Remembering Nora Ephron ’62
Writer, director, Wellesley News journalist
Published: Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 16:09
Wellesley and the world are mourning the loss of Nora Ephron ’62, who passed away on June 26, 2012, due to complications caused by acute myeloid leukemia.
Ephron was certain she wanted to be a writer, and she fulfilled that role in so many forms. As a journalist, screenwriter, director, playwright, essayist, novelist and blogger, Ephron gathered a vast social circle that encompassed the influential and famous, while entertaining us with her sharp wit, dry humor and intelligent insight. Who can forget the “I’ll-have-what-she’s-having” line Ephron scripted to cap Meg Ryan’s faked orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” or the iconic ending of “Sleepless in Seattle”?
Wellesley College had a place in the prelude to Ephron’s productive and successful career. She was a political science major, a Junior Show participant and could attest to the “paper-thin” walls of Tower Court. She also wrote for The Wellesley News, starting as an associate reporter in her sophomore year during the spring of 1960. Ephron began just a year after Madeline Korbel ’59 served as an associate editor, and she was on staff with Lynn Sherr ’63, a fellow reporter at the time. Although The Wellesley News was her journalistic beginning, it was not her inspiration; that credit belongs to Lois Lane, as Ephron explains in her essay, “Journalism, a Love Story.”
Ephron’s first credited article appeared among cigarette, airline and silverware advertisements. The article is a well-structured examination of Adlai Stevenson’s persistent campaign for the presidency in spite of his having suffered two major losses to Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
Politics is the subject Ephron took up most frequently during her time with The News, and it was a ripe time for doing so; John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro and Martin Luther King, Jr. are only a sampling of the significant figures that represented the events and disputes of the momentous decade of the sixties.
Moving up the masthead to become a full reporter as a junior, and eventually associate editor as a senior, Ephron gained a greater opportunity to inform the Wellesley community through her perceptive view of contemporary issues. From anticipating a government branch rivalry after the 1960 election (in which voters faced a choice of “Rotten Apples”), to finding that the Cuban Revolution “defies analysis,” Ephron’s writing bears an insightful yet calmly critical voice that she never surrendered during her lengthy career.
Her cutting view of Nixon’s “dubious and vague” foreign policy experience is only one example of her voice as a political analyst.
Opposing Nixon may seem obvious from our perspectives, which not only benefit from retrospection, but also reflect a liberal trend on campus today. But Wellesley was a different place in the sixties; the town was largely Republican, and Nixon took 56 percent of the student vote, while JFK received 44 percent. Still, Ephron and the rest of The Wellesley News broke the status quo, opposing this popular opinion by endorsing JFK.
While at The Wellesley News, Ephron gradually moved away from her focus on politics to novel and film critiques.
In reviewing “Judgment at Nuremberg,” Ephron observes, “After an hour and a half, intermission brings the chance to pay an exorbitant quarter for a soft drink…and the temptation to leave and avoid the traffic jam around the Boston Common. But don’t do it!”
She found “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to be “dazzling,” noting, “Holly Golightly has got it made.”
Her well-trained critical eye, imperative to her political journalism, also reflected her interest in entertainment. Her parents, Henry and Phoebe, were screenwriters themselves. Their work includes “Take Her, She’s Mine,” a 1963 film about a daughter who leaves her Southern Californian home to attend a women’s college on the East Coast. The script is based off of Ephron’s experience at Wellesley and also includes quotes from letters she wrote to her parents as a student.
Ephron’s view of Wellesley was a complex and evolving one. We might regard her as a typical “Wellesley Woman”—opinionated, informed and open-minded—but that was not the type that was conventional to the mold that Wellesley, and society in general, prescribed to 50 years ago. Conservatism not only held the political majority on campus, but also the social one. She began her critique of Wellesley in a 1972 essay entitled “Reunion,” published in her book, “Crazy Salad: Some Things about Women.” In the preface, she admits that part of her reason for beginning a women’s column at Esquire was her need for an excuse to go to her tenth reunion at Wellesley College. She simply wanted to observe and write about the ways in which her alma mater had changed.
Writing during the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, Ephron had plenty of criticism to offer regarding Wellesley’s conventions during her time as a student ten years prior. “How marvelous it would have been to go to a women’s college that encouraged impoliteness, that rewarded aggression, that encouraged argument,” she writes. “What do you think? What is your opinion? No one ever asked.”
Although Ephron was ahead of her time, constantly forming opinions and expressing them in her writing, she admits to succumbing to society’s standards. Wellesley in 1962 didn’t really teach her otherwise, as she explained in her 1996 Commencement address. The beauty of the campus was “an idyll before a rude awakening” to a “real world” where double standards favored men. Before rising to her powerful, self-defined career, the recently graduated Ephron endured menial tasks at Newsweek, such as “mail girl,” “clipper” and “fact-checker.”