This Day in Jewish History / A Screenwriter Who Lived as an Art Form Dies

Phoebe Ephron was a pioneer in female careerism who didn’t have time for her daughters unless they took the trouble to be interesting.

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YouTube screenshot of a scene from Captain Newman, M.D., co-written by Phoebe Ephron
YouTube screenshot of a scene from Captain Newman, M.D., co-written by Phoebe Ephron
David Green
David B. Green

January 26, 1914, is the birthdate of Phoebe Ephron, a playwright and screenwriter who regularly reminded her four daughters, even as she lay on her deathbed, to “take notes” about everything, as “everything is copy.” Those daughters – Nora, Delia, Hallie and Amy – took their mother at her word: Each would become a successful writer, most notably Nora Ephron, a journalist, novelist, screenwriter and director who died in 2012.

Phoebe Wolkind Ephron was born in New York, and grew up in the Bronx. Her father was Lewis Wolkind, a dress manufacturer, and her mother the former Kate Lautkin. Phoebe attended James Monroe High School and Hunter College.

According to the memoir Henry Ephron wrote in 1977, “We Thought We Could Do Anything,” he met his future wife at a party at her home in the Bronx in 1933. He thought she looked like Katharine Hepburn and fell for her immediately.

Why people get married

At the time, Henry worked as a stage manager for the playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and wrote plays of his own when he was free. None had been produced, but Henry was optimistic. Shortly after they met, he proposed to Phoebe, telling her, “I expect to be a good playwright soon and I have no time for courtship. Will you marry me?”

Phoebe asked to read one of his plays. He gave her one, and the next day she said yes. The couple eloped during a day off from the summer camp where they were both working in 1934.

Years later, Henry thought to ask her what she would have done if she hadn’t liked his play. She never read it, she responded: “I was dating a boy who played third base for the Jersey City Giants, and I was looking for somebody smart. Also, you didn’t try to sleep with me the first night.”

After seven years of marriage, the couple had their first child, Nora, in 1941. Soon after, Henry told Phoebe about an idea he had for a play, about a couple in which the wife went to work each day while the husband stayed home and raised the children. At the time, it was an eccentric concept.

They wrote the play together, called it “Three’s a Family,” and it ran on Broadway for nearly 500 performances before the couple adapted it for the screen.

Sad? Write a screenplay for mother

Between 1944 and 1963, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, now living in California, wrote the screenplays for such films as “Look for the Silver Lining” (1940), “Carousel” (1956) and “Captain Newman, M.D” (1963), adapted from the Leo Rosten novel of the same name, which was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Phoebe Ephron presented herself to the world as a full-time professional woman who had no time for housework. She told a reporter from the New York Times in 1958 that “I don’t go into the kitchen very often, except for ice cubes for a drink.”

Unfortunately, Phoebe drank a lot, particularly toward the end of her life. And though the domestic comedies she and Henry wrote gave an idealized, romantic view of family life, her daughters all testified to a lack of emotional support from their mother.

Writing in O Magazine in 2013, Hallie Ephron noted that, “our mother called her brand of mothering ‘letting them make their own mistakes.’” Nora wrote how, if one of her daughters came to Phoebe “with a sad story, she had no interest in it whatsoever. ‘Turn it into a funny story. Get back to me. I will be interested.’”

In the 1960s the family moved back to New York, where Henry and Phoebe hoped to work in the theater again. But the ideas didn’t come as fast as in the past, Henry was a serial philanderer, and Phoebe’s drinking problem had become serious.

In the summer of 1971, Henry returned home from a weekend visit to Delia, to find that all the alcohol in the apartment had been consumed. Phoebe was hospitalized briefly, but after she came home, and assisted by Henry, she took an overdose of sleeping pills. Phoebe Ephron died on October 13, 1971, at the age of 57. Henry died in 1992.

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