Delia Ephron proves miracles don’t just happen in movies

After losing her beloved sister Nora and husband Jerry to cancer, romcom writer DELIA EPHRON wasn’t expecting a Hollywood happy ever after. But then came a twist worthy of one of her famous films, as Julia Llewellyn Smith discovers

When Delia Ephron went on her second date with her now husband Peter Rutter, she was paralysed with nerves.

Their first meeting, in a restaurant the night before, had gone swimmingly and ended in a kiss. Yet now, as the pair sat on a New York park bench, she was realising that – after both being widowed in their 70s – they might unexpectedly have a second chance at love.

‘I started panicking,’ says Delia, 77, smiling wryly, recalling that day five years ago. ‘There had been a lot of emails and phone calls leading up to this and now I thought, “You know what? We’re going to fall in love but then one of us is going to die.” I said, “If I get sick, I give you permission to leave me.” Peter replied, “I could never leave you.”’

‘I was being funny, but not totally, because we’d just been through hell,’ Delia continues. ‘We both had been married to people who’d had long cancer deaths. I’d had so much loss and worry in my life. Falling in love when you’re older is wonderful, but there are trade-offs: death is right there around you. You can reach out and touch it, and there’s a little bit of wanting to defy it by trying to get every single thing you can out of every day. Then, sure enough, four months later I got leukaemia.’

Now Delia, author and screenwriter of the acclaimed Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romcom You’ve Got Mail, has written a memoir of the past turbulent decade. Left on Tenth: A Second Chance at Life, like much of her work, is both achingly romantic and a five-hanky weepie. ‘There’ve been unbelievable highs, unbelievable lows,’ she says.

DELIA EPHRON
DELIA (RIGHT) AND NORA EPHRON IN 2005 AT THE PREMIERE OF BEWITCHED WHICH THEY CO-WROTE

The lows began in 2012 when leukaemia claimed her beloved sister Nora, who was three years her senior and the writer of the immortal films When Harry Met Sally… and Sleepless in Seattle.

‘Nora and I had been so close since childhood. She was quite bossy and I wanted to do everything she did, though she was going around the track so fast, I couldn’t keep up. As we grew older, I began to try to differentiate from her, but we collaborated on so much together, she always said we shared a brain. We were very connected.’

As Nora’s illness worsened, Delia’s husband of 30 years Jerome Kass (who was also a writer) was diagnosed with prostate cancer. ‘I despaired. I was going to lose the two people I was closest to in the world.’ Three years after Nora, Jerry died.

DELIA EPHRON
Delia with first husband Jerry Kass, 1998

‘Everything was different, everything was scattered,’ says Delia, sitting in the office of her apartment in New York’s ultra-fashionable Greenwich Village. ‘But I simply didn’t have a fantasy that I was going to meet somebody new. I had lots of friends and I was still busy writing. But I think if you’ve already had a wonderful marriage then you may be more open to allowing something else wonderful to happen.’

Sure enough, what then followed could have been a twist straight out of an Ephron sisters movie. After Delia published an article complaining about the Kafkaesque experience she’d had with her phone provider trying to disconnect Jerry’s landline, she received an email from Peter.

A psychiatrist based in California, he empathised with her over the bureaucratic nightmare she’d faced and reminded her that the pair of them had met 54 years previously. They were both 18, on a date arranged by Nora, who was then working in a magazine office where Peter had been an intern. ‘I have a vague memory of going to a football game in the snow but I can’t remember him at all,’ Delia laughs. ‘The brain is a strange thing. But Nora had an idea we were made for each other – or MFEO, as they say in Sleepless in Seattle – so he came blessed by my sister. Now this email seemed like magic.’

The pair started corresponding, then exchanging long phone calls. After they met, Delia was as besotted as a teenager.

‘Romantic love is such an overwhelmingly exciting experience whatever your age: all you can think of is how can I get home and read their email or get that phone call or how long until I see him tonight? The sexual attraction was so fabulous. It was amazing.

‘And there’s also something so special about falling in love when you’re older,’ Delia continues. ‘When you’re in your 20s you’re figuring out who you are; in your 30s you’re figuring out your career… but now you know who you are and what to expect.’

Yet at the same time, she couldn’t avoid feeling guilt at having ‘replaced’ Jerry. ‘People would say, “Oh, Jerry would be so happy to know you’ve met someone” and I would think “Hmm”,’ she says with her endearing laugh. ‘But it’s true he was the most generous man, and before he died he said to me, “I’m worried about you being alone.”

‘But I felt guilty about Jerry anyway – that I could have been better when he was sick, that maybe I hadn’t handled the medicine correctly or I hadn’t been there for him in the ways I needed to be. One doctor asked me what treatment Jerry was on and when I told him he replied: “Oh, well, that’s why he died.” That sent me into a rage and all my guilt fed into it. So it was very rough. But I know [that had the situation been] the other way round I would have wanted Jerry to find happiness – women would have been lining up around the block! So I’ve made peace with it now.’

the Ephron sisters (from left): Nora, Haillie, Delia and Amy, around 1963

Delia and Peter’s happiness was to be short lived, however. Since Nora’s leukaemia diagnosis, Delia had been having regular blood tests to check she wasn’t also at risk.

