In the most iconic scene of the most iconic movie that Nora Ephron ever wrote, a perky young woman named Sally (Meg Ryan) moans her way through simulated ecstasy, right there in Katz's Deli, to prove a point to her friend Harry (Billy Crystal) about women's ability to feign orgasms. An older woman at a nearby table, played by the real-life mother of the film's director, Rob Reiner, then delivers one of the greatest lines in cinematic comedy history: "I'll have what she's having."
Of course, in the film, the line was meant to refer to pleasures of the flesh. But the thing is, to a certain kind of literary-leaning, New York-loving, whipped-cream-in-a-can abhorring female writer, and I assure you there are many of us out there, the line could also sum up how we feel about Nora's groundbreaking career -- the things she did, the people she knew, the art she created -- if we have our druthers, we'll have what she's having. When it comes to multi-hyphenate creative role models, the boys can have their Woody Allen, their Judd Apatow. For us girls, there is, and always will be, Nora.
The women's movement proved that we could be career women, or wives, or mothers, or -- yes -- all of those things at once. Nora Ephron proved that we could be writers of fiction, or writers of non-fiction, or screenwriters, or playwrights, or movie directors, or -- yes -- all of those things at once. So much so that, if you're an artistically-inclined, cross-disciplinary-leaning young woman, when people ask what you'd like to be when you grow up, the easiest and best answer may be simply this: Nora Ephron.
It was the summer between my sixth and seventh grade when When Harry Met Sally hit theaters. Although by then Ephron had already done so many impressive things: working at Newsweek, writing for the New York Post, New York magazine and Esquire, writing the novel Heartburn and the screenplay of the movie based on the book, I was too young to really know about all that. So When Harry Met Sally was the first moment in which the Ephron spell was cast upon my life, and I will never forget it.
I didn't know what was going on in the scene at Katz's, that's for sure. But, somehow, the movie's heart went directly into my own. I was just beginning to think about so many of the movie's themes in a significant way -- the relations between men or women (or, more accurately in my case, between boys and girls); the incomparable magic of New York (I was just grasping how lucky I was to be growing up there); the merits of ice cream on pie versus whipped cream. I went out the next day and got the cassette tape of the movie's soundtrack, the one featuring the dreamy Harry Connick Jr. singing all those mesmerizing 1940s love songs. I'd dance around my bedroom to it all, particularly when those big-band horns began the buoyant intro to "It Had to Be You." When school began again in the fall, I sat in biology class, learning about a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, and took great delight in thinking of it instead as Nora EpinEphron.
But I wasn't the only one profoundly affected by When Harry Met Sally -- Hollywood, too, would never be the same. The movie effectively ushered in the rebirth of the romantic comedy genre. It was, many serious film scholars will tell you, the perfect representation of the form. And along the way, it essentially created the template for virtually every rom-com since; the kind where smart, quirky, picky yet deeply lovable heroines flail through romantic disappointment after romantic disappointment, with nothing but the witty bon mots of a sassy best friend to help them through the heartache -- but -- just when they think all is lost, the music swells, and they are rewarded by film's end with the wonderful man they so richly deserve.
Indeed, the rom-coms of today have got this formula down pat, which is a great testament to the power of Ephron's creative impact. The problem is, that's often all they've got. I'll go to see a romantic comedy and be left feeling a little empty, thinking, they don't make 'em like they used to -- but what I guess I really mean is, they don't make 'em like she used to.
I was lucky enough to get to meet Nora Ephron a few times in my life -- and she was witty, wry, glamorous, fun -- everything you'd want her to be. And as such, her name became a kind of shorthand to me for the witty, wry, glamorous, fun things in life. As far as I'm concerned, there are few higher compliments than to say that a book, or a movie, or a person is Ephron-esque.
Not too long ago, Ephron told a reporter, "Every 10 years or so there was a moment when I'd say, even subconsciously, 'Is that all there is?'" The answer was always a resounding "No." She kept reinventing herself, finding more ways to put the essence of her Ephron-ness out into the world -- becoming not just a celebrated essayist and playwright and one of the greatest screenwriters of all time (note that I did not put the word "female" before "screenwriters," because she was one of the greatest, period) but also a beloved director as well, of zeitgeist-capturing films like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. The last film she wrote and directed was the delicious Julie and Julia, which told the story of a modern-day blogger trying to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking. The film touched on many things Ephron was passionate about: Paris, scrumptious food, and -- a newer passion but an ardent one nonetheless -- blogging. More recently, she was said to have been working on a play starring Tom Hanks, and a television pilot. It was all, as Carly Simon sang on the Heartburn soundtrack, coming around again.
And then, a couple of days ago, came the news, hard and fast: Nora Ephron had passed away. I was getting ready to cook something healthy (read: bland) for my husband and myself to have for dinner when I heard. I thought of Nora, who loved good food so much she once said if she had a religion, butter would be it, and who knew a thing or two about living in the moment. And so, with tears in my eyes, I put everything back in the fridge, called my husband, and asked him to meet me for dinner at an Italian restaurant in our neighborhood instead. It seemed like the thing to do.
The dinner did not disappoint; Nora would have approved. In addition to everything tasting fresh and delicious, the salt on the table was the normal, regular kind (she hated sea salt -- because instead of making your food taste more like your food it just makes it taste like salt), and even the spoons would have been to her liking (she detested big spoons -- especially when served with dessert -- because they allowed it all to go by too quickly).
After dinner, my husband and I took a walk around our neighborhood, the Upper East Side, which was also Nora's neighborhood. We strolled in the summer night air, past the theater where we saw Julie and Julia, past the Hungarian bakery where we'd gone just to try the cabbage strudel that Nora had once written about so eloquently. Another ending to a hot summer day; another ending.
As I looked at the pink, late-June sky seeping between the ornate pre-war buildings and the gleaming skyscrapers of the city Nora Ephron loved best, I was reminded of something she wrote a few years back, when describing the feeling of arriving with her family at their vacation home for the summer: "We were always there for the end of June, my favorite time of the year, when the sun doesn't set until 9:30 at night, and you feel as if you will live forever."
To so many of us, Nora, you will.
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