Life, Death, and Everything Is Copy: Nora Ephron’s Final, Most Revealing Lessons

No writer revealed more about her own life than Nora Ephron. But if everything is copy, why didn’t she write about dying? A new HBO doc from her son searches for an answer.

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How do you write about the life of Nora Ephron?

That sentence sat lonely in an otherwise blank Word document for hours. It’s not that there isn’t an answer—many have, and beautifully—but that it seemed like a fool’s errand to even try.

It makes some people feel good to put into words how much an artist has meant to them. It makes me feel inadequate.

The truth is, though, that no one wrote about Nora Ephron’s life better, wittier, or more completely than Ephron herself.

I could try to tell you why the stories in I Feel Bad About My Neck had me in stitches. I could attempt to explain why “A Few Words About Breasts” is the perfect personal essay and When Harry Met Sally will forever be the seminal rom-com. Or insist her toast to Meryl Streep at the AFI tribute to the Oscar winner demands weekly life-affirming viewings.

They’re all self-effacing and sharp and clear-voiced and at once simple and profound, and those are just a few insufficient adjectives to describe words and writing that you should really just go bathe in yourself because they, I kid you not, have real rejuvenating power.

But the reason I am trying to write about the life of Nora Ephron is that I need to write about a documentary premiering Monday night about that very thing: the life of Nora Ephron. And I need to write about it because I need to implore you to watch.

Everything Is Copy airs on HBO on Monday, written and directed by Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein, a reporter for The New York Times and, at one point, it’s only fair to reveal, a writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

While we’re making disclosures, Barry Diller, who is chairman and senior executive of IAC—the company that owns The Daily Beast—also appears in the film. He and Ephron went to high school together. Ephron fired him from the school newspaper staff. Now he writes my checks. Look: Everything is copy.

That phrase lends the film its title because of its primacy in how we viewed Ephron’s writing. Divorce, aging, love, bliss, and bitterness: Whether it was the simple indignity of a dress not fitting or a sweeping life-changing moment like a marriage, it was all fodder—a philosophy, we learn in the early moments of Everything Is Copy, that came from Ephron’s screenwriter mother.

“I now believe what my mother meant is this,” Ephron explains in posthumous voice over. “When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim of the joke. I think that’s what she meant. On the other hand, she may merely have meant: Everything is copy.”

But grappling with the loss of his mother to leukemia in 2012, after a years-long battle with illness that those closest to Ephron—for a long time, including Bernstein—were uncharacteristically unaware of, Bernstein wonders out loud in his own voice over, “What is the cost of ‘Everything is copy’? Did my mom really believe this mantra of hers?”

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A red carpet’s worth of luminaries, each a close confidante of Ephron’s, and each making you reevaluate the bleak social capital of your own rolodex, speaks lovingly about the writer in expectedly charming, intelligent, and pithy interviews: Carl Reiner, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Gay Talese, Rosie O’Donnell, Lena Dunham, Rita Wilson, David Remnick, Mike Nichols, Liz Smith.

If we thought we knew everything about Ephron’s life because of her writing style, these people in her intimate circle knew everything. But they didn’t know that she was going to die, because she didn’t tell them. That wasn’t just not copy. It wasn’t to be discussed.

Suddenly, the life of Nora Ephron, albeit in a morbid way, becomes more interesting.

Just as I was hesitant to write, let alone try to write entertainingly, about the work and legacy of this woman whose own real-time chronicling of those very things speaks for itself, it’s arguable that a documentary attempting the same would be just as fruitless. Well, as fruitless as a documentary about a person this magnetic and entertaining could be. (I’d still watch. Probably twice.)

But Bernstein’s investigative reporting skills raise a greater, more probing question, and in his reporting throughout the documentary, ultimately a more revealing portrait of a woman who has already revealed so much.

“For decades, my mother put her private life front and center, writing about her life front and center, writing about her feelings of physical inadequacy, the indignities of aging, and the breakup of her marriage to my father,” Bernstein narrates. “Why, after being so open about everything else, did she choose not to address the most significant crisis of her life?”

Any fan of Ephron’s will relish Everything Is Copy’s jaunt through her life. There’s growing up in California, finding salvation in New York, her rise in journalism and then in Hollywood, and assorted quippy assessments of her tougher-than-we-might-have-guessed personality.

