When Richard met Nora
Nora Ephron and I started out as enemies. I had written something about her, something she didn't like, and so when we met some time later, she turned on me with a cold fury and to a friend standing nearby spit out every one of my offending words -- one after another, precisely as I had typed them. I was awe-struck, also intimidated, and so some months later when she came to my door with her new boyfriend, Carl Bernstein, she coyly said, "This is going to be like the movies. We start as enemies and end as friends." She extended her hand. I took it and never let it go.
Last week, the movie ended. Nora died. She had been my friend through her stay in Washington and her marriage to Carl, the birth of her two boys, the breakup, her return to New York, her marriage to the screenwriter Nick Pileggi, the collections of her essays, the first novel, then one screenplay and then another, into film directing and then into plays as well -- the one about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, the one about women's clothes, the one she did about the late tabloid columnist Mike McAlary, which is set for Broadway. Toward the end, the books and the movies and the plays seemed to come cascading out of her, a gusher of creativity that was both stunning and humbling to watch. As only a few people knew, she was on deadline.
Nora was sure of everything, unsure of nothing. She was mystified by religious belief (What are they thinking?). She was a feminist and a liberal and a warm, expansive human being. She shepherded the wayward children of her friends -- finding them jobs, counseling them -- tended to her causes and charities and insisted, based on her own experience, that a woman could indeed have it all.
Nora took my life and renovated it. She decided that I should become a columnist and somehow it happened. She found summer rentals for me and made her friends mine, and she instructed me about love, writing, real estate and investments. I hardly made a move without her. When I wrote, especially if it was something we'd discussed, I felt her hovering over my shoulder: After 40 years, a "good column" from her meant the world to me. It was the best payday of all.
Nora read everything. She excavated the past for worthy books of yore -- she discovered Wilkie Collins and made me read him. She loved Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, but reveled in the tabloid muck as well. If you wanted to read something before she did, you'd have to go to a printing plant somewhere in Kentucky and steal the damn book. If you mentioned a movie, she'd seen it. If she hadn't seen it, she'd read the script or had it pitched to her. She set a mean table and cooked extraordinary stuff. No matter what she served, ideas were the main course -- not just for plays or books or movies or essays but as toys for adults, and even kids. She was a salonist. For Hemingway, Paris was a moveable feast. For her friends, Nora was.
I loved Nora Ephron. I loved her for her wit and compassion and her literary and personal courage. I loved her because she enriched my life and sat with me in the hospital while my wife was undergoing cancer surgery. I loved her because she loved my wife and my son, and because once in Washington she took on a whole Secret Service detail because they wouldn't let us park where we wanted. I loved her because she made her disease a secret, never a spectacle, and she used the time she had left to write wonderful stuff. I loved her because she made me tell her so.
I was -- I am -- a lucky man. My first day at The Washington Post I was seated next to Carl Bernstein. We became friends and then Nora and I became friends -- intense platonic lovers of one another in a way that Harry or Sally never could appreciate. The days since her death have been a kind of bottomless existence. Her friends are all at a loss; we float, unmoored. We could never believe our good fortune. We cannot comprehend our loss. I reach for the phone. I have an idea. I've read something. Did you know ... ? Of course you did.
I will never let go of her hand.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group