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Nora Ephron

May 19, 1941–June 26, 2012

by Tobin Belzer
Last updated June 23, 2021

Portrait of Nora Ephron from Crazy Salad, circa 1976.

In Brief

As a journalist, writer, and filmmaker, Nora Ephron used her provocative wit, biting sarcasm, and ability to make the mundane entertaining to write her way into the lives of millions. Heeding her mother’s advice that “everything is copy,” Ephron drew upon her own experiences – childhood dreams, observations about aging, and her two divorces – in her articles, books, and screenplays. In the satirical style of Dorothy Parker, she wrote about conventional topics – such as food, New York City, and gender relations – in an unconventional way. During her filmmaking career that spanned twenty-six years, Ephron wrote, directed, and/or produced 16 films. Her filmmaking typified the genre that became known as the rom-com. Ephron died on June 26, 2012, at the age of 71 from pneumonia caused by acute myeloid leukemia.

As a journalist, writer, and filmmaker, Nora Ephron used her provocative wit, biting sarcasm, and ability to make the mundane entertaining to write her way into the lives of millions. Heeding her mother’s advice that “everything is copy,” Ephron drew upon her own experiences – childhood dreams, observations about aging, and her two divorces – in her articles, books, and screenplays.

Early Life & Family

Born in New York City on May 19, 1941, to the playwriting and screenwriting team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Nora was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom became writers. Her education as a writer began early. The Ephrons relocated to Los Angeles when Nora was three years old, and she grew up immersed in the liberal Hollywood writing community. She fell in love with journalism as a student at Beverly Hills High School and went on to work as an editor of her college newspaper. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1962, having again heeded her mother’s advice to avoid sororities and organized religion.

Writing

After briefly working as a White House intern during the administration of John F. Kennedy, Ephron moved to New York City to pursue a career in journalism. She worked in the mailroom and then as a researcher at Newsweek magazine until she was hired as a reporter at the New York Post. She then served as a contributing editor and columnist at Esquire magazine, later working as senior editor and columnist until 1978. She was also a contributing editor at New York magazine from 1973 to 1974. In the satirical style of Dorothy Parker, she wrote about conventional topics – such as food, New York City, and gender relations – in an unconventional way. Ephron made a name for herself as a reporter and essayist by including her personal voice as part of the story in the style of New Journalism.

Ephron’s essays were published in six collections. Wallflower at the Orgy was published in 1970, followed by Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women in 1975. Ephron took on the press in her 1978 collection Scribble Scribble: Notes on the Media. I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, published in 2010 as a follow-up to her 2006 collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman, a New York Times bestseller.

Heartburn, Ephron’s only novel, chronicles the breakdown of her second marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, the father of her two sons, Jacob and Max. The 1983 best-selling novel was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1986. (Her first marriage to humorist Dan Greenburg ended amicably). She married her third husband Nicholas Pileggi on March 28, 1987, and they were married until her death.

Films & Plays

During her filmmaking career that spanned twenty-six years, Ephron wrote, directed, and/or produced 16 films. In 1983, she received an Academy Award nomination for her first screenplay, Silkwood, which she wrote with Alice Arlen. With her subsequent works, Ephron’s filmmaking typified the genre that became known as the rom-com. In 1990, she was awarded the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best screenplay for the romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally, which she also produced. The screenplay was also nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Writer’s Guild Award. With her 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle, which she both co-wrote and directed, Ephron earned her third Academy Award nomination for screenwriting. In 2009, she wrote and directed her last film, Julie & Julia.

Ephron was also a celebrated playwright. Her first produced play, Imaginary Friends, was named one of the ten best plays of the 2002–03 New York theatre season. With her sister Delia, Ephron was recognized with a 2010 Drama Desk Award for co-writing Love, Loss, and What I Wore. In 2013, Ephron received a posthumous Tony Award nomination for Best Play for Lucky Guy.

Jewish Identity

In her largely autobiographical fiction, Ephron drew upon her cultural Jewish identity, as she often wrote about Jewish characters. Yet Ephron was largely indifferent toward her own Jewish identity, despite her status as a pillar in the overlapping social worlds of Manhattan’s literary, political, and Jewish elites. She noted that being Jewish was never among the top five things she would say about herself. Ephron demonstrated her relationship with her Jewish identity one final time in her last collection of essays, which she ended with two lists reflecting on what she would and wouldn’t miss. Among the things she wouldn’t miss: Bar Mitzvahs. Among the things she would miss: The Christmas tree and bacon

Ephron died on June 26, 2012 at the age of 71 from pneumonia caused by acute myeloid leukemia. Despite her propensity for using her own life as creative fodder, she hid her battle with cancer from most people, including her closest friends and colleagues for several years. In 2016, her son Jacob Bernstein was moved to explore that uncharacteristic decision in a documentary about her life: Everything Is Copy - Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted.

