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Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

in Literature , Writing | January 14th, 2014 3 Comments

joan didion famous essays

Image by David Shankbone, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In a clas­sic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Good­bye to All That,” the nov­el­ist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her read­er. She rhetor­i­cal­ly asks and answers: “…was any­one ever so young? I am here to tell you that some­one was.” The wry lit­tle moment is per­fect­ly indica­tive of Didion’s unspar­ing­ly iron­ic crit­i­cal voice. Did­ion is a con­sum­mate crit­ic, from Greek kritēs , “a judge.” But she is always fore­most a judge of her­self. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first nov­el while work­ing for Vogue , “Good­bye to All That” fre­quent­ly shifts point of view as Did­ion exam­ines the truth of each state­ment, her prose mov­ing seam­less­ly from delib­er­a­tion to com­men­tary, anno­ta­tion, aside, and apho­rism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process per­haps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from some­where else, a city only for the very young.

Any­one who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-alter­ing city—will know the pangs of res­ig­na­tion Did­ion cap­tures. These eco­nom­ic times and every oth­er pro­duce many such sto­ries. But Did­ion made some­thing entire­ly new of famil­iar sen­ti­ments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre , and a col­lec­tion of breakup let­ters to New York with the same title, the unsen­ti­men­tal pre­ci­sion and com­pact­ness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem , a rep­re­sen­ta­tive text of the lit­er­ary non­fic­tion of the six­ties along­side the work of John McPhee, Ter­ry South­ern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thomp­son. In Didion’s case, the empha­sis must be decid­ed­ly on the lit­er­ary —her essays are as skill­ful­ly and imag­i­na­tive­ly writ­ten as her fic­tion and in close con­ver­sa­tion with their autho­r­i­al fore­bears. “Good­bye to All That” takes its title from an ear­li­er mem­oir, poet and crit­ic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leav­ing his home­town in Eng­land to fight in World War I. Didion’s appro­pri­a­tion of the title shows in part an iron­ic under­cut­ting of the mem­oir as a seri­ous piece of writ­ing.

And yet she is per­haps best known for her work in the genre. Pub­lished almost fifty years after Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem , her 2005 mem­oir The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words , a “traveler’s faith­ful account” of the stun­ning­ly sud­den and crush­ing per­son­al calami­ties that claimed the lives of her hus­band and daugh­ter sep­a­rate­ly. “Though the mate­r­i­al is lit­er­al­ly ter­ri­ble,” Pin­sky writes, “the writ­ing is exhil­a­rat­ing and what unfolds resem­bles an adven­ture nar­ra­tive: a forced expe­di­tion into those ‘cliffs of fall’ iden­ti­fied by Hop­kins.” He refers to lines by the gift­ed Jesuit poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins that Did­ion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has moun­tains; cliffs of fall / Fright­ful, sheer, no-man-fath­omed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

The near­ly unim­peach­ably author­i­ta­tive ethos of Didion’s voice con­vinces us that she can fear­less­ly tra­verse a wild inner land­scape most of us triv­i­al­ize, “hold cheap,” or can­not fath­om. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review inter­view , Didion—with that tech­ni­cal sleight of hand that is her casu­al mastery—called her­self “a kind of appren­tice plumber of fic­tion, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of arche­type of lit­er­ary mod­esty (John Locke, for exam­ple, called him­self an “under­labour­er” of knowl­edge) while also fig­ur­ing her­self as the win­some hero­ine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch com­e­dy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jen­nifer Jones, a char­ac­ter who learns to thumb her nose at pow­er and priv­i­lege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Lin­da Kuehl’s death—meant that Did­ion wrote her own intro­duc­tion to the Paris Review inter­view, a very unusu­al occur­rence that allows her to assume the role of her own inter­preter, offer­ing iron­ic prefa­to­ry remarks on her self-under­stand­ing. After the intro­duc­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult not to read the inter­view as a self-inter­ro­ga­tion. Asked about her char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of writ­ing as a “hos­tile act” against read­ers, Did­ion says, “Obvi­ous­ly I lis­ten to a read­er, but the only read­er I hear is me. I am always writ­ing to myself. So very pos­si­bly I’m com­mit­ting an aggres­sive and hos­tile act toward myself.”

