Why Nora Ephron gave us heartburn

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
National Correspondent
Yahoo! News

The first day we didn’t think it was funny.

That the great Nora Ephron died last night at 71. That it was sudden—a vigil on Twitter, a flurry of worried texts from friends, and then Tuesday night the bell tolled. Ephron, the legendary writer and director, had died of pneumonia, a complication of myeloid leukemia.

What was least funny of all was how many of us obsessive fans who dreamed of meeting the cool, hilarious and incomparable Nora—and striking up a fast friendship—never will.

I never got to be Nora’s friend,” wrote the great Joan Juliet Buck, in seeming disbelief, today.

I know just how she feels. How is that possible? I was going to ask Nora Ephron if a starstruck outsider could ever understand her Upper West Side, or if we should quit trying. I was going to ask her about working with Dave Chappelle in "You’ve Got Mail." I was going to praise her essays from the 1970s on Pat Loud and Linda Lovelace. I was going to be quiet so she could make jokes I’d never forget.

I was going to be Nora Ephron’s friend, dammit.

Sure, maybe the fantasy of a perfect soul-merger with Ephron was always just a fantasy. No one woman should have had to field all those offers of friendship and expressions of sisterly awe. To have what she was having—that’s what we wanted.

The honest, shrewd essays. The fully felt romance with and extremely gratifying divorce from that schmo Carl Bernstein. The joyful motherhood. The freedom to say we couldn’t care less about the budget crisis. The comic lines that always landed right—and then the sudden turns in language and stagecraft that gently blew the heart open. The second and third and fourth careers as a novelist and screenwriter and even director. The style, sparkle and elegant leather-clad slimness at every age. And the fabulous, sexy and merry marriage to Nick Pileggi—Nick and Nora!—that, metropolitan rumor had it, involved lots and lots of somehow unpretentious time on yachts.

[Related: Nora Ephron's true genius? Food.]

For what seemed like most of the 1980s, my mother, just Ephron’s age, clutched a paperback of "Heartburn" like a pack of cigarettes. Her favorite scene was the one where Rachel decides there’s no going back: Her marriage is over. She bequeathed Ephron’s words to me like something from the Tao Te Ching. “If I throw this pie at him, he will never love me. But he doesn’t love me anyway. So I can throw the pie if I want to.”

What happens when women stop trying to make men love them? A curiosity about this intriguing phenomenon was plainly at the heart of Ephron’s work, and the answer was equally clear: Life begins.

You throw the pie. And then, as she recounted recently in "I Remember Nothing," things start working out. Your husband leaves. You fall in real love. Your kids thrive. The pain recedes. And things become interesting again, and then much more interesting, and then yachts are involved, and it’s rewarding beyond your wildest dreams, and funny.

“Maybe I miss only the idea of Helen,” Harry says to Sally, in "When Harry Met Sally." Billy Crystal, as Harry, waits a perfect beat. “No, I miss the whole Helen.”

The line from the script that Nora Ephron wrote with her sister Delia enacts a signature and lovely Ephron move: Maybe things are complicated; nope, they’re simple.

[Related: Ephron was a D.C. intern before she was a Hollywood hit]

Ephron rejected the “counterintuitive”—a crude commodity among female essayists, to write the opposite of what’s felt and true—and embraced, instead, the intuitive: good food, romantic love and full-on humanness in the form of vanity and laughter and grief and dorkiness. Ephron rejected the imperative to care about things she didn’t care about, or get alarmist and guilty about her pleasures. She also worked like a demon.

And while writers without Ephron’s nerve and brio were avoiding or decrying all things digital, "You’ve Got Mail" freed viewers to enjoy the email beep, text-message bonk and play of online identities that now signal connection. That was an enormous gift to new Web users, right at the start of the digital revolution.

“You’ve Got Mail.” Ugh—how annoying that now sounds. But Ephron was right: Email was exciting for a time. And now it’s funny, a wonderful sign of the times.

Of course it’s funny. Because, in Ephron’s world, not thinking it’s funny was never an option for long. “The first day I didn’t think it was funny” is the opening line of "Heartburn," that masterpiece that set many women free. What Rachel doesn’t think is funny is that her short husband has left her for his tall mistress while she, Rachel, is seven months pregnant. But don’t worry: By day two, she’s into the laughs. We’ll miss you, Nora.