Nora Ephron Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Known for her critical, comedic observations in magazine writing and films, Ephron is one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters and directors.

Early Life

Nora Ephron was born in New York City on May 19, 1941, the eldest of four daughters of screenwriters Henry Ephron and Phoebe Wolkind Ephron. Henry, whose plays had not been produced, worked in the New York theater as stage manager for playwright George S. Kaufman and director Moss Hart.

When Nora was born, Phoebe rejected full-time motherhood, and Phoebe and Henry began their lifelong collaboration. The Ephrons’ play Three’s a Family focused its comedy on the addition of a baby to a household. The play was produced on Broadway, winning the Ephrons a motion picture contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. In 1944, they moved to Hollywood with daughter Nora.

Phoebe and Henry collaborated on screenplays for films such as The Desk Set (1957) and Carousel (1956). The Ephron family was close-knit; dinner had a talk show atmosphere, and the four children competed for attention by telling amusing anecdotes about their daily activities or arguing about politics. The children were encouraged to be interesting and amusing, and three of the four daughters became writers.

Nora Ephron cites her mother as a role model, a working mother in an era when most women were housewives. Phoebe passed on the Ephron philosophy of life and art: to use one’s experiences as a basis for writing. Like her parents, Nora often collaborated in her screenwriting, once with her sister Delia Ephron. Her three marriages have been to writers.

Nora grew up in Beverly Hills, as part of an upper-middle-class Jewish milieu in the shadow of the film industry. At Beverly Hills High School, Nora edited the front page of the school newspaper, having discovered that she wanted to be a journalist at age thirteen. She also published news and sports stories in the Los Angeles Times. Her idol was satirist Dorothy Parker, the quintessential New York writer, and New York was her spiritual home.

In 1958, Nora entered Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and she was graduated in 1962. She later wrote that Wellesley taught women to restrain themselves, to be too polite. Nora’s letters home from college became the basis for her parents’ Broadway hit comedy Take Her, She’s Mine (1961).

Life’s Work

While in college, Nora Ephron worked one summer as a copy girl for CBS in New York. After being graduated, she was hired by Newsweek to work in the mail room and was eventually promoted to researcher. In 1963, she was hired as a general assignment reporter by the New York Post, writing short pieces. After two years, she was assigned her first series. Ephron values this period of honing her craft, of learning to condense and research thoroughly. She began to submit articles to magazines.

In 1968, Ephron left the Post to work full-time as a freelancer, writing profiles of celebrities. Ephron’s authorial voice emerged as she used her barbed humor to make serious comments on a variety of popular culture topics: mass media, show business, the worlds of fashion and food, and popular novels. She defended her interest in popular culture by declaring it trivial but as much a part of her life as world politics.

In 1970, Ephron published a collection of articles, Wallflower at the Orgy. The title reflected what she called her journalistic detachment, meaning not objectivity (which she did not deem possible) but a sense of the absurdity of life that tended to make her a witness of events rather than a participant. She claims that it took years for her to use the word “I” in her writing.

Ephron makes use of her direct experience in a harrowing account of a beauty makeover. A piece on Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, recounts Ephron’s own experience of being edited by Brown. Her analysis of the cult popularity of writer Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) mentions her own adolescent fascination with the novel. Her interview with film director Mike Nichols is a conversation; Ephron is not the invisible interviewer.

In 1972, Ephron joined the staff of Esquire magazine as contributing editor, writing a column on women’s issues for the male-oriented publication. Joining New York magazine in 1973, Ephron continued to write on women. Twenty-five of Ephron’s columns for Esquire are collected in her book Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975).

Ephron’s essays here take a personal tone. The lead essay, “A Few Words About Breasts,” describes her own experiences as an adolescent growing up in the American culture of the 1950’s. Even in adulthood, her small breast size figured in competitive interactions with women as well as in relationships with men. For Ephron, observation of her personal experience became an avenue for reporting general cultural phenomena surrounding women. “Fantasies” poses the problem of the contradiction between feminist politics and a culturally induced desire to be dominated.

Ephron’s observations of the political maneuverings of women’s movement leaders at the 1976 Democratic Convention were criticized as a betrayal of the movement. In “Truth or Consequences,” Ephron...

(The entire section is 2214 words.)