It’s a curi­ous state­ment. Didion’s cut­ting wit and fear­less vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty take in seem­ing­ly all—the expans­es of her inner world and polit­i­cal scan­dals and geopo­lit­i­cal intrigues of the out­er, which she has dis­sect­ed for the bet­ter part of half a cen­tu­ry. Below, we have assem­bled a selec­tion of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue :

“On Self Respect” (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay col­lec­tion The White Album brought togeth­er some of her most tren­chant and search­ing essays about her immer­sion in the coun­ter­cul­ture, and the ide­o­log­i­cal fault lines of the late six­ties and sev­en­ties. The title essay begins with a gem­like sen­tence that became the title of a col­lec­tion of her first sev­en vol­umes of non­fic­tion : “We tell our­selves sto­ries in order to live.” Read two essays from that col­lec­tion below:

“ The Women’s Move­ment ” (1972)

“ Holy Water ” (1977)

Did­ion has main­tained a vig­or­ous pres­ence at the New York Review of Books since the late sev­en­ties, writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly on pol­i­tics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

“ Insid­er Base­ball ” (1988)

“ Eye on the Prize ” (1992)

“ The Teach­ings of Speak­er Gin­grich ” (1995)

“ Fixed Opin­ions, or the Hinge of His­to­ry ” (2003)

“ Pol­i­tics in the New Nor­mal Amer­i­ca ” (2004)

“ The Case of There­sa Schi­a­vo ” (2005)

“ The Def­er­en­tial Spir­it ” (2013)

“ Cal­i­for­nia Notes ” (2016)

Did­ion con­tin­ues to write with as much style and sen­si­tiv­i­ty as she did in her first col­lec­tion, her voice refined by a life­time of expe­ri­ence in self-exam­i­na­tion and pierc­ing crit­i­cal appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she pub­lished an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay there that returns to the theme of “yearn­ing for a glam­orous, grown up life” that she explored in “Good­bye to All That.” In “ Sable and Dark Glass­es ,” Didion’s gaze is stead­ier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tem­pered and hard­ened by New York, but on her­self as a child “deter­mined to bypass child­hood” and emerge as a poised, self-con­fi­dent 24-year old sophisticate—the per­fect New York­er she nev­er became.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Joan Did­ion Reads From New Mem­oir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Direct­ed by Grif­fin Dunne

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber , “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

Read 18 Short Sto­ries From Nobel Prize-Win­ning Writer Alice Munro Free Online

Josh Jones  is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at  @jdmagness

by Josh Jones | Permalink | Comments (3) |

joan didion famous essays

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Comments (3), 3 comments so far.

“In a clas­sic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Good­bye to All That,” the nov­el­ist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time,..”

Dead link to the essay

It should be “Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem,” with the “s” on Towards.

Most of the Joan Did­ion Essay links have pay­walls.

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6 Essays By Joan Didion You Should Know

Joan Didion book cover

Joan Didion is lauded as one of the best literary journalists to emerge from the New Journalism school in the ’60s, among Tom Wolfe , Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, and one of California’s wittiest contemporary writers . Best known for her sharply reported stories that service frequently dystopian and despondent cultural commentary, even Didion’s more journalistic works are in part personal essay. It’s precisely her authorial presence that lends credence, honesty and depth to her work. Her subjectivity makes her observations all the more resonant, and in a way, more accurate too. Here’s a look at some of the California writer’s greatest hits.

‘some dreamers of the golden dream’.

‘This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country,’ the essay begins. Making good on her promise, this piece reports a lascivious tale of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County in 1966. In true Didion form, however, atmosphere and place play characters just as important as the perpetrators and, in that way, this piece is about much more than the details of a single crime.

‘John Wayne: A Love Song’

Though this essay presents itself as an ode the great American frontiersman of the silver screen, it charts a loss of innocence – personal, though perhaps also cultural – against Wayne’s larger than life persona . ‘In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world… a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.’

Having kept a notebook from the age of five, Didion considers the compulsion to capture our lives. She writes, ‘however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.” This observation seems especially fitting for a writer who candidly reports through the filter of the self.

