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Even More Magical Than We Thought: Kristin Marguerite Doidge on Her New Biography of Nora Ephron

Kristin Marguerite Doidge is the author of Nora Ephron: A Biography, a new book about the screenwriter/director/essayist/and legendarily world-class friend. The daughter of screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron (“Desk Set,” “Captain Newman, M.D.”), Nora Ephron grew up seeing their family stories turned into screenplays. Her mother told her “Everything is copy,” and the biography shows us the real-life events that were reflected in “When Harry Met Sally…”, “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Hanging Up,” and “Heartburn” and the private moments she kept secret, including her final illness. In an interview, Doidge discussed Ephron’s relationships to her parents and sisters and reveals her favorite Ephron movies and lines. 

To order your copy of Nora Ephron: A Biography, click here.

Did Nora become the mother she wished she had, not only to her sons but to her friends and the people she mentored?

I think so. I think those who knew and loved her most would say that she became the most secure and happiest version of herself when she fell in love with [third husband] Nick Pileggi. I also think that while she drew on inspiration from her mother Phoebe on how to be a mother and how to lead, she did it in her own way. Both Phoebe and Nora were what we’d call ‘parentified’ at a young age, for better or worse, and that made them both productive and responsible and also detached at times. 

Which of Nora’s characters was most like her and in what way?

I think Nora might say Sally Albright from “When Harry Met Sally...” but, of course, the real answer is that Nora is part of every smart, funny, feisty or interesting character she (and Delia) developed over the years. For example, I think there’s a part of Nora in the male protagonist, Sam Baldwin, in “Sleepless in Seattle” (played by Tom Hanks). She both understood the depth of grief after losing a spouse (through death or divorce) and the instinct to try to find those tiny moments that help remind us it’s possible to live again. 

The description of Nora’s camp years almost sounds like the Moss Hart camp summers in Act One. How did camp reveal and extend her writing skill?

It does! Not only did camp provide some of her earliest opportunities to develop her voice as a writer when sending and receiving letters from her mother, but from what her fellow Camp Tocaloma campers told me she also was totally in her element as a performer there as well. Whether it was telling interesting or funny stories around the campfire at night or writing or rewriting clever song lyrics for their shows, Nora reveled in all of it. It’s also where she learned to steam open envelopes—something we saw later when Meryl Streep played a version of her in “Heartburn.” 

What do we learn from Nora’s relationship with Delia and her other sisters?

Nora and Delia had a lifelong bond that only sisters can have. They also enjoyed a successful working collaboration as writers that lasted for decades and was evident even during Nora’s final days in the hospital. I am one of four children like Nora was, and I am the youngest of three sisters. I have a sense of how complex those relationships can be at times, especially when the memories of the home you grew up in (and the experiences there) are both beautiful and painful. I think she genuinely loved her sisters Delia, Hallie, and Amy very much, but I also know it’s possible to be cruelest to the ones we love most.

Do you have a favorite of her movies? A favorite line or quip?  

Oh, so many favorite lines and quips. May I choose more than one? As for her movies, my favorite screenplay is “When Harry Met Sally…” and my favorite film she directed is “Julie & Julia.” Honorable mention goes to “This Is My Life” and “Michael.” 

As for lines, I’ll go with a classic from the novel Heartburn: “I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.” There are also some wonderful and poignant lines in her essay, “Revision and Life: Take It From the Top Again,” which was originally published in the New York Times in 1986, but this one really stuck with me: “By the time you reach middle age, you want more than anything for things not to come to an end; and as long as you're still revising, they don't.”

And one more that always makes me laugh: when Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly says, “How do you sleep at night?” to Hanks’ Joe Fox just as Parker Posey’s Patricia Eden walks up and replies, “Ah, I use a wonderful over-the-counter drug, Ultradorm. Don't take the whole thing, just half, and you will wake up without even the tiniest hangover.” I can just picture Nora and Delia cracking themselves up with that line.

P.S.—everyone should also see her AFI Lifetime Achievement speeches for Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep for a masterclass in comedic timing. They’re absolutely hilarious and, as Don Lee told me, encapsulate her brilliance perfectly. 

Which film is the most underrated?

All the ones we never got to see. I’m especially thinking of “Higgins & Beech,” the Korean War love story she wrote with Alice Arlen (with whom she also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Silkwood”) almost made it to the screen so many times only to be put back into turnaround and ultimately halted. Her Peggy Lee biopic was recently revived and then recently halted once again. But there’s still hope ... 

You refer to her notebooks. Did you have access to them? What did you learn from them?

Sadly, no, I only had access to her references to them in her writing, archives, and interviews. I really hope that her papers might soon be archived at the Academy Museum or the Academy Library or perhaps at Wellesley. She often spoke about the “closet full” of undeveloped manuscripts she had at home. What a treasure trove that must be! I secretly hope someone reading the book will be inspired to revive at least one or more of her works in the near future. 

Speaking of being inspired, what I did have access to were the many generous people who shared their memories (some for the first time in this book) and their personal photos, letters, and emails—some that could be shared in the book in one form or another, and many others that couldn’t. It was so much fun hearing about her as a teenager at camp, and as a college student at Wellesley, and later as a director in charge of $85 million movie productions. What I learned is that she was somehow even more magical than we thought we knew: the amount of time and care she put into personal correspondence and gifts to so many friends and colleagues throughout her lifetime is astounding. Also, her emails could’ve been published because they’re as hilarious and witty as the rest of her writing was. 

Does Nora’s method of ordering food, as reflected in the “on the side” ordering of Meg Ryan as Sally, relate to the way she wrote and directed?

I love this question! It makes me wonder: what does “on the side" even mean? I think for Nora, it was about being specific, precise, and sure of herself and her decisions, so yes, I think that was absolutely the way she wrote and directed. She once wrote about how she’d go through hundreds of pages of paper writing ledes for her articles as a journalist and essayist. She was so disciplined and devoted to her craft and anything she was passionate about—if that means a salad will be better with the dressing on the side or the pie will be better heated, she not only knew it but wasn’t afraid to ask for it.

What do you most want people to know about her?

That Nora Ephron the person, the mother, sister, daughter, friend, wife, writer, editor, filmmaker, playwright was so incredibly special. We should continue to study and celebrate her life and her work across genres (journalism, film, screenwriting, theater) in classrooms and in kitchens and in life. 

To order your copy of Nora Ephron: A Biography, click here.

Nell Minow

Nell Minow reviews movies and DVDs each week as The Movie Mom online and on radio stations across the US. She is the author of The Movie Mom's Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

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