See video clips of an interview with Nora Ephron from the MAKERS project

Selected Writings by Nora Ephron

Books

Wallflower at the Orgy (1970).

Crazy Salad: Some Things about Women (1975).

Scribble, Scribble: Notes on the Media (1978).

Heartburn (1983).

Nora Ephron Collected (1991).

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman (2006).

I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (2010).

The Most of Nora Ephron (2013).

Screenplays

Silkwood, with Alice Arlen (1983).

Heartburn (1986).

Cookie, with Alice Arlen (1989).

When Harry Met Sally (1989).

My Blue Heaven (1990).

This Is My Life, with Delia Ephron (1992).

Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

Mixed Nuts (1994).

Michael (1996).

You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Hanging Up (2000).

Bewitched (2005).

Julie & Julia (2009).

Plays

Imaginary Friends (2003).

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, with Delia Ephron (2008).

Lucky Guy (2013).

Bibliography

Bergan, Ronald. “Nora Ephron obituary.” TheGuardian.com https://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jun/27/nora-ephron (accessed July 22, 2019).

Belkin, Lisa. “Nora Ephron’s Lists Of What She Will Miss And What She Won’t.” HuffPost.com. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/nora-ephrons-lists-of-wha_n_1631633 (accessed July 22, 2019).

Bernstein, Adam. “Nora Ephron, prolific author and screenwriter, dies at age 71.” WashingtonPost.Com. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/nora-ephron-prolific-author-and-screenwriter-dies-at-age-71/2012/06/26/gJQAMOtN5V_story.html?utm_term=.6bd856419dff (accessed July 22, 2019).

Bottomly, H. Kim. “Wellesley Remembers Nora Ephron ’62.” Wellesley.edu. https://www.wellesley.edu/news/stories/node/27088 (accessed July 22, 2019).

Chi, Paul. “How Would Nora Ephron Describe Her Son’s Documentary About Her? “It’s Almost Good.” VanityFair.com. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/03/nora-ephron-everything-is-copy-documentary (accessed July 22, 2019).

Cohen, Richard. She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.

Collins, Gail. “The Best Mailgirl Ever.” NYTimes.com. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/opinion/nora-ephron-the-best-mailgirl-ever.html (accessed July 22, 2019).

Dance, Liz. Nora Ephron: Everything Is Copy. North Carolina: McFarland, 2015.

Garber, Megan. “Nora Ephron: Prophet of Privacy.” TheAtlantic.com.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/nora-ephron-prophet-of-privacy/475011/ (accessed July 22, 2019).

Purdum, Todd. “In Memoriam: A Walk in The Park.” VanityFair.com.

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2012/06/nora-ephron-remembered-dinner-companion (accessed July 22, 2019).

Pogrebin, Abigail. “Warm and ‘Utterly Jewish,’ Nora Ephron Left Us Way Too Soon.” Forward.com. https://forward.com/news/158497/warm-and-utterly-jewish-nora-ephron-left-us-way-to/ (accessed July 22, 2019).

Quinn, Sally. “Sally Quinn shares memories of her friendship with Nora Ephron.” WashingtonPost.Com. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/being-noras-friend-was-relaxing-really/2012/06/27/gJQA8CLI7V_story.html?utm_term=.9d6f87d9a96a (accessed July 22, 2019).

McGrath, Charles. “Nora Ephron Dies at 71; Writer and Filmmaker With a Genius for Humor.” NYTimes.com https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/27/movies/nora-ephron-essayist-screenwriter-and-director-dies-at-71.html?pagewanted=all (accessed July 22, 2019).

Sherr, Lynn. “Lynn Sherr Remembers College Friend Nora Ephron.” TheDailyBeast.com. https://www.thedailybeast.com/lynn-sherr-remembers-college-friend-nora-ephron (accessed July 22, 2019).

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How to cite this page

Belzer, Tobin. "Nora Ephron." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 2, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ephron-nora>.