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Cover for Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

‘On Self Respect’

This philosophical musing pays homage to the wrestling with the self that perhaps writers know best. It was first published in Vogue magazine in 1961, where it can be found in its original form . ‘To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.’

‘The Santa Ana’

Didion calls upon the eerie desert mythology of the Santa Anas, the wicked winds that brings a tangible unease and tension to Los Angeles whenever they blow through the city. In this essay, LA is not always sunny as it’s so often portrayed. In this strange ode to place, Didion writes, ‘the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.’

‘Goodbye to All That’

In one of Didion’s most known essays, she recounts a love affair with New York City that calls upon the city’s deeply arresting aura with delicious turns of phrase: ‘I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.’

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Joan Didion’s best books, from essays to fiction

On Thursday, it was announced that prolific writer Joan Didion had died at the age of 87.

An executive at her publisher, Knopf, confirmed the author's death to TODAY in an email and said that Didion passed away at her home in Manhattan from Parkinson's disease.

Here, we round up seven necessary reads by the late author, who was best known for work on mourning and essays and magazine contributions that captured the American experience.

Here are the best books by Joan Didion:

'the year of magical thinking' (2005).

Dunne, Didion, & Daughter

Probably her best known work, this gutting work of non-fiction profiles Didion's experience grieving her husband John Gregory Dunne while caring for comatose daughter Quintana Roo Dunne.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" quickly became an iconic representation of mourning, capturing the sorrow and ennui of that period. It won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards, and was later adapted into a play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

'Blue Nights' (2011)

joan didion famous essays

A continuation of what is started in "The Year of Magical Thinking," this poignant 2011 work of non-fiction features personal and heartbreaking memories of Quintana, who passed away at the age of 39, not long after Didion's husband died.

"It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time,” wrote book critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' (1968)

joan didion famous essays

Didion's first collection of nonfiction writing is revered as an essential portrait of America — particularly California — in the 1960s.

It focuses on her experience growing up in the Sunshine state, icons of that time John Wayne and Howard Hughes, and the essence of Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco that became the heart of the counterculture movement.

'The White Album' (1979) 

joan didion famous essays

A reflective collection of essays, "The White Album" explores several of the same topics Didion touched on in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," this time focusing on the history and politics of California in the late 1960s and early '70s. Its matter-of-fact and intimate stories give the reader a feeling of what California and the atmosphere was like during that time period.

'Play it as it Lays' (1970)

joan didion famous essays

Set during a time before Roe vs. Wade, this terrifying and at times disturbing novel profiles a struggling actress living in Los Angeles whose life begins to unravel after she has a back-alley abortion.

"(Didion) writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it, and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward," wrote book critic John Leonard for the New York times.

'Miami' (1987)

Joan Didion Speaks At The College Of Marin

A great example of Didion's journalistic work, "Miami" paints a portrait of life for Cuban exiles in the south Florida city.

Didion writes a stunning and passionate page-turner set against the backdrop of Miami’s decline caused by economic and political changes with the refugee immigration from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Alexander Kacala is a reporter and editor at TODAY Digital and NBC OUT. He loves writing about pop culture, trending topics, LGBTQ issues, style and all things drag. His favorite celebrity profiles include Cher — who said their interview was one of the most interesting of her career — as well as Kylie Minogue, Candice Bergen, Patti Smith and RuPaul. He is based in New York City and his favorite film is “Pretty Woman.”

joan didion famous essays

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“Syntax and sensibility: Nobody wed them quite like Joan Didion,” says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni , in a profession of love to Joan and her unusually placed prepositional phrases.

Nobody does anything quite like Joan Didion. The way she almost unsentimentally audits death and memory. The way she waves a bony index finger, more knowing than yours. The way she, without judgment, sets the scene of a five-year-old named Susan on LSD in the height of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie culture.

She’s fearless, she’s cool as hell, she’s thisbig and could paper-cut you to death page-by-page with any one of her masterpieces.

Where do you start with her repertoire? She’s done it all: fiction, essays, political commentaries, memoirs, journalistic pieces and just about everything in between. Joan, now 83, has never not been relevant, but she’s in the headlines again these days, as Netflix recently debuted the long-awaited Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold , a documentary-slash-love-letter made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. (Yes, son of Dominick Dunne, Hollywood legend.)

