Amid the tributes that poured out after Nora Ephron's 2012 death, one anecdote was repeated often. It was about Phoebe Ephron, Nora's hard-driving screenwriter mother, who became a cirrhotic alcoholic and on her deathbed instructed her eldest daughter, "You're a reporter, Nora, take notes."
Ephron would return to this command, along with another of her mother's dictums, "Everything is copy," to explain why so many writers in her family shared a gift for transforming the ugly guts of life into sometimes wrenching, often hilarious narrative.
The publication of "The Most of Nora Ephron" (Knopf: 576 pp., $35) makes clear that commandments such as "Take notes" and "Everything is copy" weren't just maternal pro-tips; they were the sustaining themes of Ephron's life and writing.
That writing, laid out here, includes her early coverage of 1970s media and the women's movement; her 1983 novel "Heartburn" (the raucous reimagining of her divorce from journalist Carl Bernstein); the screenplay for "When Harry Met Sally"; many of her blog entries for the Huffington Post; and essays on aging that Ephron published in the collections "I Feel Bad About My Neck" and "I Remember Nothing."
It's the work of a brilliant woman who took copious notes on four decades of tumultuous social and political history and who exerted astonishing authorial control over the story of her own place within that history.
"The Most of Nora Ephron" spans her internship in the Kennedy White House, her attempts to tell everyone that she knew who "Deep Throat" was and her 2008 conviction that, even as a woman and a black man competed for the Democratic nomination, it would still be white male voters who would determine the outcome (about this, if little else, Ephron was wrong).
With this expansive long view, it's possible to see Ephron returning to certain obsessions, making the book an affecting tale of evolving opinions and expanding options for women. Ephron's damning 1972 take on her alma mater, Wellesley College, makes way, 34 years later, for a terrific commencement speech, in which she urges Wellesley graduates, "Above all, be the heroine of your own life, not the victim."
And she carries us from 1950s Hollywood, when her careerist mother gets dinged by an equally careerist female journalist, to millennial Hollywood, when Ephron proclaims that "Panels on Women in Film" are among the things she will not miss when she's dead.
Which brings us to the things she will not miss when she's dead.
The great, dastardly thing about this volume is the way it is arranged (by Ephron's longtime editor Robert Gottlieb) to build to a powerful, elegiac crescendo.
"There are no secrets," Ephron wrote in a 2006, the year that she herself began harboring a doozy: the secret of her illness.
Reading the writing of her last years here, a reader marvels that that secret held at all, since it's clear retrospectively that by the time she was penning those uproarious bestsellers about aging, Ephron was quite openly taking notes on her own death.
"Death is a sniper," she wrote, in the most haunting essay from "I Feel Bad About My Neck." "It strikes people you love, people you like, people you know, it's everywhere. You could be next."
A few years later, came those lists of what she'd miss (her kids, her husband, "the concept of waffles") and what she wouldn't (email).
There were her questions about mortality: "Do you splurge or do you hoard?" and her regrets, like the ones about her best friend, who called her one day to mention a lump on her tongue and was dead within a year. "I meant to have a conversation with Judy about death," Ephron wrote in 2006. "Before either of us was sick or dying."
There are clues even in her brief posts for the Huffington Post, including an almost frenzied 2008 take on former Sen. John Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, who had cancer.
"I disagree with Elizabeth Edwards when she says there are only two choices — to go on living, or begin dying," Ephron wrote. "What I believe … is that at a certain point in life, whether or not you've been diagnosed with illness, you enter into a conscious, ongoing … negotiation between the two…. This negotiation often includes decisions as trivial as whether to eat a second piece of pie, and as important as whether to have medical treatment that may or may not prolong your life."
Nora Ephron was a friend and a generous mentor to me. The last time I saw her was two months before she died. Unusually for her, she was late for lunch, having been waylaid at a doctor's appointment. Was something wrong? I asked. "It's a thing that's just not even worth talking about. Have you had the biscuits here? Let's order them immediately." Nora, who loved food but ate it carefully, enjoyed a couple of those biscuits, slathered with butter.
Reading "The Most of Nora Ephron" is like revisiting that lunch, as I have countless times over the last 18 months, smacking myself for not seeing what was right in front of my eyes … what she was telling me, what she was telling all of us, the very thing she did not want us to know.
It was a dizzying final act of authorial control, and this big, gratifying collection shows it off: Ephron's determination, above all, to be the heroine of her own death, never its victim.
She pulled it off, and she left us with a stirring portrait of both a nation in flux and of an extraordinary woman who retained a tight grip on her place within it, right till the end.