“Take notes,” Nora Ephron’s mother advised her as a child. “Everything is copy.”
Her mother, a Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter, imbued Ms. Ephron with a razor-sharp self-awareness and the ambition to transform workaday absurdities, cultural idiosyncrasies, romantic foibles and even marital calamity into essays, novels and films brimming with invitingly mordant wit. She credited her mother with bestowing “this kind of terrific ability, not to avoid pain but to turn it over and recycle it as soon as possible.”
Nora Ephron, who gained a devoted following for her perceptive, deeply personal essays and parlayed that renown into a screenwriting career of wistful romantic comedies such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail,” the marital exposé“Heartburn” and the whistleblower drama “Silkwood,” died June 26 at a hospital in New York. She was 71.
The death was confirmed by her friend Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist. She died of complications from the blood disorder myelodysplasia, which was diagnosed six years ago.
As a young woman, Ms. Ephron modeled her self-deprecating and deadpan writing style on Dorothy Parker, part of the Algonquin Round Table of sophisticated New York writers and humorists that also included Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman. Of the philandering husband in her 1983 novel “Heartburn” — modeled on her marriage to former Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein — Ms. Ephron wrote he was “capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.”
In time, Ms. Ephron became a social confederate of New York playwrights, filmmakers and wits, including Mike Nichols, Woody Allen and Calvin Trillin; Washington journalists including former Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee and his journalist wife, Sally Quinn; and a Hollywood coterie that included Rob Reiner, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and Steven Spielberg.
As a woman in the male-dominated movie business, Ms. Ephron was a rare “triple-hyphenate” as writer, director and producer. But making movies for and about women was a battle, at times. She observed how, to male studio moguls, “a movie about a woman’s cure for cancer is less interesting than a movie about a man with a hangnail.”
From her early years as a journalist for Esquire and New York magazines, Ms. Ephron was regarded as a keen cultural barometer. She repeatedly channeled her interest in the zeitgeist to the screen. Her last film, “Julie & Julia” (2009), starring Meryl Streep as the French-cooking apostle Julia Child and Amy Adams as a modern disciple, explored the trendy fascination with blogging and gourmet cooking.
In “Silkwood” (1983), a biographical drama directed by Nichols and starring Streep as a plutonium plant employee and union activist, Ms. Ephron tapped into the era’s fear of nuclear meltdowns and corporate coverups. Her novel and 1986 screenplay for “Heartburn” — which starred Streep and Jack Nicholson — reflected what countless other women were experiencing through their disappointing marriages and efforts to balance career ambitions with homemaking obligations.
The tension between the sexes also played a central role in her sparkling screenplay for “When Harry Met Sally” (1989), which Reiner directed and which starred Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as yuppies who forgo sex with each other for decades to maintain their friendship. As a writer and director, Ms. Ephron was among the first to chronicle the addictive thrill of romance by e-mail in “You’ve Got Mail” (1998), starring Hanks and Ryan.
Ms. Ephron received three Oscar nominations for her writing, for “Silkwood” (shared with Alice Arlen), “Sleepless in Seattle” (with David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) and “When Harry Met Sally.”
The most unforgettable — and oft-quoted — scene from “When Harry Met Sally” showed Ryan faking a loud orgasm in front of Crystal over lunch at a delicatessen. After Ryan’s intense moment, a woman at a nearby booth tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Ms. Ephron said it was Ryan’s idea to film the scene in the deli, and it was Crystal who came up with the one-liner. But the core idea came from talks between Ms. Ephron and Reiner.
“One day, we were sitting around and Rob said to me, ‘You know, we’ve told you all this stuff that you didn’t know about men, now you tell us something we don’t know about women,’ ” Ms. Ephron told an audience at a book reading in 2006. “It was almost like, ‘I dare you.’ And I said, ‘Well, women fake orgasms.’ And he said, ‘Not with me.’ ”
“And I said, ‘Yes, we do,’ ” she added. “Maybe not all the time, but sometimes. He still didn’t believe me. So we went thundering into the bullpen at Castle Rock Pictures where all the women work, and he asked them, ‘Is it true that women fake orgasms?’ And all these women nodded yes. What a shock that scene was for men.”