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Remembering Nora Ephron

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Sali Hughes pays tribute to the ground-breaking writer, director and filmmaker who sadly died last week

Last year, when Nora Ephron knew she was terminally ill with leukemia, she wrote a list of what she would and wouldn’t miss when she was gone. She wouldn’t miss bras, dry skin, illness and Fox News, but she would miss supper with her husband, reading in bed, waffles, her kids, butter and pie. I have re-read this list in its (longer) entirety over and over in the days following Nora’s passing last week, aged 71. And in death, as in life, she has made me laugh, cry, consider and reflect; and left me in no doubt that she is my heroine of heroines.

Nora Ephron was a Jewish American screenwriter, novelist, journalist, cook, film director, blogger, broadcaster, mother and campaigner. In fact, just about the only thing she wasn’t was my friend. Not that I ever felt this. Unbeknownst to her, Nora had been the person I turned to for wisdom, human insight and humour since adolescence. I wanted her to be my mentor, mum and best mate.

I was 14 when I first read Heartburn, Nora’s debut novel, based on her marriage and scandalous divorce from Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, who Nora discovered was having an affair with their mutual friend, Margaret Jay (daughter of our former prime minister, James Callaghan). The novel’s events were grown-up. My teenage self couldn’t possibly have related to a wife scorned, seven months pregnant and struggling to start again in the big city. But after casually picking it up from a library shelf, I was unable to put it down.

Heartburn took the most miserable personal situation and made it hysterically funny, inspiring and utterly relatable to women of all ages. I became obsessed with its author and thinly disguised heroine.

Nora taught me that women can be just as funny as men, and every bit as successful

Six months later, I saw When Harry Met Sally. If you haven’t seen it, cancel whatever you’re doing today and watch it. Even if you have seen it, cancel your plans and rewatch it, as I did on hearing of Nora’s passing. Then watch Sleepless In Seattle and download I Feel Bad About My Neck. When Harry Met Sally is one of the truly great comedies and so, so much more than the infamous fake orgasm scene. Nora wrote the screenplay in her spare time while still working as a journalist. Every observation is a masterclass in what makes human relationships tick.

I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but When Harry Met Sally and Heartburn made me want to be a better one. Countless female writers will tell you the same thing. But beyond her incredible talent, Nora inspired my everyday life in a hundred ways. She taught me that on discovering your husband is cheating, it’s far better to throw a key lime pie at his face and struggle on alone, than to live a complicit lie - a lesson that that can be applied as metaphor to almost any relationship crisis - and that women can be just as funny as men, and every bit as successful. She showed me how to make the perfect salad dressing (I keep a copy of Heartburn in my kitchen – the heroine’s recipes are unbeatable) and to be thankful for my appearance. And she taught me to never save anything for best because I may not be alive tomorrow. On losing her best friend to breast cancer, Ephron said, “It’s taught me to always use the good bath oil”

Most significantly, she taught me women were the best. That may sound trite, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nora adored her third husband and doted on her two sons. She was fiercely egalitarian. But she loved being a woman, mother, best friend and feminist. Never more eloquently was this expressed than in this address she made to young women: “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” You heard her. It’s the very least we can do.

Picture credits: Rex Features

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