No American writer ever revealed more in a photograph than Joan Didion. She was small, five foot one and three-quarter inches tall, which she fudged on her California driver’s licence as five two. She weighed nothing. Somewhere there must be a photograph of her beaming with delight but I’ve never seen it. With age, her neck thinned. Her arms were like birds’ legs. Her face shrank tight in lines and folds, creases deepening around her mouth. She began to wear big sunglasses. But early and late her expression changed little. Her gaze was direct, intent, and anxious or fearful. From the beginning something cousin to sorrow weighed her down – just what is hard to say.
Didion was born in California in 1934 and died last December of complications from Parkinson’s. She published her first book, the novel Run River, in 1963; her last, a collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, appeared in 2021. In Didion’s sixteen books, as in her photographs, she is almost brutally direct, but it’s never entirely clear what she means to say. The first work of hers to get serious attention was a collection of twenty magazine pieces, Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968), which said enough about 1960s America to plant an anxious seed of worry in the heart of a generation. It was followed by more essays and novels, and eventually by two personal narratives she did not want to call memoirs. She didn’t like the word and thought it soft. All her writing was personal to varying degrees, but it was these two late narratives – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about the death of her husband, and Blue Nights (2011), about the loss of her daughter – that fixed her reputation.
I never met Didion or her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, but in September 1974 I heard Didion speak one evening in the Branford College common room at Yale. Dunne was there as well, stepping in when her voice began to trail off. I was teaching a non-fiction seminar on Wednesday evenings that year and everybody in the class, I think, had read Slouching towards Bethlehem. I had certainly urged them to. Didion made a strong impression, which I tried to catch in a diary I kept back then:
A thin, nervous woman, self-protective in manner – legs tightly crossed, arms hugging herself, down and back in her chair as if trying to shrink behind a cushion. Her voice was quiet, words deliberate. Occasional panic seemed to sweep over her and she would violently begin to spin a large gold ring on her left hand. Violent may seem too strong a word but it is not; the movement was so abrupt and vigorous, accompanied by such a gust of alarm across her expressive face, that the kids sitting at her feet almost seemed to start …
She talked incessantly about ‘John’ (her husband, who occasionally added details, almost like a trainer) and stuck pretty much to a tone of modest irony …
Q: ‘Do you prefer writing fiction or journalism?’
A: ‘Fiction, when I need to write fiction. Every five or six years I need to write a novel and I’m doing one now.’
She was silent for a moment, seemed to rehear that word ‘need’, suddenly hugged herself tighter than ever and furiously began to spin that big gold ring.
In the bloom of youth Didion might have weighed more than a hundred pounds but it didn’t last. At Yale she looked as easy to pick up as a ten-year-old. Everything about her manner and person suggested fragility – bones breakable as twigs, eyes pleading, feelings close to the edge. Didion understood the impression she made and knew how to use it. ‘My only advantage as a reporter,’ she wrote in the introduction to Slouching towards Bethlehem, ‘is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.’
A year later, I ran into Nora Ephron in New York and told her about the Yale evening. ‘Your friend Joan Didion seems such a fragile, breakable person,’ I said. ‘Dunne seems like an odd choice as husband.’ ‘Oh, no, Tom, you’re completely wrong,’ Nora said. ‘It’s John Gregory Dunne who’s fragile and ready to crack. Joan is like iron.’ Nora was emphatic:
My husband always said Joan was an inside-out person. Most people are tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside. She’s just the opposite. At a party of two or three couples she’s terrific, she tells these long, funny stories, but with, say, ten or twelve she’s terrible. She speaks very, very softly like this [dropping her voice to a whisper] and pretty soon everybody’s holding his breath and talking like this [a sibilant hiss].
Didion and Ephron were friends for nearly fifty years. Both began as magazine writers, made successful movies, were media celebrities, wrote books that sold well, and knew the difference between the ordinary and the genuine. But Didion is the one we’re likely to remember longer, and her mode of attention is part of the explanation.
