“Everything is copy,” her mother once said, and she and her husband proved it by turning the college-age Nora into a character in a play, later a movie, The lesson was not lost on Ms. Ephron, who seldom wrote about her own children but could make sparkling copy out of almost anything else: the on her neck, her apartment, cabbage strudel, Teflon pans and the tastelessness of egg-white omelets.
She turned her painful breakup with her second husband, the Watergate journalist , into a best-selling novel, which she then recycled into a successful movie starring as a philandering husband and as a quick-witted version of Ms. Ephron herself.
When Ms. Ephron was 4, her parents moved from New York to Beverly Hills, where she grew up, graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1958. At Wellesley, she began writing for the school newspaper, and in the summer of 1961 she was a summer intern in the Kennedy White House. She said later that perhaps her greatest accomplishment there was rescuing the speaker of the house, Sam Rayburn, from a men’s room in which he had inadvertently locked himself. In an essay for The New York Times in 2003, she said she was also probably the only intern that President had never hit on.
After graduation from college in 1962, she moved to New York, a city she always adored, intent on becoming a journalist. Her first job was as a mail girl at . (There were no mail boys, she later pointed out.) Soon she was contributing to a parody of The New York Post put out during the 1962 newspaper strike. Her piece of it earned her a tryout at The Post, where the publisher, Dorothy Schiff, remarked: “If they can parody The Post, they can write for it. Hire them.”
Ms. Ephron stayed at The Post for five years, covering stories like the Beatles, the Star of India robbery at the , and a pair of hooded seals at the Coney Island aquarium that refused to mate.
“The Post was a terrible newspaper in the era I worked there,” she wrote, but added that the experience taught her to write short and to write around a subject, since the kinds of people she was assigned to cover were never going to give her much interview time.
In the late 1960s Ms. Ephron turned to magazine journalism, at Esquire and New York mostly. She quickly made a name for herself by writing frank, funny personal essays — about the smallness of her breasts, for example — and tart, sharply observed profiles of people like , and the composer and best-selling poet Rod McKuen. Some of these articles were controversial. In one, she criticized for conducting a “thoroughly irrational” feud with ; in another, she discharged a withering assessment of Women’s Wear Daily.
But all her articles were characterized by humor and honesty, written in a clear, direct, understated style marked by an impeccable sense of when to deploy the punchline. (Many of her articles were assembled in the collections “Wallflower at the Orgy,” “Crazy Salad” and “Scribble Scribble.”)
Ms. Ephron made as much fun of herself as of anyone else. She was labeled a practitioner of the New Journalism, with its embrace of novelistic devices in the name of reaching a deeper truth, but she always denied the connection. “I am not a new journalist, whatever that is,” she once wrote. “I just sit here at the typewriter and bang away at the old forms.”
Ms. Ephron got into the movie business more or less by accident after her marriage to Mr. Bernstein in 1976. He and , his partner in the Watergate investigation, were unhappy with ’s script for the movie version of their book so Mr. Bernstein and Ms. Ephron took a stab at rewriting it. Their version was ultimately not used, but it was a useful learning experience, she later said, and it brought her to the attention of people in Hollywood.
Her first screenplay, written with her friend Alice Arlen, was for a 1983 film based on the life of Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances while investigating abuses at a plutonium plant where she had worked. Ms. Arlen was in film school then, and Ms. Ephron had scant experience writing for anything other than the page. But , who directed the movie (which starred Ms. Streep and ), said that the script made an immediate impression on him. He and Ms. Ephron had become friends when she visited him on the set of
“I think that was the beginning of her openly falling in love with the movies,” Mr. Nichols said in an interview, “and she and Alice came along with ‘Silkwood’ when I hadn’t made a movie in seven years. I couldn’t find anything that grabbed me.” He added: “Nora was so funny and so interesting that you didn’t notice that she was also necessary. I think a lot of her friends and readers will feel that.”
