In her 1996 commencement address at Wellesley College outside Boston, Nora Ephron told a rising generation of best-and-brightest young women that they could, despite every naysayer, have it all — and she exhorted them not to be frightened. ”You can always change your mind,” she said. ”I know. I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”
The remark was emblematic Ephron: optimistic, witty, perfectly phrased, and finished off not with a boast but with a wink. Her passing on June 26 at age 71 spurred the kind of intimate and heartfelt public tribute that isn’t accorded many writers. The emotional reaction was a testament to the success she achieved in her multiple vocations and avocations — groundbreaking essayist, journalist, screenwriter, director, novelist, playwright, blogger, foodie, and feminist who led by ardency, wit, and example. But beyond that, it was an acknowledgment, and in a way a reciprocation, of the warmth and force of her personality in every medium in which she deployed her extraordinary voice.
Nora Ephron was very, very funny. (And a great architect of prose; for instance, she probably would have known enough to put the preceding sentence two paragraphs higher.) As a writer of romantic comedies, she was never better than when she let her characters in When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail self-dramatizingly bemoan their own fates — because she understood that true romance is hilarious and crushing and melodramatic and preposterous all at once.
She could also be lean and astringent (as in the screenplay for Silkwood that brought her the first of three Oscar nominations), heartbreaking (in her fine essay on mortality, ”Consider the Alternative”), deeply insightful about other writers (in her underappreciated 2002 play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Imaginary Friends), even politically ferocious. But above all she was remarkably generous, as a writer and a person — tickled and appalled by grandiosity in others, never protective of her well-earned status, always eager to engage with a new generation of voices and to hear them flourish. Not solely female voices, but perhaps especially. So many smart and funny women across so many decades, from Gail Collins to Sarah Silverman to Tina Fey to Lena Dunham, owed her something, even if she never would have considered calling in the debt.