‘I was a jumble of anxiety, but I’d be checked every six months and the doctor would say, “This is the most boring blood I’ve ever seen.”’

Then, just four months after she and Peter first kissed, everything changed. Delia learned she had exactly the same aggressive acute myelogenous leukaemia as Nora.

Peter immediately asked her to marry him. ‘This wasn’t a practical decision. We both understood that the illness had given us an even clearer recognition of our love.’ They bought rings and a marriage licence.

The following day Delia checked into hospital for treatment and a few days later – witnessed by just a handful of friends and family – they were married by the chaplain in its dining room.

‘We would walk through the hospital corridors– you have to walk to keep up your strength – and people would randomly say, “How long have you been married?” because we were just radiating so much romance. We were everyone’s fantasy: young love that had lasted for ever.’

At first, Delia was convinced she had received her death sentence. But treatments had progressed, meaning she had access to new cutting-edge drugs not available to her sister. Still, doctors told her the only real chance of survival would come with a bone-marrow transplant. Even then, the chance of her surviving that was just 20 per cent.

‘I exclaimed, “But I just fell in love!” It was such a stupid thing to say,’ says Delia, smiling at the memory. ‘As if my being in love was going to make a difference. But in some way I thought my love might increase my odds, or at least show the doctor I wasn’t just another patient.’

While both sisters had kept their cancers hidden from the outside world, Nora had declined such a transplant as too gruelling. Delia, however, decided to go for it.

‘It was difficult because I was so attached to Nora. Right from the start, the doctors were saying: “But you are not your sister.” What they meant was, under a microscope, my leukaemia and hers were different and therefore I could survive. But believing I might have a different outcome to her felt like a betrayal. It was empowering, but it was also traumatic.’

DELIA EPHRON
Delia and Nora on the set of Bewitched with Michael Caine and Nicole Kidman

After all, Nora and Delia had always been extraordinarily close. The pair grew up in Beverly Hills, California, the eldest daughters of screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron who wrote the screenplays for films starring the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Fred Astaire.

‘My father was very needy and difficult. He was also a manic depressive, who needed to be hospitalised. My mother was a very angry and tortured person. She always drank but from when I was about 11 it really tipped over and ours became a very difficult home.’ Phoebe died of cirrhosis of the liver when she was 57.

Despite her troubles, Phoebe instilled her daughters with fierce ambition (as well as Nora there are two younger sisters: Hallie, 74, and Amy, 69, of whom Delia is extremely fond – ‘I just don’t see them as much as I saw Nora because they don’t live in New York.’). ‘This was the 1950s, when nobody was talking about careers for women, but my mother was very clear that we were all going to go to New York and be writers. We were not just going to sit around waiting to get married– in fact, I don’t think she ever mentioned the word marriage. She was a very early feminist and she gave us vision. That was a real gift.’

DELIA EPHRON
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail

All the sisters worked and eventually married. Delia was the only one not to have children. ‘Jerry and I would have liked them,’ she says. ‘But it didn’t work out and it was brutal, like a little death in your life every month. We were so happy together and this was a huge shadow on us. All my sisters had fantasised about having children, while I’d never thought: “Oh, I’m going to be a mum one day!” or even liked being around little children, so I accepted it just wasn’t part of my life and was able to let it go. I was genuinely upset, but it wasn’t as painful as it could have been for someone else. There are different ways to live that don’t involve having children.’

Instead, she’s very close to several friends’ daughters and to Nora’s two adult sons Jacob and Max. But after her bone-marrow transplant, Delia fell into a deep depression, finding it impossible to communicate with anybody– even Peter, who had taken leave from work and slept every night on a camp bed in her hospital room.

‘The transplant was very brutal. I was in hospital for 100 days. You’re given an enormous amount of chemo to kill off the cancerous cells, which disrupts your entire internal system. I was taking 30 pills a day but I couldn’t keep them down. I got heart problems. At one point my lungs filled with fluid. I was on oxygen. There was a point when I didn’t want to go on any more. I wanted to die. I’d sit there with my eyes closed, thinking, “All I want is blackness.” I didn’t care about anything or anybody, I just wanted escape.’

But Peter was always there for her. ‘I was begging him to let me go but he just wouldn’t hear of it. And one day, I found the depression had broken. Peter was sitting across the room looking gorgeous and I knew I was starting to heal.’

DELIA EPHRON
Delia with husband Peter and dog Charlotte last year

It was February 2020, just before the first coronavirus lockdown, when Delia was given the all-clear. So, although Delia’s health is now excellent, for the past couple of years she and Peter remained largely isolated.

Traumatised by the transplant and with the outer world in chaos, she turned to what Ephrons all do best – documenting her experiences.

‘Writing the book was so therapeutic and it made me really reflect on how I’d had so much bad luck – but also so much good luck. My friends had been extraordinary and Peter was so steady. He refused to believe that I wouldn’t make it back home and he never once said, “This is a nightmare” – although it was. He’s been the biggest miracle of all.’

Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, are you ready for another film?

Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life by Delia Ephron will be published by Transworld on 10 April, price £16.99. To pre-order a copy for £14.44 until 10 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20

PATRICIA WILLIAMS, CASTLE   ROCK/NELSON/COLUMBIA/KOBAL, ELENA SEIBERT, HALLIE EPHRON