Her anxiety leaves its trace in all of her writing. ‘I know something about dread myself,’ she wrote in one of the essays in Slouching towards Bethlehem. Her subject was Comrade Michael Laski, who ran a splinter group of Stalinists in Los Angeles, where Didion interviewed him in 1967. He was threatened from every direction. Dealing with dread, Didion believed, invited risky measures of self-protection like alcohol, heroin, sex and ‘doomed commitments … as hard to come by as faith in God or History’. Most of the essays in the collection share the core dread of the Yeats poem the book borrows for its title: ‘what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’
The title essay is a 44-page report from the streets of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where ‘flower children’ gathered to prove they knew all they needed to know about school, running away from home, sex, raising kids, getting by on next to no money, and how to survive on an ever changing menu of acid, heroin, grass, cocaine and ‘stuff’. In the Haight, Didion meets people in their teens and twenties, hangs out, asks lots of questions, and witnesses many unsettling moments, like the inattention of two friends who drop by Sue Ann’s place and are soon trying to ‘retrieve some very good Moroccan hash’ which has fallen through a floorboard damaged in a fire started by Sue Ann’s three-year-old son, Michael. Sue Ann freaks on seeing Michael chewing an electric cord and screams: ‘You’ll fry like rice.’ But the drop-in friends are too busy with the Moroccan hash to respond.
That’s the way Didion likes to tell a story – just the details you need to grasp what’s happening. It’s this restraint that illumines Slouching towards Bethlehem. ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ describes the impulse that emerged at the age of five when Didion’s mother bought her a writing tablet from the five-and-ten. Her first entry was about a woman who woke up in ‘the Sahara Desert, where she would die of the heat before lunch’ – a story, Didion concedes, which reveals ‘a certain predilection for the extreme which has dogged me into adult life’.
Didion lived in New York City for almost half her life: from 1956 until 1964, while she worked at Vogue, and again from 1988 until she died. But forty years in New York never made her a New Yorker, just as her years writing and producing movies didn’t make her a movie person. She liked the hustle of Hollywood deal-making and was proud of the first and the best of her movies, The Panic in Needle Park (1971), co-written with Dunne. It gave Al Pacino his first big role and stripped whatever shreds of romantic glamour still attached to drug addiction. But she didn’t think screenwriting was real writing. ‘You’re making notes for the director,’ she told Hilton Als in 2006. Too many people had a say in what was dropped and what stayed in.
‘It took me some years to discover what I was,’ Didion wrote in 1976, ‘not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply … a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.’ At twelve or thirteen she was mystified and thrilled by the first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. In high school, she typed out her favourite Hemingway sentences to see how they worked, Later, at Berkeley, she put Henry James and Joseph Conrad on a pedestal with Hemingway and agonised in a short story class with Mark Schorer that she was ‘not good enough’. The 1950s were the glory days of the New Criticism in university English departments, but Didion rejected I.A. Richards’s intense focus on the text, which risked making the writer seem incidental to the work. She learned most and quickest at Vogue, where the editors were all business and every sentence was too wordy, too long, or too something that needed fixing pronto. ‘Run it through again, sweetie,’ they said, ‘it’s not quite there’; ‘Give me a shock verb two lines in’; ‘Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.’
Didion was a writer first and a Californian second. Much of Slouching towards Bethlehem is datelined California and a later collection of essays, Where I Was From (2003), is California all the way through. Her family went west by wagon in the 1840s. They farmed near Sacramento and acquired land. Didion grew up thinking about water: how much of it was needed to farm, how much the cities wanted for themselves, how water authorities built dams and regulated flow. And like all Californians she thought about real estate, trying to predict where prices were going. ‘The ethic I was raised in,’ she said in 1977, ‘was specifically a western frontier ethic. That means being left alone and leaving others alone.’ It also meant ‘low taxes, a balanced budget and a limited government’. By the end of her life, Didion was often seen as a figure of the left but in the 1960s she was a Goldwater Republican, not the Orange County, suburban rich kind, but the old California, frontier-ethic, landowning kind.
But in Didion the impress of California went deeper than that. The next level down was the place itself. ‘There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon,’ she wrote in 1967. ‘Tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the north-east whining down the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes … We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks.’ A hot Santa Ana wind in summer turns grass and brush into kindling. A lightning bolt, an electrical spark, a camper’s fire can easily whip the kindling into a roaring gale of fire. ‘The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,’ Didion went on. ‘The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.’
Which edge does Didion dread most? Fire or earthquake? State and federal authorities report six thousand fires and ten thousand earthquakes a year, most of them small. But the big fires darken the skies, and everybody has heard about the crack in the earth known as the San Andreas fault. It runs eight hundred miles from San Francisco to the Salton Sea east of San Diego and in places the crack is ten miles deep. ‘I have lived all my life with the promise of the Big One,’ Didion wrote. Growing up with the fires and earthquakes of California gave her ‘a strong sense that the apocalyptic moment is upon us.’