Ms. Ephron followed “Silkwood” three years later with a screenplay adaptation of her own novel “Heartburn,” which was also directed by Mr. Nichols. But it was her script for “When Harry Met Sally...,” which became a hit movie in 1989 starring and , that established Ms. Ephron’s gift for romantic comedy and for delayed but happy endings that reconcile couples who are clearly meant for each other but don’t know it.
“When Harry Met Sally...” is probably best remembered for Ms. Ryan’s table-pounding faked-orgasm scene with Mr. Crystal in Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, prompting a middle-aged woman (played by Mr. Reiner’s mother, Estelle Reiner) sitting nearby to remark to her waiter, indelibly, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The scene wouldn’t have gotten past the Hollywood censors of the past, but in many other respects Ms. Ephron’s films are old-fashioned movies, only in a brand-new guise. Her 1998 hit, “You’ve Got Mail,” for example, which she both wrote (with her sister Delia) and directed, is partly a remake of the old film ‘The Shop Around the Corner.”
Ms. Ephron began directing because she knew from her parents’ example how powerless screenwriters are (at the end of their careers both became alcoholics) and because, as she said in her Wellesley address, Hollywood had never been very interested in making movies by or about women. She once wrote, “One of the best things about directing movies, as opposed to merely writing them, is that there’s no confusion about who’s to blame: you are.”
Mr. Nichols said he had encouraged her to direct. “I knew she would be able to do it,” he recalled. “Not only did she have a complete comprehension of the process of making a movie — she simply soaked that up — but she had all the ancillary skills, the people skills, all the hundreds of things that are useful when you’re making a movie.”
Her first effort at directing, (1992), with a screenplay by Ms. Ephron and her sister Delia, based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer about a single mother trying to become a standup comedian, was a dud. But Ms. Ephron redeemed herself in 1993 with “Sleepless in Seattle” (she shared the screenwriting credits), which brought and Meg Ryan together so winningly that they were cast again in “You’ve Got Mail.”
Among the other movies Ms. Ephron wrote and directed were (2000), (2005) and, her last, “Julie & Julia” (2009), in which Ms. Streep played .
She and Ms. Streep had been friends since they worked on “Silkwood” together. “Nora just looked at every situation and cocked her head and thought, ‘Hmmmm, how can I make this more fun?’ ” Ms. Streep wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday.
Ms. Ephron earned three Oscar nominations for best screenplay, for “Silkwood,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally....” But in all her moviemaking years she never gave up writing in other forms. Two essay collections, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman” (2006) and “I Remember Nothing” (2010), were both best sellers. With her sister Delia she wrote a play, “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” about women and their wardrobes (once calling it “ ‘The Vagina Monologues’ without the vaginas”) and by herself she wrote a play, produced in 2002, about the literary and personal quarrel between and .
She also became an enthusiastic blogger for The , writing on subjects like the mogul Steve Wynn’s accidentally putting a hole in a Picasso he owned and Ryan ONeal’s failing to recognize his own daughter and making a pass at her.
Several years ago, Ms. Ephron learned that she had myelodysplastic syndrome, a pre-leukemic condition, but she kept the illness a secret from all but a few intimates and continued to lead a busy, sociable life.
“She had this thing about not wanting to whine,” the writer Sally Quinn said on Tuesday. “She didn’t like self-pity. It was always, you know, ‘Suck it up.’ ”
Ms. Ephron’s first marriage, to the writer Dan Greenburg, ended in divorce, as did her marriage to Mr. Bernstein. In 1987 she married Nicholas Pileggi, the author of the books and (Her contribution to “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure,” edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, reads: “Secret to life, marry an Italian.”)
In addition to her son Jacob Bernstein, a journalist who writes frequently for the Styles section of The Times, Ms. Ephron is survived by Mr. Pileggi; another son, Max Bernstein, a rock musician; and her sisters Delia Ephron; Amy Ephron, who is also a screenwriter; and Hallie Ephron, a journalist and novelist.
In person Ms. Ephron — small and fine-boned with high cheeks and a toothy smile — had the same understated, though no less witty, style that she brought to the page.