Have you cozied up and clicked play on The Center Will Not Hold already? Great. Either way, let’s use this occasion to revisit Joan the Great, or Our Mother of Sorrows, as Vanity Fair once begrudgingly called her.

Below are some of Joan’s essential readings, though really, every subject paired with a predicate strung together by Joan is essential. W hether you’re picking up The Year of Magical Thinking for the first time (what’s your address? I’ll send you tissues) or you’re paging through Slouching Towards Bethlehem again , scrounging for the meaning of life for the umpteenth time, happy reading.

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) Don’t lie down while reading The Year of Magical Thinking , or you’ll choke on your tears.

The title refers to the psychological and anthropological phrase – cross your fingers enough and you’ll avoid the inevitable – though it may as well been called The Year of Joan Didn’t Deserve or The Year You Wouldn’t Wish Upon the Devil , as it tiptoes along the time following the death of Joan’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, which coincided with the hospitalization of her beloved daughter Quintana Roo. The seemingly small scenes make your heart hurt the most. Like when Joan, shortly after John’s death, stares into his closet, remarking that she can’t give his things away – what if John comes back for them? It’s raw, it’s brave, it’s beautiful. It’ll ruin you and wreck you and rebuild you.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a seminal book on grief and bereavement and it’s simply a must read for any thinking, feeling human being. No wonder it won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

“We were not having any fun, he had recently begun pointing out. I would take exception (didn’t we do this, didn’t we do that) but I had also known what he meant. He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”

On Self-Respect (1961) Joan first proved her astute skills in Vogue , in 1961, with the publishing of On Self-Respect (which you can also find in Slouching Towards Bethlehem ). New to the Vogue staff, Joan was given the opportunity to write the essay after another writer assigned to the piece failed to follow through. The title was already placed as a headline on the cover, so Joan swept in and wrote her first major piece – elegant and critical and thoughtful – not only to an exact word count, to place into the layout, but to an exact character count. She’s been flexing her power, letter by letter, ever since.

Read it in full here .

“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”

“Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”

joan didion famous essays

Goodbye to All That (1967) Joan set the standard for “New York, I love you, but I must leave you” essays, now floating around every book and blog, with Goodbye to All That in 1967. I could list a dozen essays (I’ll spare you) that trample over the trope, the New York love affair gone wrong arc. Joan did it first. She wrote about her love/hate/love relationship with the city, how it gave her life and then took that life. “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.” “ I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) Perhaps Joan’s most renowned series of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem now acts as a time capsule for a life and time many of us never lived yet sometimes dream about. With a few exceptions, most of the essays are set in California in the ’60s, giving a vivid vibe of life then+there – including mass murders, kidnapped heiresses and the explosion of American counterculture.

That five-year-old named Susan, the one on LSD? You’ll find her in the titular essay, a famous piece about the sex-and-drug-filled Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the ’60s. Susan is the center of the disturbing passage, as well as the most chilling scene of The Center Will Not Hold . While discussing Goodbye , Joan – then a mother to a young girl herself – is asked what it was like to find the kindergartener high.

After a long pause, waving her arm about, she says simply, with a slight smile, “It was gold.” That’s the audacious Joan, the one who could immerse herself into any culture without judgment and the one who knows a journalistic goldmine when she finds it, the one we know, we love.

The entire book is a classic collection of journalism and includes a few of the essays mentioned above: Goodbye to All That and On Self-Respect . Perhaps my favorite piece though is O n Keeping a Notebook . (At least today it is. Ask again tomorrow.)

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

The White Album (1979) If Slouching Towards Bethlehem didn’t earn Joan the title of California’s most prominent voice, her 1979 collection of essays, The White Album , did.  The New York Times review of The White Album , after claiming “California belongs to Joan Didion,” just as Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi belongs to William Faulkner, says, “Joan Didion’s California is a place defined not so much by what her unwavering eye observes, but by what her memory cannot let go.”

Her memories are worth a read.  

“ We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”

“I suppose everything had changed and nothing had.”  

joan didion famous essays

Play It As It Lays (1970) Joan writes what she knows best, even when tackling fiction: the American west, angst, despair. This short but not-so-sweet novel tells the story of Maria and captures an intense mood of a teetering woman with just enough words, no more. I won’t give any more away.

