Nora Ephron: The First Modern Woman I Knew

Nora Ephron was the first modern woman that agent Robert Bookman ever knew. He writes about her natural, effortless quality.

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I met Nora Ephron in the mid-1970s through Lynn Nesbit, who was her lifetime literary agent and my close colleague at ICM, then the dominant talent agency.

I was a neophyte motion picture literary agent in Los Angeles and Nora, recently divorced from the writer Dan Greenberg with whom she had collaborated unsuccessfully on some television projects, had written a script with her new husband, Carl Bernstein, called The Eastern Shuttle. Lynn sent me the script to see if I could sell it. Thus began a more than decade long relationship with one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the pleasure to know, a relationship that went through three discrete phases, a relationship that introduced me to the first woman I can call a “modern woman.”

The so-called women’s movement exploded in the mid-sixties. Its mostly celebrated early proponents were all smart, articulate, and angry. Anger is not fun. Nora was always fun (not to mention funny, as everyone knows). And natural. On top of smart and articulate. The Eastern Shuttle was arguably not Nora’s finest screenplay. A lot of screenwriting is craft—Nora was just learning that key part of it—but the underlying sensibility was of an effortless equality between the two sexes. The eponymous Eastern Shuttle was the now-defunct Eastern Air Lines commuter plane that flew hourly between New York and Washington, the two cities where the protagonists lived, respectively, and worked apart from each other, being reunited every weekend in one city or the other. The two protagonists shared an easygoing equality of status, not of roles or skills or power or any of the other lenses that sexual politics were always viewed through at that time. It was natural, and because it was natural it was effortless. That attitude was new, it was fresh, and it was modern.

In the early 80s I was an executive at ABC Motion Pictures, the second of two failed attempts by the network to create an ongoing motion picture production company. We had gotten lucky for once. The television movie division owned the rights to the Karen Silkwood story, Meryl Streep wanted to play Karen Silkwood under the direction of Mike Nichols, and Mike Nichols wanted Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen to write the screenplay.

The movie Silkwood went on to great acclaim with multiple Oscar nominations including Original Screenplay. What I remember most vividly about the script was Karen Silkwood’s character. It was not so much that she was heroic or even a heroic woman. It was that she was a funny, fully fleshed-out, flawed human being who happened to be a woman and who tried to do the right thing in an inhumanly stressful situation, not asking for any special treatment as a woman. She was the modern working woman revealed in all her glory on screen for the first time.

The final phase was the most personal. By the mid-80s Nora was famously divorced from Carl Bernstein, leaving her with two young boys to raise with no father at home. I had just divorced my wife who had then moved back to France with our young son. I was beyond bereft. Every time I came to New York in that period, Nora would meet me for breakfast at E.A.T. on Madison and give me practical advice to help me be a father six thousand miles away from my son. It was Nora who told me to call Gary every day even if he didn’t want to speak to me. I always did and he usually did. I believe that it became the glue of our relationship that created an inseparable father-son relationship to this day. This was the modern-woman understanding how to cope with the reality and new rules of the modern family.

To me, the first modern woman on the silver screen was Nora Charles in The Thin Man, played by Myrna Loy, who was married to Nick Charles, played by William Powell in the 1934 classic. It was an uncanny parallel that when the first modern woman in my life, another Nora, finally met the man of her life, it was another Nick, Nick Pileggi. Nick and Nora. It sounds right. It sounds modern. It sounds timeless.