Nora Ephron: My life, her script, classic American romance

Nora Ephron spoke to the author's Wellesley college graduating class in 1996 and told them "Be the heroine of your life." Her scripts were classics of American romance.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Nora Ephron, seen in her home in New York in this 2010 file photo, spoke at the author's 1996 Wellesley commencement and told them to "be the heroine of your life." Her scripts were classics of contemporary American romance.

There was something mysterious and unsettling about Nora Ephron and the way she could channel the most important moments of my life into her work without ever having met me. That was her gift, being hardwired into the spirit of her audience.

She knew how my husband and I met, she just got the names wrong. Instead of calling us  Robert and Lisa she mistakenly used Harry and Sally. I ran the college newspaper, he was a recent graduate who sauntered in, looked over my shoulder while I was editing and coolly told me I was an idiot. He returned a month later and we went to lunch and 23-years later, through what feels like all of Ephron’s movies in one way or another, we remain married and wary of each other in a good way.

Harry: "The first time we met we hated each other."

Sally: "You didn't hate me, I hated you. The second time we met he didn't even remember me."

Harry: "I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met we became friends."

Sally: "We were friends for a long time."

Harry: "And then we weren't."

Sally: "And then we fell in love."

My spouse is much more Tom Hanks in "You've Got Mail" than the hyper Harry. She definitely knew my husband's character. I die a little every time Hanks eats the caviar garnish just to make Meg Ryan nuts. Watching "You've Got Mail" I wept to pieces because I am the living embodiment of The Shop Around the Corner in a world filled with Fox Book mega stores. When a writer can make me feel like a bookstore, she owns me. That was an Ephron gift as well.

She knew that we were raised to long for love that begins with violins and roses, so she gave us love that we could actually hope to attain, the kind where the opening strains are a strain: nerve-jangling discordant notes, the impersonal tinny voice of a computer saying, "You've got mail," and scruffy, uncouth angels who teach you to eat a lemon by making lemonade.

In fact, Ephron told us as much in "Sleepless in Seattle:" "That's your problem! You don't want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie."

If Ephron were a car, she'd have been the kind of unique roadster that made you feel every bump in the road, but somehow transformed them into a massage you never wanted to end.

She knew how it felt to be "a grass roller" and also how it felt to long to be one, like the lead character in “Michael.” She realized that for many women food is a rapture and lust is the smell of caramels or fresh baked cookies. While it’s true that many writers know, she was the one who had the ability and will to reveal it to us and not only make it OK but a celebration.

She knew how men think and how women think and then made us realize it's just how people think. In "You've Got Mail," she nailed it when Joe Fox explains the purpose of Starbucks: “The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self: Tall. Decaf. Cappuccino.”

Still, my favorite Ephron quote did not come from one of her films but her commencement address at Wellesley in '96 when she reminded us, "Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim." It was my internal mantra and she plucked it out and added it right to her speech as if she never realized she'd hacked my internal life and posted it for the world.

However, as I sit here ordering her entire catalog on Netflix, I can't help but feel the pain of Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and especially John Travolta for their loss of this writer who gave them an immortality they may not even realize they possess solely because of her and will never see again from any other writer.

I have watched these three in recent films. While they remain brilliant actors, they have to spend the rest of their careers knowing they once were transported by a classic, but must forever after hit the road in something that doesn't have enough leg room, makes you feel all the bumps in the road in a jarring way and talks too much, while saying nothing memorable.

Excuse me while I setup the VCR so I can do the kind of viewing Ms. Ephron would probably have approved. It involves a pile of her DVDs, chocolate chip cookies, tissues, and a cup of black coffee.

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