Nora Ephron's Son Pens a Remembrance of His Mother's Final Days

Nora Ephron Julie and Julia Premiere - H 2012
Getty Images

Nora Ephron Julie and Julia Premiere - H 2012

The regular New York Times contributor shares a detailed account of his mother's health decline and how tabloid journalist Mike McAlary helped her cope with death.

A new account of Nora Ephron’s last days has been published by her son, New York Times contributor Jacob Bernstein.

In “Nora Ephron’s Final Act,” Bernstein narrates the secret decline of his mother’s health, from her first myelodysplastic syndrome diagnosis to her last moments of consciousness, which was marked by still-sharp jokes, crossword puzzles and hallucinations.

He remains in awe of his mother's diligent self-sufficiency amid various cancer treatments, noting that she wrote 100 blog posts, two plays and two books (which actually contain clues of her health status) and directed a movie. Ephron recovered from chemotherapy by penning a new TV pilot they were writing for Scott Rudin: “Because of my mother’s tremendous sense of will and a modest dose of steroids, the script was finished before the chemo was.”

PHOTOS: From 'When Harry Met Sally' to 'Sleepless in Seattle': 11 Movies From Nora Ephron's Celebrated Career

Bernstein believes that part of Ephron’s project-packed period toward the end of her life was because of Mike McAlary, a Pulitzer-winning tabloid journalist and key character of Lucky Guy, a role that will be played by Tom Hanks in his Broadway debut. “It occurred to me that part of what she was trying to do by writing about someone else’s death was to understand her own,” writes Bernstein of Ephron, who began working on the story -- which follows the terminally ill character -- in 1999 as a film for HBO. “As she saw him, McAlary was a role model not so much in life, but in death, in the way that he used writing to maintain his sense of purpose and find release from his illness.”

For example, Ephron included a poignant scene in the play where McAlary advises his 12-year-old son, Ryan, to do a flip off the diving board on a summer day. “When you do these things, you can’t be nervous. If you think about what can go wrong, if you think about the belly flop, that’s what’ll happen,” says McAlary, according to Bernstein.

“When she began directing, Nora was an inspiration for women filmmakers at a time when there were few female directors working in Hollywood," DGA president Taylor Hackford said last year. "Nora once said in the New Yorker, ‘You look at a list of directors, and it's all boys; so I thought, I'm just going to become a director, and that'll make it easier.' Nora, thanks for making it easier for the many directors who will continue to follow in your footsteps.”

At a memorial celebration following Ephron's death, Meg Ryan saluted her "unbelievable sweetness," while Carrie Fisher praised her infectious humor, saying, "When she'd speak with you, you'd lean in like it was a fire, to warm yourself by the fire of her personality."

Ephron died in June at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center of pneumonia brought on by acute myeloid leukemia. She was 71.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy also stars Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance, Christopher McDonald, Peter Gerety, Peter Scolari, Michael Gaston, Dustyn Gulledge, Deirdre Lovejoy, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Richard Masur and Stephen Tyrone Williams. The production is in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre, opens April 1 and runs until mid-June.