‘Everything is Copy’ and Searching for Nora Ephron’s ‘Kimberly’

Heartburn (1986) | Paramount Pictures

Nora Ephron was married to Carl Bernstein shortly after he investigated the Watergate scandal, a feat that would lead to All the President’s Men, in which Dustin Hoffman became the first actor to immortalize him on film. Ephron was one of the first people to know the identity of the anonymous informant Deep Throat, and would tell anybody who asked that it was W. Mark Felt; nobody believed her, but she was right. She figured it out on her own by snooping through Bernstein’s notes—her own investigative journalism, at the expense of the investigative journalist she briefly called sweetheart (though I doubt she would have used that word for him). 

Ephron, the legendary screenwriter, director, and journalist in her own right who died in 2012, was best known for her sharp, specific, comedic sensibility, her vivid characters, and for her personal motto, which was later used to title a documentary film honoring her legacy: “Everything is Copy.” Ephron saw life as a story, and friends as characters. Everything and everyone was fair game; why invent a tragedy if you can just tell the tragedy of your own lived experience?

That’s how we got Heartburn, a divorce story and the second film to immortalize Carl Bernstein on-screen in an entirely different context (played by Jack Nicholson, no less); it’s how we got When Harry Met Sally, which Ephron repeatedly stated was the story of herself and her good friend Richard Cohen; and I suspect it’s how we got the Kimberlys. 

As a young Jewish lady and aspiring screenwriter, Ephron’s films were some of the first to reach out of the screen and grab me by the heart. It’s not just the clever scripts, the romantic endings, and the Meg Ryan of it all; a Nora Ephron film is also categorized by her particular method of environmental storytelling. There are certain recurring tropes and themes you can count on when you sit down to watch any movie from any auteur-adjacent filmmaker (I love Rachel Handler’s brilliant chaotic taxonomy of Nancy Meyers, as an exhaustive example)—I say auteur-adjacent, because while Ephron certainly was a multi-hyphenate auteur by definition, that title was, until very recently, reserved for the male filmmakers in her cohort. Even something like When Harry Met Sally, which Ephron wrote but did not direct, positively reeks of her style—a preference for New York City, for sweaters, for autumn, for talking fast, and for, uh, wealthy, white, heterosexual leads. 

And Kimberlys. Kimberlys are a shockingly consistent part of Nora Ephron’s environmental storytelling, showing up off-screen or in tiny, bite-sized roles in four separate Ephron scripts: she’s Sally’s ex-boyfriend’s new fiancee in When Harry Met Sally, she’s Jack Nicholson’s ex-wife in Heartburn (“The first Jewish Kimberly”), she’s an example of “one of those stupid 22-year-olds with no last name” in You’ve Got Mail, and she’s a terrible secretary in Hanging Up.

Once I noticed the Kimberlys, I couldn’t stop noticing them. Why were so many inconvenient characters in Nora Ephron movies named Kimberly? If we’re accepting Ephron’s own assertion that real-life hurt and heartbreak can be put into fiction with impunity, what did she have against some woman named Kimberly? Who was she? Where did she come from? And did she know she was in all of these movies? 

Taking a cue from Bernstein-marriage-era Nora Ephron, I went full private investigative journalism in my search for answers. I started with a cursory Google search of Ephron’s husbands—Bernstein (married 1976-1980), Dan Greenburg (married 1967-1976), and Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi (married 1987 until her death in 2012)—none of whom married or dated a Kimberly before or after she came into their lives. 

I searched “nora ephron Kimberly,” and when nothing came up immediately, 

 “nora ephron Kimberly help???????” 

I went through the IMDB pages for each and every Nora Ephron film, trying to find a Kimberly among the cast and crew who might lead me in the right direction. All I found was a set dresser on Julie & Julia whose name happened to be Kimberly Lieber—which, if you’ll note my byline, is exactly one letter off from my own last name. In this post-Ellis-Island Jewish world, we could even be related. 

