media and culture packed a punch, as when she wrote in Esquire about feminism's excesses:
"I know that the pendulum has to swing a few degrees in the wrong direction before righting itself. But it does get wearing, sometimes, waiting for the center to catch hold."
If she had done nothing other than write those pieces, she would have made an unforgettable contribution. But then came her second and third incarnations -- as screenwriter and director.
For some odd reason, I moved "Heartburn," the movie version of Ephron's roman a clef about her disastrous marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, to the top of my Netflix queue last week. I can never tire of it, any more than I can get sick of "When Harry Met Sally," though I can practically recite the dialogue along with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. And that was just the beginning -- there was "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," "Michael," "Silkwood," and "Julie and Julia," to name just a few.
Ephron said she tried to "write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are." And she did just that. She touched men's lives, too, of course, and portrayed them with the humor and perceptiveness she brought to all of her work. The Billy Crystal character in "When Harry Met Sally" is a prime example, self-mocking with his "white man's overbite" dance, and looking for love in all the wrong places.
Everything she touched had that distinctive Ephron stamp of wit, urbanity, literate dialogue, and underneath it all, her understanding of the human heart: battered yet brave, stupidly hopeful against the odds.
She made us laugh. And now, I'm afraid, her death at age 71 is doing quite the opposite. But more than sadness, there is appreciation that she captured life so well and expressed it so perfectly. She took a sharp-eyed but wry look at herself and the world around her and spun it into writer's gold.
When Ephron's mother was on her deathbed, she famously told her daughter, "Take notes. Everything is copy."
Ephron took her seriously. And, looking over the marvelously original body of work she leaves behind, we should all be glad she did.
The photo is from the Associated Press.
An obituary from the Los Angeles Times provides details. And here is the New York Times obituary.