Memories of Didion
I first met Joan Didion in the summer of 1993, soon after I moved to New York, at the launch party for Christopher Hitchens’s book For the Sake of Argument. I was mesmerised by the hand with which she held her glass – her long, thin fingers. Those hands are on show in the recent Netflix documentary about Didion made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne: she waves her arms and hands in front of the camera as if casting a spell.
I’d recently been to Miami and had read her book about the city. As she saw it, Miami was ‘long on rumour, short on memory, overbuilt on the chimera of runaway money and referring not to New York or Boston or Los Angeles or Atlanta but to Caracas and Mexico, to Havana and to Bogotá and to Paris and Madrid’. Much of Miami is about the Cuban exile scene, where a love of guns, violence and conspiracy prefigures the paramilitary supporters of Donald Trump. ‘As in other parts of the world where citizens shop for guerrilla discounts and bargains in automatic weapons, there was in Miami an advanced interest in personal security.’ A single word, ‘advanced’, turns a flat sentence into something else.
Some time in 1995 or 1996, Hitchens and Didion were at a supper in New York – this was before Monica Lewinsky had become news. Christopher began to list the charges he was accruing against the president: the dubious suicide of a friend and White House aide; the affair with Gennifer Flowers; the dodgy property deals in Arkansas; and then there was Travelgate – the Clintons had fired the White House travel agents appointed by the Bushes. ‘Christopher,’ Didion said, ‘I don’t do Travelgate.’ No one I know ever silenced Hitchens so effortlessly.
In 1996 I joined George, a glossy magazine founded and run by John Kennedy Jr, which struggled to live up to the gloss of its editor. Didion’s daughter Quintana worked down the corridor as the photo editor of Elle Decor, ever zestful and dismissive of those who made too much of themselves. She wasn’t impressed by fame, and had made a life for herself independent of her parents – as you might if you came from a world heavy with personality.
In 1998, Drue Heinz invited me to a party at her house on the East Side. I arrived early. Paul Johnson was already there, so was Norman Podhoretz. (Hitchens had once tried to describe him in a piece for the LRB as ‘a room emptier’, but Karl Miller objected to the phrase. Christopher asked whether ‘salon voider’ would do.) After this right-wing beginning, a procession of New York’s more liberal-minded writers and politicians arrived, and I found myself at a table with Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Then Kofi Annan walked in. Didion was very wowed by him. To be taken in by the moment of someone’s arrival, the visceral appeal of it all and to make no point of disguising the attraction, wasn’t something I would have associated with Joan Didion – the hand that I had first seen holding a wineglass was now wrapped round my arm. But seeing meant a lot. At Didion and Dunne’s apartment on the Upper East Side hurricane lamps lined shelves in the main room, while chintz cloth covered the tables in the kitchen where there was often food. In the hall, on a small wooden table, were three pairs of identical spectacles, as if to emphasise the importance of seeing as best you can.
John Kennedy died in July 1999, and a month or two later Didion and Dunne took me to supper. Dunne said it was essential that I left the magazine as soon as I could, while Didion wanted to know why Kennedy had tried to fly from New Jersey to Martha’s Vineyard that night in July, killing himself, his wife Carolyn and her sister Lauren. I’d seen John leave the office that day: I had no explanation for why he dismissed the instructor who had said he’d be happy to fly with John eastward over Long Island Sound. Didion wasn’t the first or last person to ask what I thought: one person was so angry with John for killing his wife and sister-in-law that she seemed to think anyone who worked with him was somehow implicated in the crash, and I was guilty by association. ‘Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,’ is one of Didion’s many epigrams.
‘You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand … that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair,’ Didion wrote in ‘Goodbye to All That’, her piece from 1967 about leaving New York and returning to California. ‘All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.’