She was smart—scary smart.
From the time I started writing about food—the time I started writing, really—Nora Ephron was my ideal reader, the audience of one I hoped would somehow see my stuff and think the voice worth listening to. Her pieces in Esquire and New York were always smarter and sharper than anyone else's—and funnier, yes, but in a way, like her friend Calvin Trillin, that earned its humor from dogged reporting, and that slipped in punchlines with devastating slyness.
That meant an edge. In pieces like the 1976 "The Bennington Affair," about the scandal around a young college president, nobody looked good; she never lost that edge, however veiled in humor, as when in 2005 she called out Bill Clinton's charismatic but unrelenting hypocrisy. When she came to my college to speak at an afternoon gathering, she had a reputation for being scary-smart, with a cautionary emphasis on the "scary": if you said something clueless or otherwise unsophisticated, she would wave you away with a look or a literal wave of the arm. When I was first writing for magazines and asked her advice about finding sources for a story, she started by saying, "I shouldn't have to tell you this."
But then—the key fact—she told me. She made time for young people, always. When I was working at my first jobs, she would take me to Harman's, on East 49th Street, her favorite lunch counter, for BLTs and advice; later, during the life of The Food Channel on TheAtlantic.com, she would recommend young writers to me and watch and cheer their progress. The scary part of her that had once led a friend to say to me "I keep waiting for her to let me have it" seemed to evaporate, and leave in its stead distilled, pure generosity. Kurt Andersen, another friend, got that distillation in a tweet: "Every time I saw Nora Ephron, I felt like I'd lucked out. So smart, so funny, so wise, so clear-eyed, so kind, so incandescent and *good.*"