“Sitting at a table with Nora was like being in a Nora Ephron movie,” Ms. Quinn said. “She was brilliant and funny.”
She was also fussy about her hair and made a point of having it professionally blow-dried twice a week. “It’s cheaper by far than psychoanalysis and much more uplifting,” Ms. Ephron said.
Another friend, , who had edited her books since the 1970s, said that her death would be “terrible for her readers and her movie audience and her colleagues.” But “the private Nora was even more remarkable,” he added, saying she was “always there for you with a full heart plus the crucial dose of the reality principle.”
Ms. Streep called her a “stalwart.”
“You could call on her for anything: doctors, restaurants, recipes, speeches, or just a few jokes, and we all did it, constantly,” she wrote in her e-mail. “She was an expert in all the departments of living well.”
The producer recalled that less than two weeks before her death, at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, he had a long phone session with her while she was undergoing treatment, going over notes for a pilot she was writing for a TV series about a bank compliance officer. Afterward she told him, “If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting.”
Ms. Ephron’s collection “I Remember Nothing” concludes with two lists, one of things she says she won’t miss and one of things she will. Among the “won’t miss” items are , , the sound of the vacuum cleaner, and panels on The other list, of the things she will miss, begins with “my kids” and “Nick” and ends this way:
“Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
Pie.”Continue reading the main story
An obituary on Wednesday about Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, omitted the name of a co-editor of the book “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure,” in which Ms. Ephron is quoted as saying: “Secret to life, marry an Italian.” Besides Larry Smith, the book was also edited by Rachel Fershleiser.
Nora Ephron was very kind to me. There was no reason for her to be, but she had been a journalist and so, unlike most Hollywood people, was well disposed towards those sent to interview her, and even more rarely, inclined to stay in touch with and encourage them.
In 2007, I flew from London to New York to interview her, when she was publicising her very successful book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck, 15 years after her very successful novel Heartburn and two years before her great success with the movie Julie & Julia.
I mention this merely to emphasise how little need she had to be nice, beyond the exigencies of promoting her book, but she was nice, and when I moved to New York a year later, she took me for lunch and asked if I needed any introductions. She did this for lots of people I know, all journalists, writers and film-makers, all decades younger than her and with a generosity those fields don't exactly inspire. She had a reputation for sharpness, but my experience of Ephron was that she was absurdly, extravagantly kind.
She was also brilliant. Movies, of course, were what made her famous, but she was by constitution a reporter – sarcastic, irreverent, suspicious of orthodoxy.
Of those reputation-making essays of the 1960s and '70s, the ones that still linger – on top of the breasts one, the first piece of writing really to establish her and most often quoted – are her take-downs of Dorothy Schiff, her old employer at the New York Post, of Erich Segal and Ayn Rand, both at the height of their popularity when she deftly demolished them, and her rolling critique of the feminist movement, in which she was immune to party line and instead, with a clear eye, called out fault and merit where she saw it. And the one about the fur coat, in which she wrote of her mother's premature death and the lesson she left with her; that the only fur coat worth owning is the one you have bought for yourself.
She was a New Yorker par excellence, a compulsive fixer and interferer. I saw her for lunch a few months ago and she corrected the way I ate my sandwich (it was a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel; she counselled separation of the two halves and application, if necessary, of a knife and fork). She told me about the play she was working on, an adaptation of Nathan Englander's short story The Twenty-Seventh Man. She asked what I was up to and when I told her I was about to deliver a manuscript, extracted the précis and promptly came up with a title, which I have kept. (Nora had, over the years, come up with many book titles for many writers and also a few titles that the writers, in their wisdom, had decided not to use. "Not taking my advice," she said smiling, "never seemed to work out for them.")
You write, in part – in the main, probably – for the people you admire and they take on a much greater role in your life than their actual presence might justify. They are the voice in your head, the reader over your shoulder, the people you are trying to impress and live up to. In any given life you don't get many like Nora.