Joan Didion: Revered Writer Who Chronicle American Culture

Joan Didion, a virtuoso prose stylist who for more than four decades explored the restless and fractured state of the American psyche in her novels, essays, reviews and memoirs, and who, as one of the “new Journalists’ of the 1960s and 1970s, helped non-fiction reporting gain status as an art form, has died at the age of 87.

With an unwavering eye and a keen intellect, Didion revealed an America in the throes of moral decay and self-deception, its citizens enslaved to false narratives that offered little explanation for how the world worked.

His strong opinions, often against the grain, on subjects as varied as the films of Woody Allen and the circulation in Los Angeles, were matched only one precise style and almost universally admired.

Many of his early works – the classic essay collections Collapse towards Bethlehem (1968) and The white album (1979) – chronicled the grim realities of mid-century California. Rather, in this sun-drenched land of fun and opportunity, America seemed to be falling apart, atomized by greed and amorality.

Didion argued “that the Norman Rockwell version of America was a convenient illusion, and if you look closely, we live in a time when fear, anxiety, isolation and loneliness were our laws. commons, ”said Martin Kaplan, professor of entertainment. , media and society at the University of Southern California, in a 2015 interview.

In her later years, Didion became known for her unbiased memoirs on death and bereavement. In The year of magical thinking (2005), she followed the elliptical, death-denying thought patterns that dominated her life after the sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack at home, when he and Didion had just returned home. of a visit to their daughter in hospital.

“Long before what I was writing started to be published,” Didion wrote at the beginning of the book, “I developed the feeling that the meaning itself lay in the rhythms of words, sentences and paragraphs, a technique for holding back everything I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. Yet, she continued, “this is a case where I need more than words to find meaning This is a case in which I need whatever I think or believe is penetrable, if only for myself.

The book has sold over a million copies, won the National Book Award, and was adapted by Didion into a well-received Broadway play with her friend Vanessa Redgrave. Its success was clouded by the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, shortly after its publication.

Speaking at an event in California in 1977


Like Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote, Didion was one of the few writers of his time to be immediately recognizable by the general public thanks to their cultivation of an off-page mystique. Photographed for Time magazine shortly after the publication of slumped, she looked like a paragon of cold blood, posing in front of her yellow Corvette Stingray with a cigarette in her hand.

She remained a fashion icon until late in life, pictured for a Celine commercial in 2015 with her bobbed hair and eyes obscured by a pair of large, dark sunglasses. Yet she also explored her physical frailty, writing about her frequent migraines and revealing, in the title essay of The white album, that she had gone blind for six weeks due to an illness diagnosed as multiple sclerosis and that she had enrolled in a psychiatric clinic.

Didion and Dunne, another novelist, largely funded their literary work by writing and editing Hollywood screenplays. Set in the Hollywood social whirlwind of the 1970s, the couple hosted and partied with stars such as Warren Beatty and The Mamas and the Papas, and were among Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriters.

Their films included A star is born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as rising and declining rock singers, respectively; and True confessions (1981), starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall in an adaptation of Dunne’s Los Angeles detective story.

Didion herself often denigrated screenwriting, which she said The Parisian review was “no writing” but “notes for the director”.

The other handwriting she wrote, the ‘real’ handwriting in her essays and books, was essential to her life. “If I had been fortunate enough to have even limited access to my own mind, there would have been no point in writing,” she said in a lecture and essay titled “Why I write “. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

At Berkeley in April 1981


Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934 to a fourth generation California family. His father sold insurance and later became a real estate speculator; her mother, Didion later wrote, was a socialite who “” gave tea “the way other mothers breathed.”

Traveling across the country with her father, who worked as a finance officer in the Air Force during WWII, she made it a habit almost her entire life to take her notebook with her wherever she went. she walked on, stealthily recording snatches of dialogue from whispering adults behind closed doors or recovering in military hospitals.

Shortly before graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956, Didion won a Vogue magazine competition for young writers. Choose between the two competition prizes, a trip to Paris or a job at Vogue, she decided she would try her luck in the magazine’s New York offices.

At the same time, she wrote for publications including National exam, The nation and Saturday evening mail. Whether it’s praising the work ethic of a sick and aging John Wayne or, later, offering a scathing review of Woody Allen and the “fake adults” in films such as Manhattan and Interiors, she has forged a reputation as an independent critic, fiercely concerned with authenticity.

Didion (right) with Dunne and their daughter in Malibu in 1976


In 1964 she married Dunne, who worked as an editor at Time. They quickly left for Hollywood, where Dunne’s older brother Dominick worked as a film producer and was able to introduce them to studio executives across the city.

Cradled by alcohol and their common ambition to be great writers, their marriage was tumultuous in his early years, which Didion did not hesitate to incorporate into his work. When in 1969 she received a regular column in Life, she started her first play this way, describing a family trip to Hawaii: “We’re here on this island in the middle of the Pacific instead of asking for a divorce.” Dunne, as he always has, edited the story.

Their daughter, Quintana Roo, was born in 1966 and was quickly adopted by Didion and her husband, who gave her the name of a state on the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. They returned to New York in 1988, taking an apartment on the Upper East Side, where Didion lived until his death.

Barry Goldwater’s Republican for much of the 1960s, Didion gradually became disillusioned with the party during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor of California. Encouraged by Robert Silvers, Editor-in-Chief of The New York Book Review, she increasingly focused on the theater, and the hypocrisy of American politics, in non-fiction books such as Salvador (1983), on the involvement of the United States in the civil war in El Salvador, Miami (1987), on the Cuban immigrant community in this city, and the collection of essays After Henri (1992).

The press was a frequent target in his work, with Washington post journalist Bob Woodward repeating some of his harshest criticisms in a 1996 essay, included in his collection Political fictions (2001), who described his post-Watergate report as mere shorthand for the country’s political elite.

His political work, as well as his more personal writings in books such as Where i came from (2003), a blend of memories and Californian history, was guided by a concern for “storytelling”. Stories, she says, allow us to make sense of our lives and our world – although it is not uncommon for these stories to be myths; heartwarming fictions susceptible to cracking.

“We tell each other stories for a living,” Didion wrote in the title essay of The white album. She adds: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, from the imposition of a narrative line on disparate images,” ideas “with which we have learned to freeze the moving phantasmagoria which is our real experience. Or at least we do it for a while.

Joan Didion, journalist and author, born December 5, 1934, died December 23, 2021

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