“I thought she was very funny and very mean,” says Barbara Walters. “And at one point she was mean about me and I just had to remember: she was very funny.” Tom Hanks guffaws still, decades later, in disbelief recounting how she fired the first kid she had hired to play his son in Sleepless in Seattle. The number of people she got whacked from movies actually becomes a running joke. “It is very powerful to be someone who is both loved and feared,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein worked two years to convince his father, famed journalist and not-so-thinly veiled subject of Ephron’s Heartburn, Carl Bernstein, to agree to be interviewed for the film. The conversation is almost voyeuristic, as the two work out blame, love, and resentment in front of cameras. It’s in stark, and clever, contrast to more performative standout moments in films: dramatic readings of Ephron’s best work by the likes of Lena Dunham, Rita Wilson, Meg Ryan, and Reese Witherspoon.

The film deepens when Bernstein starts picking the brains of his mom’s friends for answers about her silence when it came to dying, even as she continued to be prolific in all her other work.

It’s wrenching as they begin recounting long lunches, dinner dates, and emails simply to say “I love you” that they received toward the end. It’s in hindsight that they say they should’ve known they were for her to say goodbye. She was more tender. She laughed easier. Her heart poured through everything, least of which was Julie & Julia, a love letter to her greatest passions: New York, Paris, food, writing, her sister, and her husband.

Bernstein seems to arrive at an answer, or at least the best he can surmise.

“I think at the end of my mom’s life she believed that everything is not copy,” he says. “That the things you want to keep are not copy. That the people you love are not copy. That what is copy is the stuff you’ve lost, the stuff you’re willing to give away, the things that have been taken from you. She saw everything is copy as a means of controlling the story. Once she became ill, the means to control the story was to make it not exist.”

After a lifetime of learning things about myself from reading Nora Ephron discuss what she’s learned about herself, it’s one more—and perhaps the greatest—lesson. And it’s come after her death.

“I don’t believe in closure,” Bernstein told me after a recent screening of Everything Is Copy at HBO’s offices in New York.

He was in the tail end of a nearly year-long promotional push for the film, coming after over two years of painstaking work on the film—endless stories about his late mother to parse through, infinite footage of her to mine and edit—all coming after her devastating passing itself.

The question of closure was asked often in that process. He understands the curiosity. But he’s, in the family way, blunt about not believing in it.

“I think it’s a highly overrated American concept,” he continued. “I think that the movie was the opposite of closure. I think it was continuance. I think it afforded me an ability to keep having a relationship with my mother after she died. That we went from conservations on the phone and dinners and vacations to rewatching her on the monitor and rereading all the old stuff.”

If not closure, then what? What did he get out of doing this—it’s not every person who gets to work through the loss of a parent in such a way—and was it what he had expected, or maybe even needed?

“The hardest thing about this, in some way, was letting it go,” he said. He remembered premiering the doc at the New York Film Festival in September, an event attended by many of Ephron’s friends, many of whom also appeared in the film. The reviews came in that night, and they were great. That made him feel good, at least for a while.

Then his former New York Times colleague Lynn Hirschberg told him she was worried how he was going to handle the filmmaking process being over, because he had his mother right there with him for the last two years. “And in fact she was right,” Bernstein said. “I don’t have an answer to that. It was in some ways easier doing this.”

After this, Bernstein and I took a short walk through Times Square, an eerie reminder of how much, in the best ways, he’s like his mother.

We talked shop, and what it’s like to try to write good stories in a digital journalism space that doesn’t seem to particularly care if a story is good. Names were casually dropped—Cate Blanchett, Lena Dunham, “Reese”—but in a way that didn’t seem pretentious, but just about right from a writer born into a social circle but who earned his way into such great professional success.

It’s uncanny the ways he is like his mother, doling out advice—real, good advice—almost reflexively, and as eloquent in conversation as he is in his writing. It’s obnoxious and perhaps even ridiculous to find special significance in observing such similarity in spirit moments after watching a film about her life, and discussing the idea of “closure” with him. But obnoxious and ridiculous I will be.

When I make a move to the subway to head home, Bernstein giggles, sheepish but just hardly so. “I’m going to buy some sweatpants.” Sorry, Jacob. You’re beautiful like your mother, and your film is wonderful. And everything is copy.