But the thing California taught her to fear most was snakes, especially rattlesnakes. The yard man found and killed them in the garden, they fell into swimming pools, they got into houses. In Blue Nights, Didion quotes a long passage from her husband’s wedding toast for their daughter, Quintana, not because she was touched by his happy memories of their life in the Malibu house when Quintana was little, but to note the things he failed to mention – ‘for example the king snakes that dropped from the rafters of the garage into the open Corvette I parked below’. Locals thought a king snake in the Corvette was a good thing – it meant no rattlesnakes! Didion didn’t trust that; she looked for both. ‘I grew up in the West,’ she told an interviewer, ‘and we always had this theory that if you kept the snake in your eyeline the snake wasn’t going to bite you.’ This gets close to Didion’s core anxiety: watching for something that could be anywhere, was easily overlooked, could kill you or a child playing in the garden – just like that. ‘The death of children worries me all the time,’ she told the Paris Review in 1978. Quintana, her only child, was about to turn twelve. ‘It’s on my mind. Even I know that, and I usually don’t know what’s on my mind.’
Acouple of weeks after I saw Didion at Yale, I met a man who probably knew her as well as anybody, a sometime writer of political articles and screenplays called Noel Parmentel. It was a Wednesday evening and Parmentel showed up at the weekly meeting of the Davenport Fellows, which began after my non-fiction seminar ended. Earlier in the day he had attended the funeral of Didion’s mother-in-law. (He was a longtime friend of Dunne.) About a month later he knocked on my door in New York unannounced, said yes to a drink, and talked at length about a film project he was trying to get going. The subject was John F. Kennedy’s father. Mallory was to be its name, Citizen Kane was to be its model. Noel wanted Dunne and Didion to write the script. A couple of weeks later he told me the answer was no. ‘They’re backed up with projects and they’ve fallen into the Hollywood thing – they need $200,000 a year just to live.’ But Noel kept me in the loop, dropped by a couple of times a month with news about the agent David Obst or the director Peter Bogdanovich, both dying to do Mallory. He drank bourbon, and when his glass was empty he held it high and rattled the ice cubes for a refill. He stayed until the bottle was empty and it was time to find another roost. He made nightly rounds of the city like an old fox visiting chicken yards.
When Didion at Yale said she sometimes needed to write fiction – ‘and I’m doing one now’ – she was talking about A Book of Common Prayer. By the end of 1976, the book was done and rumour spread that Noel was in it. He settled in for a long visit one night, finished the bourbon and moved on to Scotch while smoking a Caudillo Churchill. I asked if the rumour was true. ‘There’s not much else in the book,’ he said.
Without me there isn’t anything in it at all. They’d been trying to reach me to get me to read it. They were calling me all over the country. She’s captured me at my absolute worst. I’ll never see her again. It’s very sad. She lost a friend and I lost a friend. But she doesn’t have any friends. I have lots of friends. It’s very sad. I’ll never speak to her again.
A few weeks later Noel heard I was driving down to Washington and asked for a ride. On the road he growled about Didion’s treatment of him in two novels: shot dead by an angry husband in Run River, death from cancer in A Book of Common Prayer. ‘I’ll never forgive her,’ he said. ‘My goal in life now is to live long enough to piss on her grave.’
When he said it, he meant it, but he also meant it when he said that my nephew Ian Love, just out of high school, ought to meet Didion and he’d be glad to write a letter of introduction. Nothing came of that, but Noel found Ian a paid summer job with the documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. Noel would finish the bourbon and smoke your last cigar while your wife fumed in the kitchen, but he was quick to do anything he could for a friend. He prowled the city for new arrivals with talent and he thought Didion had been the best writer to hit New York in fifty years. When she had trouble finding a home for Run River, he found her a publisher. She acknowledged the help in her dedication of the book: ‘For my family and for N.’ Noel was Didion’s biggest fan.
How Didion thought about Noel is harder to say. I think ‘N.’ is her sole reference to his name in print. But what she has to say about children, and the way her desire for one played out, helps to explain why she gave Noel such a central role in A Book of Common Prayer. And what she did in that novel – partly an account of an imagined life with Noel – helps to explain, thirty years later, the big solid book she wrote about the death of her husband, and the small elusive book she wrote about the loss of her daughter.
