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Five years ago, I met Nora Ephron, the journalist-cum-film-maker (then 70) at a dinner party in New York. I was starstruck. That was partly because Ephron created some of my favourite films, such as When Harry Met Sally (1989). But in her life (she died in 2012) she was also that rare creature: a potent female role model for young wannabe journalists. She started working in the mail room of Newsweek in the 1960s, when women were rare in media, and then fearlessly ascended the career ladder to become one of the most trenchant, respected essayists of her time. Ephron’s hallmark was collecting threads from her own life — and from the lives of others — to weave provocative literary tapestries and films.

But did she have the right to use those threads of private human life in her essays? Where do the boundaries of privacy lie for Ephron — or any other writer? It is an intriguing question, and one that is doubly pertinent now since, this weekend, HBO is releasing a documentary about Ephron, made by her son, Jacob Bernstein.

© Shonagh Rae

I attended a preview of the movie, Everything is Copy, last week in New York (which, in a surreal twist of life-meets-art-inspires-life was also attended by many of those featured in the movie, such as Ephron’s ex-husband Carl Bernstein, Meg Ryan and the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta). I can report that the portrait is compelling. But it is also sobering for writers — of either sex.

Most notably, the title of the film refers to the dictum that Ephron’s mother reportedly lived by: namely that a writer should welcome good and bad things that happen to them (or to people they know), because it provides valuable “copy”, or material for stories and films. Indeed, Ephron’s mother lived by this rule so fervently that she told her daughter to “take notes” on her own deathbed.

Ephron did. During her career she wrote frankly about all aspects of her public and personal life; most famously, she penned a book on the high-profile break-up of her marriage to Bernstein, the brilliant journalist who helped uncover the Watergate scandal. When the book, Heartburn, was published, some considered it to be revenge but Ephron’s son and others suspect it was also driven by a need to exert control — with words. “By making it funny, she won,” a friend observes. Or, as Ephron herself once wrote: “When you slip on the banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on the banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke.”

There was a dark side to this: “She was mean,” some of Ephron’s friends complain in the film. Sometimes she could seem excessively frank. Her saving grace was that she was funny; and was as harsh — and honest — about herself as others. 

But there was a rub: when, in 2006, Ephron discovered that she had an incurable type of leukaemia, she kept her illness a secret. These days, when her friends reread her works, they can see hints of a “goodbye” in her 2010 collection of essays I Remember Nothing; but she, like David Bowie, told almost nobody that she was about to die. This caused hurt among friends and family. Some felt betrayed. Indeed, this seems to be one reason why her son has turned his mother’s death into “copy” by making this film (ultimately, he concluded Ephron’s silence about her impending death was because it was the one part of her life that words could not control).


That revelation is moving. It also raises questions for anyone — myself included — who makes a living by weaving stories from the threads of life: do we have the right to weave with other people’s threads? How much should we reveal about our own lives? I do not have any easy answers. Weaving linguistic tapestries is a wonderful, compelling art; indeed, if you are curious about life, it is almost addictive. But it is also risky — my own mistakes are seared into my brain. And, as Ephron once observed, we can turn into “cannibals”, eating the world around us. Even now, two decades into my career, I still hold my breath every time I press “send” on a story.

But, if nothing else, Everything is Copy should remind us to feel grateful for the writers who have blazed a trail, amid their mistakes. I only wish that I’d had the foresight to ask Ephron to explain her idea of “privacy” when I met her at dinner, all those years ago. She might have offered me some trenchant advice. And some great “copy”.

gillian.tett@ft.com

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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