Phoebe Ephron was a full-time professional playwright and screenwriter, and was also the mother of four daughters, all of whom became professional writers. Phoebe Ephron attended Hunter College before meeting her future husband and collaborator, Henry Ephron, in 1933. The pair co-wrote many Broadway plays and Hollywood movies together, including There’s No Business Like Show Business, and Desk Set (starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). Ephron modeled the life of a career woman for her daughters, hiring a cook and a nanny to help raise Nora, Delia, Amy, and Hattie so she could focus on her writing. She often incorporated personal details in her writing—the Ephrons’ first play in 1943, Three’s a Family, was based on their experiences raising Nora. She advised her daughters to remember that “the tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.”
Early Life and Hollywood Success
Phoebe (Wolkind) Ephron was born in the Bronx on January 26, 1914, to Louis Wolkind, a manufacturer, and Kate (Lautkin) Wolkind. She had one brother, Harold Wolkind. A graduate of James Monroe High School and Hunter College, she met Henry Ephron in 1933, while both were summer camp counselors. Shortly after, Henry Ephron proposed to her. “I expect to be a good playwright soon and I have no time for courtship,” he declared. “Let me read one of your plays,” replied his future wife. For nearly forty years, Phoebe and Henry Ephron were literary collaborators, cowriting successful Broadway plays and Hollywood films, and had four daughters, Nora, Delia, Amy, and Hallie. Their first play, Three’s a Family (1943), was based on the experiences raising their firstborn, Nora Ephron. Soon after, they moved to Los Angeles and cowrote the scripts for many major motion pictures, including There’s No Business Like Show Business, Carousel, and Captain Newman, M.D., which was nominated for an Academy Award. Desk Set, the 1957 movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, secured their screenwriting success.
Approach to Family Life
A proud career woman, Phoebe Ephron disliked being portrayed as a housewife and mother who wrote plays in her spare time. “We have a cook for the cooking and a nurse for the children. I’ve been a full-time screenwriter and I put in a full day at the office.”
Even at the dinner table, the Ephrons were busy collecting potential screen dialogue. Similar to the legendary Algonquin Round Table, their dinner table was enlivened by clever witticisms, which undoubtedly helped three of the four daughters to pursue careers in literary humor.
Ephron’s influence on her daughters’ lives, however, had its less light moments. Delia, the second born, observed that her mother was “powerful and opinionated,” controlling the lives of her daughters, including choosing their courses in high school. She also expected her children to avoid sororities and organized religion.
Still, a refreshing lightness persisted. For example, while looking out over the Paramount Studio set for The Ten Commandments, Ephron wrote to one of her daughters that the Red Sea was made of blue Jell-O. “Never marry a man with fat ankles,” she advised her children, “and always be successful enough to pay for your own psychoanalysis.” In the screenplay for This Is My Life, Delia and Nora Ephron wrote about Dottie Ingel—a character loosely based on their mother—who offered similar witty “life lessons” to her daughters.
Nora Ephron once said that her mother understood that the “tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.” Indeed, when Nora Ephron was visiting her dying mother at Doctors Hospital in New York City, Phoebe Ephron told her, “Take notes, Nora, take notes. Everything is copy.” Phoebe Ephron died on October 13, 1971.
Ephron, Henry. We Thought We Could Do Anything (1977).