In New York the thing Didion dreaded most until her mid-twenties was a positive pregnancy test. When a late period proved a false alarm in December 1958 she cried all night – but it was from sorrow, she realised, not relief. ‘Some of us have this overpowering need for a child,’ she wrote in Blue Nights.
It had come over me quite suddenly … when I was working for Vogue, a tidal surge. Once this surge hit I saw babies wherever I went. I followed their carriages on the street. I cut their pictures from magazines and tacked them on the wall next to my bed. I put myself to sleep by imagining them: imagining holding them, imagining the down on their heads, imagining the soft spots at their temples, imagining the way their eyes dilated when you looked at them.
Noel Parmentel would have been the father of that child in 1958. Didion wanted to marry him, but he said he planned never to marry or have children. Noel didn’t tell me that. He told his friend, the writer Dan Wakefield, and Wakefield told Tracy Daugherty, author of a rich and thorough biography of Didion, The Last Love Song (2015). But Noel didn’t cast Didion aside; he introduced her to Dunne, one of the young talents he made a point of helping. ‘This is the guy you ought to marry,’ he said. It took Didion a while to see the merit, but in January 1964 she did marry Dunne, and a few months later moved with him to California. In ‘Goodbye to All That’, an essay about leaving New York published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1967, Didion wrote that she had learned ‘it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair … . I hurt the people I cared about … I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other.’ For ten years the three remained friends, until A Book of Common Prayer closed the door for good. A year after that, Dunne praised Parmentel in print without naming him: he ‘was as close to a mentor as anyone I have ever known’ but now ‘we never speak.’
There are a dozen or fifteen characters in the cast of A Book of Common Prayer, but three matter here: Charlotte and her daughter, Marin, who are estranged; and Charlotte’s former husband, Warren Bogart (the Noel stand-in), who is Marin’s father. Roughly a year before the present, Marin, eighteen, was photographed with four friends detonating a bomb in a San Francisco skyscraper. Afterwards the bombers flew a hijacked plane to Utah, released a revolutionary manifesto on tape, and disappeared for good. Warren’s first words to Charlotte on hearing the news are ‘Fuck Marin.’ Days pass before Warren can find a free ride from New York to San Francisco (he’s broke). He arrives at last with shopping bags as luggage, tells the FBI ‘I’m the felon’s father,’ addresses the agents as ‘Irving’, rattles the ice in his glass for another drink; and later interrupts Charlotte weeping in her bedroom.
‘Boo hoo,’ he says. ‘What happened to your sense of humour?’ Warren prowls the bedroom, inspects and puts on one of her new husband’s ties. ‘I don’t like your room, I don’t like your house, I don’t like your life,’ he says. And then, because his cousin is in trouble: ‘I want you to come to New Orleans with me.’ She doesn’t reply.
‘I said I want you to come to New Orleans with me, are you deaf? Or just rude.’
‘I want you to see Porter with me. Porter is dying. Porter wants to see you. Do this one thing for me.’
‘Porter’s dying and you’re putting on your mink coat. You got Hadassah today? Mah-jong? You get the picture about your life?’
‘Somebody who loves you is dying, your only child is lost. I’m asking you one last favour, and you’ve got a lunch date.’
‘You getting it? You getting the picture? You’re never going to see Marin again but never mind, you’ve got a lunch date?’
It’s impossible to mistake Noel’s manner, his diction (‘Get the picture?’), the salt of his favourite insults (‘White trash’, ‘Palm Beach trash’). I heard him say it: ‘Me at my absolute worst’.
‘I never quite know what I’m doing when I write a novel,’ Didion said in an interview soon after A Book of Common Prayer was published. What she had done was to build a book on a mother’s deepest fears of the million ways it is possible to lose a child. The novel is set mainly in Boca Grande, an imaginary country in Central America with a handful of rich families, locals plotting revolution, and a place of refuge for Charlotte as she mourns the lost daughter she barely knew. Charlotte, like Didion, is remarkable for her ‘extreme and volatile thinness’ and fails to find words when she needs them, as Didion did – not on paper, in life. ‘I don’t talk much,’ she told Susan Braudy in 1977. ‘I am not articulate.’
