Sometimes when people ask about Nora, I feel like saying, "There are three other Ephron sisters." Delia and Amy have screenplays and best-selling books to their credit. Even though I got a late start, first publishing an essay when I was 50 years old, I've since written eight suspense novels. But to understand any of us, including Nora, you'd have to start with our mother—a woman well ahead of her time. Of all the Ephron women, she was surely the most exceptional, for better or worse.

Phoebe Wolkind Ephron cracked wise like Dorothy Parker and looked like Katharine Hepburn. She marched for Sacco and Vanzetti and voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party of America's candidate for president. She hated to shop, didn't do housework, and never chatted on the phone or met friends for lunch.

One early photograph captures her in a rare maternal moment: sitting in a chair, feeding a baby—Nora. It is June of 1941. My mother is 27 years old. The portrait is lovely, and yet the longer I look at it, the more it seems suspect, this semblance of domesticity.

When she got pregnant, she'd had to quit work, as women did in those days. She went from being a secretary for a top Broadway producer to walking a baby carriage up and down Riverside Park, near the apartment she and my father shared with her parents. She must have appreciated the irony of it—playing the role of traditional wife yet naming her firstborn for Nora Helmer, the character who famously walks out on a stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. My mother, too, was determined to be more than a "doll-wife."

My father, Henry Ephron, didn't expect her to stay home and take care of the kids. Stage manager for Broadway legends Kaufman and Hart, he had for years been churning out plays he couldn't convince anyone to produce. When Nora was still an infant, he asked my mother not to go back to work but to collaborate with him.

Why not? He had connections. She could type. All they needed was a great idea. And she came up with one: An unhappy new mother moves in with her parents in a cramped apartment that's already crowded with crazy relatives. She arrives, alone and in tears with the baby and a carriage and a pile of diapers. The baby cries. The new mother cries. The maid (it seems even families in two-bedroom apartments had one in those days) quits. It's a farce with the baby as the whoopee cushion. This was my mother's brand of alchemy, transforming unhappiness into comedy—her ticket out.

Three's a Family opened in 1943 and ran for 497 performances. The Playbill credits writers "Phoebe and Henry Ephron." She insisted her name come first.

Next: Inside the unusual family life of the Ephrons


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