By Florence Snyder
“Nora Ephron enjoyed and was very kind to all kind of folks; not just big deals,” tweeted New York Times media columnist David Carr. Plainly he is right about that, judging by the flood of cyber-comment condolences and commiseration attending last week’s death of Ephron, a reporter-turned-filmmaker, thought-leader, and first person in the room to say what everybody was thinking.
You don’t see much of Ephron’s common touch in high places. In Official Florida and elsewhere, everybody is always scanning name tags, looking for someone more important to talk to.
Long before she was putting words into the mouth of Tom Hanks in “Sleepless in Seattle” and fake orgasms into the mouth of Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” Ephron was mastering the craft of learning from and telling truths about people from all walks of life as a $98-a-week cub reporter for the New York Post.
Decades later, Ephron recalled, “The editor was a sexual predator. The managing editor was a lunatic. Sometimes it seemed half the staff was drunk.”
She loved them anyway. She knew from her highly accomplished and very alcoholic parents that good work and bad behavior are often found in the same place and always make for a great story.
At the beginning of her career and at the end of her life, Ephron was a reporter’s reporter. She had 20/20 vision for the telling detail and an unwavering belief that at the center of every tragedy is an opportunity and an obligation to find something funny.
Ephron’s deep love of all the things that make us human informed each of the millions of words she wrote for newspapers, magazines, books, films and personal — as opposed to Facebook — communications to friends numbering in the thousands.
Ephron practiced transparency before it was a talking point for politicians who can’t spell it and ex-journalists who don’t mean it. A great example of the latter is Carl Bernstein, the corpulent horndog to whom Ephron was once married. Bernstein was memorably played by Jack Nicholson in the film “Heartburn,” based upon Ephron’s 1983 roman a clef of the same name.
Bernstein and his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the wrongdoing that led to President Nixon’s resignation, but like many fake friends of the 1st Amendment, Bernstein could dish truth out better than he could take it.
Florida journalists and authors living in wine- and- whiskey-soaked post-Watergate Key West, where Bernstein had once hit on a Miami Herald reporter’s girlfriend, weren’t surprised by Heartburn’s portrait of the Watergate Wonder Boy. As Ephron learned while pregnant with their second child, Bernstein was sleeping with a family friend Ephron had loved, trusted and welcomed to her dinner table. The zipper problem was forgivable, but the legal threat Bernstein famously made against the book was not.
Unlike her fidelity-and free speech-challenged ex, Ephron never wavered from journalism’s core belief that it’s always ok to tell the truth.
Ephron was taken by a cancer diagnosed six years ago, a burden that she kept to herself. She is not, however, done with us, or with Hanks, for whom she wrote a script for what she hoped would be the Oscar winner’s Broadway debut.
“Lucky Guy” tells the story of Mike McAlary, the colorful New York crime reporter who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his reported columns of the brutalization of a Haitian immigrant by Brooklyn police. The Pulitzer was awarded just months before McAlary died … of cancer.
Don’t be surprised if “Lucky Guy” tells us as much about Ephron’s life, and death, as it does McAlary’s.
Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers. She can be reached by email here.
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