Allison Adato, Sara Hammel, and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
July 16, 2012 12:00 PM

She lived her life, even the painful parts-especially the painful parts-on the page, and you had to laugh. The betrayal she felt when a sixth-grade friend outpaced her in the training-bra race (see the 1972 essay “A Few Words About Breasts”). The way she rallied when, weeks after giving birth, she was among the last to know her second husband was cheating (see Heartburn). The harsh dating truths-“When someone’s not that attractive, they’re always described as having a good personality”-she mulled during her single years (see When Harry Met Sally …).

Nora Ephron credited her parents, both screenwriters, with giving her a knack for spinning bad days into comedy. “If you came to them with a sad story,” she once recalled, “what they said was, ‘Someday you will think this is funny…. Everything is copy.'”

So when Ephron, 71, writer and director of films that blasted rom-com box office expectations, died June 26 of complications from acute myeloid leukemia, it shocked fans used to her riffs on such milestones as when to give up bikinis (age 34) and when to favor turtlenecks (43). Where was the Ephron take on the hilarious side of cancer?

This, her toughest struggle, she kept to herself. “Nora was very private this way,” says friend Sally Quinn. “She did not want people to feel sorry for her.” A few years ago Ephron was treated for myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disorder that often precedes her rare form of cancer. According to Quinn, Ephron checked into a New York hospital with a fever shortly after her birthday, May 19. Family, including sister Delia, husband Nick Pileggi and sons Max and Jacob Bernstein (from her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl), were with her throughout. News of her death stunned even close friends. “None of us knew she was sick,” says former New York Post columnist Liz Smith, who had known Ephron 40 years. “Nora seemed like she was in her prime. A light’s gone out of my life.”

Named for the take-this-marriage-and-stuff-it heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Ephron, the oldest of four girls raised in Beverly Hills, grew up and headed east. In 1961 she became an intern in the Kennedy White House (always conscious of the status good looks impart, she later noted she was the only one JFK never made a pass at) and later a “mail girl” at Newsweek, which didn’t hire female writers. Maddening, but a perfect point from which to carve her own path: from journalism to books to film. She hated being distinguished by her gender, but as pal Carrie Fisher noted, “Nora’s a trailblazer.” Her biggest hits delivered old-fashioned movie romance spiked with her keen observations. When You’ve Got Mail‘s Meg Ryan reads a flirty IM from Tom Hanks and asks, “What is it with men and The Godfather?”, viewers nod in recognition.

Even more fun than watching an Ephron film, it seems, was making one. Hanks, Ryan, Meryl Streep and Steve Martin were all repeat stars. “She was obsessed with the catering on a movie,” said Hanks’s wife, Rita Wilson, who appeared in Sleepless. “She believed good food made for happier crews.” Off-set, “she gave you books to read, took you to cafes you never heard of,” Hanks wrote in TIME. She had loads of friends and gave legendary but unpretentious dinner parties. Quinn recalls one with “the most delicious hot dogs.” There was so much she loved, and her specialty was sharing the joy. Which may explain why she had no time for tearful farewells. “It was her sense of wanting to live,” suggests friend Cynthia McFadden, “until she didn’t.”

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