I felt scandalized, to be honest—was I too close to the truth? Was I going to find out, at the end of it all, that I was a dumb, useless Kimberly, and this was actually a quest to find myself? Would Nora Ephron like me if she knew me, and if she knew I was diving so deep into this mess of half-clues she left behind? 

What would it mean if I was, in fact, Kimberly? I’d have to come to terms with the fact that I am not the main character of the universe, to begin with—being Kimberly means giving agita to the main character, not getting her happy ending. That’s a nightmare for several reasons; relinquishing self-identification with Ephron’s main characters would mean weakening the kinship I feel with Ephron the woman. Parasocial or not, that kinship is the thing that motivates me as an artist, and leads me to delusions of writer ladies like Ephron and Carrie Fisher and Gertrude Berg hanging out in Jewish heaven and pulling the strings that make my life work. I am comfortable with who I am because I’ve seen myself reflected in Sally Albright, Kathleen Kelly, and Annie Reed; I am comfortable with writing what I write because people like me have told their stories first. 

I asked my mom for advice, and she suggested I just reach out and ask Nora Ephron if she could tell me about Kimberly. Of course, my mom didn’t know Nora Ephron was dead, so that suggestion thrust her into a mourning period, and I was once again out of ideas.

Desperately, I made another Google search—I don’t know what I did, but I guess this one was more specific, or more pathetic, and Google decided to throw me a bone. I came upon a 2012 piece from The New York Times by Alessandra Stanley. She wrote: 

[Ephron] drew lessons not just from her own life but those around her. Literally. I was a fan long before I became a friend, and it took a while to know what “everything is copy” really meant. I laughed out loud the first time I read in Heartburn that the character Mark refers to his ex-wife as “The first Jewish Kimberly.” It was 10 years before I realized that one of Nora’s great friends, the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, had been married briefly to a Kimberly and came up with the line.

Could it be that Richard Cohen—the WaPo journalist and aforementioned inspiration for Harry in When Harry Met Sally, who was gifted Ephron’s prized Matisse drawing after her death—was the key to all of this? 

Would I discover that Nora Ephron harbored secret, long-term feelings for Cohen, the kind that made her so impassionately spiteful of his then-wife that she made sure to consecrate her as a near-mythic man-stealer or inept coworker in four of her celebrated screenplays? 

After a shockingly long search, had I tracked down the real Kimberly? 

Richard Cohen is still alive, I learned from another quick Google, so I decided to send him an email. I explained who I was and what I was working on uncovering, just to see if he’d talk to me. 

The email immediately bounced back. A less-quick Google and a deep read revealed that Cohen had been fired from the Washington Post following sexual harassment allegations and saying the quiet part loud regarding his feelings about diversity in the workplace.

I wrote to Richard Cohen trying to uncover some long-simmering, torrid romance; what I found was yet another old-guard, disgraced journalist with a defunct email address. In other words, I wrote to Richard Cohen trying to find a story that Nora Ephron never really wanted me to hear. 

For me and many others, Nora Ephron’s filmography is an escape from the harsh realities of a world bereft of romance. Even the most cynical characters in most of her films end up with their hearts melted into feel-good, family goo by the end. That’s certainly the case in When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle—movies made after Ephron had settled down with Pileggi, who by most accounts was the great love of her life. 

So what of the earlier Heartburn, the movie Cohen contributed to directly, and probably Ephron’s least touchy-feely work of art?

Heartburn, based on Ephron’s 1983 autobiographical novel of the same name, is a chronicle of a failing marriage—Ephron’s to Carl Bernstein, specifically. It is a bitter 109 minutes and a difficult watch, especially in the context of the rest of Ephron’s semi-autobiographical work. 

