Nora Ephron Memorial: Warm, Funny Tributes by Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Rosie O’Donnell
Everyone is reading and quoting Nora Ephron now. On the subway, on Twitter, in every living room on the Upper East Side. For those who loved her, this is both wonderful and a nightmare. New York has never sounded more like her New York, which is the best New York. But it’s a trick. Her voice is everywhere, and she is gone.
Fortunately, and oh so Nora-ly, she planned her own memorial service before she went. On Monday, Nora’s New York gathered in Alice Tully Hall for this service, which she detailed, they told us, in a file marked “Exit.” She chose who would speak, in what order and for how long. The entire thing was to take 47 minutes.
It was the express wish of her family that anything written for or about Nora’s Exit be “as funny as possible.” So we will glance over the part where everyone spent two hours going in and out of sobbing fits over this monstrous and seemingly unbearable loss.
Nora also hated adjectives. And complaining.
Martin Short began the service, but his speech is mostly unquotable in a humor piece. I know this because I cannot read the quotes in my notebook, because I have cried all over that page. He told a story of his last night with Nora and her husband, Nicholas Pileggi. It was April 25, “a night of celebration, a night of bliss.” He expressed his joy at “having them all to myself, not having any of you around.” He told another story, of how Nora came over every night with piles of food after his wife’s death in 2010. He attributed a quote to her—“Hazelnuts are what’s wrong with Europe”—that her sister Delia, when speaking later in the service, said had actually been her (Delia’s) observation.
“Nora didn’t have opinions, she had decrees,” said Richard Cohen, The Washington Post columnist, who spoke next. “Was there anyone in the world with more opinions?” Delia said later. “The planet is practically opinionless now.” There was some disagreement about how right she was. “Nora was never wrong,” Cohen said. Nora was wrong about 10 percent of the time, maybe 12, Delia said later.
One of Nora’s opinions was that this life is all we get. Her son Max recounted a conversation with family friend Diana Sokolow, which occurred after her death from leukemia late last month. “I hope when I die I go to heaven,” Sokolow told Max, “so I can go right up to Nora and say: ‘Ha! I was right about something.’”
This is a typical Nora fantasy, and everyone at the service had one, of marching up to Nora and saying something. Of having Nora to march up to.
“There’s something so consoling about her certainty that every one of us was a complete mess,” said the director Mike Nichols, who recounted his first grilling from Nora in her journalism days. Rosie O'Donnell, doing a monologue about purses from the play "Love, Loss, and What I Wore," perfectly captured Nora's glee in the absurd.
“The things that were wonderful were truly marvelous, and the things that were terrible were mostly hilarious,” said her son Jacob, who is so like his mother—so clever and quick and cutting and kind, in such a deeply familiar way—that when he took the stage on Monday, and for the duration of his speech, it was difficult to breathe. If you were a friend of Nora’s, or if you are a fan, it was possible in the last two weeks to come to some sort of rational place about her passing. And then Jacob goes up on stage and says something like, “If she believed any less in the idea of victimhood she would have been a Republican,” and that’s it. Forget about the rest of the day. Just go home, take Heartburn off the nightstand, and get to it.
“She was what invisibly warmed us, like central heating,” Nichols said.
“She was a breathtaking original,” said Meryl Streep.
“No one was wiser than Nora,” said Short.
“Nora knew everybody,” said Cohen. She was the first to everything. “If I had a book, she had a galley. If I had a galley, she had a manuscript. If I had a manuscript, she knew the author.”
She reached out to countless writers over the years, especially women, including me. No one was bigger than Nora to me, and her kindness was an unfathomable thrill, and I was just one of hundreds of people at this service, tucked into a far-back row. Nora did this sort of thing by the thousands, Delia recalled. She was a professional and effortless encourager of writers.
Also, she could really cook. Cohen recalled their travels together and a time she cursed the waitstaff of an Italian restaurant that served them “pizza a là dreck.” Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson did a bit about Nick and Nora’s relationship, “as perfect as a marriage could get,” which focused on their obsession with feeding their friends. Delia told of making Nora pineapple shakes with canned pineapple, not fresh, when she was in the hospital. Max told of baking pies with his mother before Thanksgiving dinner, which by her decree they ate not at 2 p.m. but at “7, like civilized people.”
The programs for the memorial service came with recipes in them.
Max told of the week he had chicken pox at age 7, which Nora would later reference as the period “when you loved me.” And there was the time when Richard Pryor died. Pryor had once propositioned Nora, and when Max called to tell her of his death in 2005, she said, “And to think, he almost was your father.”
“Everybody said everything I was going to say and better,” Meryl Streep said when it was her turn. Under any other circumstance, if she were signed up to give a speech at a memorial service, Streep said she would have called Nora and coaxed her into writing the speech for her. Because Nora said “everything you wished you could say.” She never sat down when she was directing a movie. She hated surprises.
“She only really liked something if she had invented or discovered it herself,” said Delia. Happily, she invented or discovered most good things.
At the end of the memorial, J.J. Sacha, her assistant of 14 years and recipient of everyone's calls, introduced a highlight reel Nora edited herself, a small annotated explanation of our affection for her.
“I believe when people pass, they zoom into the souls of the people who love them most,” said Short. Now “all of us have a piece of Nora.”
Out of respect for her family, I will say only this: In addition to everything else we all have gotten from Nora, I now, after her memorial service, also have her recipe for goose. It calls for one goose liver, one heart, one gizzard and a substantial portion of butter, pureed and stuffed inside the goose, which is cooked and basted in its own “hot fat.” It sounds heart-cloggingly rich and borderline inedible, but I’m going to cook it as soon as I can.
Because Nora was always right.