Didion’s actual daughter, Quintana, had turned eleven the year A Book of Common Prayer was published – too young to serve as a model for the violent and embittered Marin. But the imaginary daughter was clearly built from Didion’s fears for the daughter she might have had before she left New York. ‘I write entirely to find out what is on my mind,’ she told Braudy – ‘what I want and what I’m afraid of’. You might say that Didion’s story of the lost daughter was anticipating trouble that lay ahead: keeping the snake in her eyeline so it wouldn’t bite her. What kind of trouble? ‘I am more attracted to the underside of the tapestry,’ she told NPR’s Susan Stamberg during the publicity blitz for A Book of Common Prayer. ‘I tend to always look for the wrong side, the bleak side. I have since I was a child. I have no idea why.’ Perhaps bleakest of all is the common fate caught in two lines from Cymbeline: ‘Golden lads and girls all must,/As chimney sweepers, come to dust.’
The truth of that came to Didion in the New York apartment where she lived with Dunne at about nine o’clock on the evening of 30 December 2003. They had just returned from a visit to the intensive care unit of a hospital where Quintana had been in a coma for five days with an unexplained illness. ‘We still don’t know which way this is going,’ the doctor had told them. At home Didion was putting dinner on the table when Dunne collapsed without a word and died. A couple of days later, Didion wrote the first words in a long effort to understand everything about that death and her response to it:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Those first words grew into Didion’s two narratives about the death of her husband and daughter: books that get about as close as words can to what is lost and what remains when a life ends. The narratives are strangely intertwined by the deaths themselves: Dunne’s ‘in the instant’, on the first page of The Year of Magical Thinking; Quintana’s twenty months later. Dunne was killed by a failing heart, which Didion had allowed herself to believe had been fixed by his doctors. Quintana died of pancreatitis – maybe. No firm diagnosis of the illness that killed her appears to have been reached. During Quintana’s ordeal, Didion writes, she was ‘strong enough to walk unsupported for possibly a month in all’.
The action of both books centres on the back-and-forth of Quintana’s illness, on Didion’s attempt to pin down what happened to both husband and daughter, and why she felt the things she felt in the first instance, and then in the next, and so on until she had quieted the last of her attempts to deny the ordinariness of death. Didion’s ‘magical thinking’ was a stubborn, involuntary effort to prepare for – even to make possible – John’s return in the event that some terrible interpretive mistake had been made and he was not dead but only gone. ‘How could he come back,’ Didion asked herself, ‘if he had no shoes?’ So she left his shoes in his closet.
While the magic promise held her in its grip for a year, Didion read deeply in the literature of death and dying, studied diseases of the heart, talked to doctors, pinned down the chronology of where she and Dunne had been and what they had done, minutely examined how they had lived with each other for forty years. In short, she went about researching John’s death as she had the background for magazine stories and novels all her writing life. In time she realised the task facing her was simple: she needed to accept the fact that he was gone. There was no going back.
But confronting the death of Quintana was more difficult: Didion couldn’t get going. ‘Why?’ NPR’s Terry Gross asked Didion. ‘Because she was adopted. She had been given to me to take care of and I had failed to do that. So there was a huge guilt at work.’ Half the time, in early life, Quintana seemed a child like any other – full of questions and sudden excitements and moments of sorrow beyond solace but forgotten just as quickly. Didion held on to a childhood list Quintana had made of ‘Mom’s Sayings’, with its sting at the end – ‘Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I’m working.’ All parents hear things like that. But Quintana’s feelings could go off the deep end, like a moment of sobbing despair when she lay on the floor and repeated over and over: ‘Let me just be in the ground. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.’ Doctors were consulted about these mood swings and gave them names, which changed without ever making a difference. ‘Manic depression’ was an early choice, followed by ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’, and coming to rest, down the road, on ‘borderline personality disorder’. In Blue Nights Didion is bitter about the doctors, until they propose a diagnosis she has not considered: fear of abandonment. ‘Had she no idea how much we needed her?’
Quintana died at 39. Blue Nights tells us almost nothing about her last twenty years, but a little is enough. ‘She was depressed. She was anxious. Because she was anxious she drank too much.’ The doctors gave her cause of death as acute pancreatitis, a condition often associated with late-stage alcoholism. Her story is not really ambiguous. The fear of losing a child that Didion built into A Book of Common Prayer was off the mark but not wide of the mark – one of those terrible progressions that, once they have reached an end, have to be accepted. Didion was like iron. Writing was the way she handled difficulties, and the work helped her keep her feet. The wear and tear of the effort is what we see in the late photographs: the set of the mouth, the flat gaze, a look of hard sorrow without a name of its own.
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