For a generation of writers and filmmakers, particularly women, she was a witty role model who reinvented the romantic comedy in hits like ''When Harry Met Sally...'' and ''You've Got Mail''

By Mark Harris
Updated July 18, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

In her 1996 commencement address at Wellesley College outside Boston, Nora Ephron told a rising generation of best-and-brightest young women that they could, despite every naysayer, have it all — and she exhorted them not to be frightened. ”You can always change your mind,” she said. ”I know. I’ve had four careers and three husbands.”

The remark was emblematic Ephron: optimistic, witty, perfectly phrased, and finished off not with a boast but with a wink. Her passing on June 26 at age 71 spurred the kind of intimate and heartfelt public tribute that isn’t accorded many writers. The emotional reaction was a testament to the success she achieved in her multiple vocations and avocations — groundbreaking essayist, journalist, screenwriter, director, novelist, playwright, blogger, foodie, and feminist who led by ardency, wit, and example. But beyond that, it was an acknowledgment, and in a way a reciprocation, of the warmth and force of her personality in every medium in which she deployed her extraordinary voice.

Nora Ephron was very, very funny. (And a great architect of prose; for instance, she probably would have known enough to put the preceding sentence two paragraphs higher.) As a writer of romantic comedies, she was never better than when she let her characters in When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail self-dramatizingly bemoan their own fates — because she understood that true romance is hilarious and crushing and melodramatic and preposterous all at once.

She could also be lean and astringent (as in the screenplay for Silkwood that brought her the first of three Oscar nominations), heartbreaking (in her fine essay on mortality, ”Consider the Alternative”), deeply insightful about other writers (in her underappreciated 2002 play about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, Imaginary Friends), even politically ferocious. But above all she was remarkably generous, as a writer and a person — tickled and appalled by grandiosity in others, never protective of her well-earned status, always eager to engage with a new generation of voices and to hear them flourish. Not solely female voices, but perhaps especially. So many smart and funny women across so many decades, from Gail Collins to Sarah Silverman to Tina Fey to Lena Dunham, owed her something, even if she never would have considered calling in the debt.

She was a hybrid. She had a journalist’s gift for observation and a dramatist’s knack for transformation. She frequently told the story of the deathbed advice of her own mother, a screenwriter: ”Take notes.” In the early 1960s, just out of Wellesley herself, she put her eyes and ears and mind to use as the Peggy Olson of New Journalism — the girl in the room who was smarter and sharper than the boys who still thought she was there to get the coffee, but the one who was destined to run the whole show someday. She became an essayist whose insights were so acute she would have come off as formidable except that she was so much more interested in being approachable. And she was never so incisive as when things went wrong. The collapse of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein became the spark for the novel and movie Heartburn, an enduring example of why revenge really is a dish best served cold. And because she was, among other things, a great cook, she could make even a cold dish taste really terrific.

In 1980 Ephron wrote beautifully about the journalistic peril of the word I. ”The best approach to its use ought to be discomfort,” she contended. ”Do you really need it? Does it add something special to the piece? Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care? Are you saying something that no one has said? Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you’re covering?” With a resounding yes as my answer to her last question, I’m going to fall short of her standards here — if only to say I was lucky to know her a little in the last decade. That was long enough for me to marvel at how lightly she wore her many achievements.

I wondered sometimes if her uncanny ability to dispense great advice ever depleted her. If she got tired of fans saying ”I’ll have what she’s having” and then waiting expectantly, as if she’d have a ready comeback. If she was aware of the number of journalists who keep her in their heads as they write, trying to remember not to overswing, not to throw a punch where a tap would do, not to put themselves at a story’s center except when it’s just too good a story not to tell. Did writing come as easily to her as the results made it appear? I don’t know, because she always seemed too interested in other people to spend time taking victory laps in celebration of her own successes. ”I have not yet reached the nadir of old age, the Land of Anecdote,” she wrote a couple of years ago. ”But I’m approaching it.”

If she’d gotten there, she undoubtedly would have colonized that land in some delightful and unexpected way. Instead she leaves us with one last exceptional accomplishment. Fifty years as a woman of letters, and Nora Ephron never got old.

The Essential Nora Ephron
Wallflower at the Orgy (1970)

In a collection of her early journalism, Ephron displays her inimitable wit with sharp observations on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the culinary world’s latest obsessions (at the time, soufflés and meringues), and Mike Nichols — who later directed two of her screenplays.

Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (1975)

In addition to having one of the best titles of all time, this terrifically tart essay collection tackles women’s breasts, Watergate, and the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Tragically, the book is currently out of print (and unavailable as an e-book).

Silkwood (1983)

Ephron’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, co-written with Alice Arlen, is based on the true story of nuclear-industry whistle-blower Karen Silkwood. The film also earned nods for Meryl Streep, Cher, and director Mike Nichols.

Heartburn (1983)

Ephron’s only novel, the thinly disguised chronicle of the end of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, is arguably the funniest book about adultery and heartbreak ever written.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Ephron’s script is the gold standard for modern romantic comedies, and forever changed how we look at our friends of the opposite sex.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Inspired by the 1957 Cary Grant–Deborah Kerr romantic classic An Affair to Remember, this film (written and directed by Ephron) daringly kept its winsome leads, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, apart from each other for virtually the entire running time. Until that memorable final scene atop the Empire State Building, of course.

Wellesley College commencement address (1996)

Ephron returned to her alma mater to deliver stirring and inspirational advice to a new crop of female grads: “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there.”

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

Hanks and Ryan reteam in an unapologetic valentine to New York City’s Upper West Side (and a loose remake of the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner). And writer-director Ephron spins an annoying late-’90s catchphrase into a powerful ode to personal connections in an Internet age.

I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006)

In a tribute to (or perhaps lament on) aging, Ephron muses shrewdly and with surprising poignancy about loose skin, hair dye, plastic surgery, and love affairs with rent-stabilized Manhattan apartments.

Julie & Julia (2009)

In her final film as writer and director, Ephron combined many of her touchstones: love, cooking, and Julia Child. Worth seeing for Streep’s performance as the iconic chef and for the very moving portrayal of a happy and adult marriage.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore (2009)

A stripped-down but well-dressed Off Broadway hit about women’s love-hate relationship with clothing (and body image), co-written with her sister Delia and based on Ilene Beckerman’s best-seller. —Sara Vilkomerson