News Column

Pittsburgh Writers Remember Nora Ephron

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Before all the best-sellers and Oscar-nominated movies -- "Heartburn," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Julie and Julia," "I Feel Bad About My Neck," "I Remember Nothing" -- there was Esquire and New York Magazine and books of her collected articles with titles such as "Crazy Salad" and "Wallflower at the Orgy," which could be found on the coffee tables and bookshelves in the apartments of struggling young women writers anywhere.

Most of the obituaries about Nora Ephron, who died Tuesday after a long private battle with leukemia, focus on the big romantic comedies she wrote and filmed, and the books and Huffington Post blog posts she wrote after she made those movies.

But for a certain generation of women, her legacy has to be those sharp little essays and astoundingly entertaining magazine articles and profiles she wrote at those testosterone-infused magazines in the '60s and '70s, when it was truly glorious to be a journalist, especially if you were a woman.

Indeed, in 1972, she penned an essay in Esquire that surely is a classic of the genre, not to mention the era: "A Few Words About Breasts" (you can find it at, noting that "If I had them, I would have been a completely different person."

Actually, Ms. Ephron was many completely different people throughout her 71 years.

A partial list: Hollywood brat, Wellesley grad, intern in JFK's White House (the only one the president never hit on, she observed) journalist, feminist, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, playwright, movie director, blogger, not to mention foodie before anyone had ever heard of that word (her room-temperature pasta and tomato sauce recipe, published in her novel "Heartburn," is a classic).

Some critics have dismissed her delicious, if sugary, film comedies (Meg Ryan's feigned orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" will always be a classic, even if the film's ending always felt too pat). But anyone who saw "Silkwood," for which she wrote the screenplay, knows she could have gone darker if she'd chosen to -- except she didn't choose to.

What she did choose was truth, almost always cloaked in humor.

"She showed me how honesty and bravado can work in writing and how powerful it can be when it hits a chord," said Sharon Dilworth, a novelist and professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University.

She was a writer who loved other writers. Again, in "When Harry Met Sally" there's that scene when Bruno Kirby shouts, "I wrote that!" in response to Carrie Fisher's quoting "Pesto is the quiche of the 1980s." It's quintessential Ephron, combining a completely hilarious, culturally accurate food reference with a writer's joy at being recognized in the context of burgeoning romance.

"She was my hero," added Lynda Schuster, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal who lives in Pittsburgh and now posts on her website, The book "Heartburn" was, she said, "a classic: smart, hysterically funny, bittersweet, with set pieces and gag lines to rival those of the Marx Brothers. In the world of comedic writing, she was to women what Woody Allen is to men, only better."

Perhaps her greatest gift was an uncommon ability to dissect the complex emotional transactions between men and women -- and render them hilarious, completely authentic and moving -- whether through the printed word or on celluloid.

"Ever since I saw 'When Harry Met Sally,' I've felt the influence of Nora Ephron," said Ellen Sussman, whose novel "French Lessons" -- about sex -- was on The New York Times best-seller list. "She whispered in my ear: go deeper, be funnier, take risks." After hearing her speak in San Francisco "for weeks afterwards I felt like a big sister was poking me and insisting: Don't listen to what anyone else tells you. Listen to yourself."

"I know her best from her movies," added Maria Lupinacci, who runs 2 Political Junkies (, a blog about Pittsburgh politics. "She wrote such good female characters. In so many movies you don't get a feeling the characters exist outside the plot lines, they had a life to live even when they were not on the screen. Her women characters were strong and equal."

As a journalist, though, Ms. Ephron never made any secret of wanting to be a late-20th-century version of Dorothy Parker, the only woman at the table full of male writers, who knew she was alluring -- and just as good as the guys were. And other women eagerly followed her lead.

"Nora Ephron had a big influence on me in my early writing days because she managed to turn her life into a living," said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Sally Kalson. "I thought, wouldn't it be cool to do something like that, as long as you could avoid becoming insufferably egotistical and self-absorbed? That's what I have tried to do in my personal columns -- write as honestly as she did, with humor, in a way that shifts the focus off of me and onto issues and experiences that will mean something to readers."

Now, though, the baby boomers who read her and watched her movies are going to have to learn to live without this uniquely acerbic voice, just as those members of the New York literacracy privileged enough to hang out with her -- and her ability to make and keep friends was legendary -- will have to do without.

"New York without Nora Ephron is just plain wrong," wrote David Kamp in Vanity Fair Wednesday, fondly recalling her passion for ferreting out the latest rib joint or baked goods emporium. She had a good life and a good marriage to New York author Nick Pileggi, surely a just reward after two failed marriages. (After her devastating, spectacular breakup with Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, she hit bottom, then pulled herself up, wrote a best-selling novel about it, and made it into a movie with Meryl Streep playing the character based on herself. Talk about revenge.)

In her penultimate book of short essays, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," Ms. Ephron keens over her wrinkles and wattles, about the inconveniences and humiliations and humor of growing old. Women readers of a certain age loved it, in part because they loved that someone so successful and well-preserved -- Ms. Ephron admitted to spending $70,000 to have her teeth fixed -- also could feel the same kind of losses that the passage of time brings.

"She was the one who admitted all the things we felt about ourselves and our places in the world. but she wasn't afraid to say them," said Ms. Dilworth. "She wrote long before blogs and memories became the norm, and while we're not all like Sally from 'When Harry Met Sally' -- we might not all fall in love with our best friends or rather we might not all have our best friends fall in love with us -- but every woman, at every age, stands in front of her bathroom mirror and laments all the things she hates about her body. Nora Ephron made shame a shared emotion. I'll miss getting old with her."

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