When I finally met Nora Ephron six years ago, I did something I had never done before in a few thousand interviews and I haven't done since.

I told her I loved her.

I have always loved her, since first reading her Esquire pieces in the 1970s. Of course, her admirers are legion. We love her extraordinary wit, her inimitable style, her appetite for risk and change. Her actual appetite, for butter, pate, steak, pie, and her rejection of the egg-white omelet, of which she noted, "People who eat them think they're doing something virtuous when they are instead merely misinformed." Her ability to turn heartache — discovering her second husband's affair when she was seven months pregnant with their second son — into Heartburn, with recipes, three alone for potatoes.

Ephron was a superb essayist, screenwriter, and director who seemed like a friend, even if her friends tended to be Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols. She had that gorgeous life. As Streep said, "She was an expert in all the departments of living well."

When Ephron died Tuesday night at age 71 from a rare form of leukemia, which she had kept private for years, the loss seemed all the more shocking, devastating for the lack of advance warning. How could we not know she'd been ill? Then again, she would not whine or wallow.

A feminist in pearls, Ephron was frequently compared to Dorothy Parker, which was absurd, except for the talent and glittering friends. Ephron, unlike Parker, was never the victim. The child of two alcoholics, also acclaimed Hollywood screenwriters, she eschewed the darkness. She was, by all accounts, a great and generous friend, a fabulous cook, hostess, and guest. Again, there was that appetite for life. Ephron only complained to make a point, to be funny and, as it turns out, to turn a profit. (See Heartburn.)

Her own story resembled one of her movies, 3.5 of them treasures in the pantheon of three-hanky, closing-kiss classics — When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, and the Julia part of Julie & Julia, the most important film ever made about the restorative power of butter. After two bad marriages, Ephron found true love with Nicholas Pileggi, screenwriter of Goodfellas and Casino. They were a real-life Nick and Nora, without the bibulous tendencies of The Thin Man duo. In a six-word autobiography, Ephron wrote: "Secret to life, marry an Italian."

In You've Got Mail, Tom Hanks says, "The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom," but to many women, Ephron was the sum of all wisdom. In the collection I Feel Bad About My Neck, she educated us about aging. On her serious maintenance regimen, she observed of seeing a bag lady, "I am only eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street." One friend was so moved by Ephron's wisdom, she, too, took to getting professional blowouts. Forever trim, despite loving good restaurants (Ephron went to Vegas for the food), she told me the secret to exercise was using the treadmill while watching Tivoed Jon Stewart: Laugh while you sweat.

If Carl Bernstein, the husband who caused Heartburn ("capable of having sex with a Venetian blind," she wrote of the character), encouraged a generation of investigative journalists, Ephron was equally influential to so many young women writers, in print and life. Her influence in essay writing, comic fiction, screenwriting, and food writing is massive. She was the lodestar.

In her commencement address in 1996 at Wellesley, from which she graduated in 1962, she advised, "Maybe young women don't wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened: You can always change your mind. I know: I've had four careers and three husbands."

And there it is, perfect Nora: insight, humor, self-deprecation, intelligence.

And so a decade later, I told her I loved her. Being the utterly gracious, intelligent woman she was, precisely the woman I always knew her to be — and with a far better neck than she described — she leaned forward and said, "I love you, too."

A couple of months later, a postcard arrived, Edward Hopper's etching Night on the El Train. "Dear Karen Heller — Months later, I loved meeting you, loved your piece & loved my eventual trip to Phil. & best cannolis ever. Thanks Nora Ephron."

She was the butter in a world of egg-white omelets.

Contact Karen Heller at kheller@phillynews.com or 215-854-2586.