My Facebook feed blew up last night with appreciative status updates in tribute to Nora Ephron. The burst of activity made me wonder whether everyone’s Facebook feed was full of Ephron’s urbane wit, or if things were quieter in places where people prefer NASCAR to Zabar’s.
Today, the day after her untimely death from illness at age 71, Nora Ephron will be eulogized by many, many appreciative people. They will write heartfelt tributes to the writer, journalist and filmmaker who gave the world films like “When Harry Met Sally…” and books like “Heartburn.”
But no one will write a tribute as well as Ephron would have written it herself. And that is the true depth of our loss.
People will write about how Ephron changed their lives with her snappy irreverence and wit. They will attempt to affect her easy, seamless style of humor and smarts. It won’t be enough.
That’s because Ephron had an extremely rare, hard-to-come-by gift: Her word stylings were approachable yet inimitable. No one would call “When Harry Met Sally” a work of genius with the same reverence one might have for, say, “Citizen Kane.” Yet Ephron’s film, like most of her writing, was a work of genius. It managed to be so by pretending, and perhaps even thinking, that it wasn’t. The story of making two lovers from friends, with all of its quotable lines and jokes, seemed like something that had emerged full-formed and radiant. And that’s not only because of the terrific acting, but also because all of those pearls of dialogue, as hilarious as they were, each felt genuine, not contrived.
There was never any element of trying too hard in Ephron’s work. Unlike more modern, deliberately self-aware humorists, Ephron’s quips were never condescending or self-important. Her wit was organic. Her jokes were like kernels of corn popping from the heat of an otherwise depressing or idiotic situation. Only Ephron could write a line like the one in “Heartburn” that the father stupidly utters to his pregnant, sobbing daughter who just found out her husband was cheating on her: “You want monogamy? Marry a swan.” When you saw an Ephron movie, or read an Ephron essay, you felt the pleasure of Ephron’s voice and company.
The real reason so many people with appreciation for words will mourn Ephron today is not only because of the wonderful works she gave us, but also because those works were personal and real. We could tell she was the real deal — you know, the way you can tell about a good melon. Her work was not only clever, but also honest, and we each feel as though, in some way, we knew her and loved her. And I’d argue that even if we never met her, we sort of did. Our lives are the better for it.