In the film, divorcees Rachel Samstat (a gorgeous Meryl Streep) and Mark Forman (Nicholson) fall in love at a friend’s wedding. There’s some classic Ephron romance—like the dreamy scene where Streep and Nicholson share a plate of carbonara in bed—but it’s mostly a harrowing, heartbreaking, decidedly one-sided account of a painful, unfaithful marriage and an even more painful separation.

Heartburn shows the flipside of “everything is copy.” You can write your own story—that’s your prerogative. But you can’t expect that it will always satisfy the storytelling conventions needed for a narrative to work on-screen. This is a raw, cynical Ephron script that doesn’t attempt to access the nuance and mutual neurosis that make her other films so universally enjoyable.

And that makes sense, because when you position yourself as the main character, in life or in fiction, it’s easy to forget that other people are motivated by something other than specific spite against you. I can imagine it was extremely difficult to be a public figure going through a painful, public divorce, and I can understand wanting to do anything in your power to control how you’re perceived in the aftermath. 

“Everything is copy” as a motto, alongside her autobiographical and semi-autobiographical work, absolutely gave Ephron the power to change how the public viewed her. I think I am uncomfortable as a viewer of Heartburn because it shows me a pre-ultimate version of Nora Ephron, one I’m not sure I want to relate to, and one I’m not sure fits the aspirational narrative I’ve projected onto her. 

As part of Nora Ephron’s canon, Heartburn is an outlier—it’s really the only one that makes her look bad, exclusively through the what’s-not-said in the breakdown of this marriage. In that sense, it’s worth the watch; it’s maybe the closest thing we have to an onscreen archive of what Ephron’s darkest thoughts and most selfish instincts looked like in moments of deep hurt and confusion. It’s an inconvenient, unflattering truth alongside an ineffective, flimsy fiction. 

If you’re like me, Heartburn forces nitty-gritty introspection in the same way Ephron’s other films encourage romantic escapism.

In contrast, When Harry Met Sally works because there’s something to love and something to hate about each of the title characters—it’s more self-aware, more thoughtful, and more narratively distant than Heartburn. Ephron’s own concept of the “Jewish romantic comedy” versus the “Christian romantic comedy” comes into play here: In “Jewish romantic comedies,” the villain is the characters’ own neuroses (most of Ephron’s work, especially When Harry Met Sally, falls into this category); in “Christian romantic comedies,” the villain is some external factor keeping the lovers apart. 

Kimberlys create corollary conflict in Ephron’s films, her Jewish romantic comedies. Notably, there isn’t a Kimberly referenced in Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron’s divisive stab at a “Christian romantic comedy.” Kimberlys are external factors that help breed the neuroses that fuel the main conflict—but they are never centered. They hint at problems between the leading characters that exist because of internal, unresolved anguish; they’re not significant enough to single-handedly drive the plot forward.

I realized it doesn’t really matter who Kimberly was, or is, so much as what Kimberly now evokes. Even a potential, torrid, ill-fated romance with Richard Cohen isn’t worth looking into because Nora Ephron never explicitly told us about it—so how interesting could it really have been? 

Ephron’s micro cinematic universe of Kimberlys positions Kimberlys against goodness, Kimberlys against intelligence, Kimberlys against Ephron’s brand of femininity. If “everything is copy” means Ephron had the power to author her own life and the audience’s perception of her, and Kimberlys are unseen sore subjects for Ephron’s leading ladies, that tells us everything Ephron wanted us to know about them. They’re important enough to include, but not important enough to dignify with any material grief, because they’re manufactured to feel less significant than they might actually feel to the storyteller or main character.

I don’t ultimately believe I’m a Kimberly. Kimberlys don’t have brain space to be introspective about whether or not they are Kimberlys, to begin with; but, more importantly, Kimberlys aren’t real, and they can’t hurt me. We are each our own main character in some way, and I certainly wish I could write the people who hurt me out of having star-billing significance in my life. It’s therapeutic to blame Kimberly when, eliminating her from the equation, you’d have to blame yourself.