“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”

“Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes.”

Blue Nights (2011) Think of Blue Nights as The Year of Magical Thinking, Part II , the companion piece Joan never wanted to write. Before Magical Thinking was even published, Joan’s daughter Quintana Roo died at just 39 years old. Joan refused to amend it though, instead, writing an entire new ode to the new type of grief she felt – a mother’s grief, compounded by a wife’s grief. It touches on themes of parenthood, failure, adoption, and memory, as well as memory’s ultimate uselessness if you don’t appreciate the moment as it’s occurring.

Whatever sense Joan had made out of her life, she lost it alongside losing John and then Quintana, now living a mother’s nightmare. Did she protect Quintana enough? Pay enough attention to her? Did she love her enough?

Whereas Magical Thinking is a sharp and polished masterpiece, Blue Nights feels as if Joan has taken a beating. She has. She’s older now, baffled at the state of her life, too tired to attempt to make sense of the chaos. Yet she’s graceful as ever in her words. Read for yourself.

“This book is called ‘ Blue Nights ’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”

“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“In theory mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”

Additional readings, if you just can’t get enough:

  • Insider Baseball (1988)
  • Eye on the Prize (1992)
  • The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich (1995)
  • Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History (2003)
  • Politics in the New Normal America (2004)
  • The Case of Theresa Schiavo (2005)
  • The Deferential Spirit (2013)
  • California Notes (2016)
  • Joan’s packing list from The White Album
  • Joan’s favorite books of all time, delightfully hand-written

Images via Kate Worum .

Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who muses about life, design and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker and more. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Be a pal and subscribe to her newsletter Night Vision  or follow her on Instagram .

BY Megan McCarty - December 4, 2017

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Reading this post convinces me I should read all of Joan Didion’s works! – Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

Megan, Thank you for a further introduction to the writing of Joan Didion. I recently subscribed to the “Saturday Evening Post” email newsletter, and she is featured in their fiction section along with many other authors of note. I plan to read her books “Democracy” and “Play It As It Lays” for a sample of her fiction. My personal efforts in writing are aimed towards the short story and mostly general fiction. Thank you once again.

David Russell, Michigan

Awesome post really interesting thanks for your work.

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Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion review – elegant essays spanning four decades

Rejection letters, California dreams and clear reflections on writing in a collection that explores self-doubt

I n the first essay of this new volume of previously uncollected pieces, Joan Didion makes a case against newspapers. Too often, she argues, their reporting style rests on “a quite factitious ‘ objectivity’”, which “lends the entire venture a mendacity” by failing to make explicit the writer’s own particular set of influences and biases. Didion praises instead magazines that cultivate a personal voice, and which aim to impart character and atmosphere rather than straightforward information: “They assume that the reader is a friend, that he is disturbed about something, and that he will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style.” Often, she concludes, the real story is “the story not in the newspaper”.

This could be read as a slanted manifesto for Didion’s own style. Across her 60-year career, from her landmark essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), through her formally innovative novels, to her devastating 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking , Didion has established a way of narration that focuses not so much on events as on subtexts, atmospheres and perceptions. She is usually present in her essays as a voice rather than a character, observer rather than participant – though the boundaries regularly blur. Yet even when she’s not saying directly what she’s feeling, it’s there in the architecture of every cool, clear sentence, in the sounds, gestures and images on which she chooses to focus her attention.

At university, Didion writes here in mock self-deprecation, “I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor”. Half of the 12 essays in this collection were written for the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1960s, while the latest is from 2000; in them we see Didion exploring the possibility of that attention to detail, working out who exactly the “I” in her writing is, and what it is she’s seeing.

Didion’s essay collections have always included overtly personal moments – “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce,” she writes in “In the Islands” from The White Book , adding: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” This new collection contains several pieces of relatively straight autobiography: a funny essay describing the pain of her rejection from Stanford and subsequent summer spent “in sullen but mild rebellion” (“On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice”); “Telling Stories”, which describes how out of place the 19-year-old Didion felt in the writers’ workshop she took for a semester in 1954, attempting to remain inconspicuous by shrinking into her raincoat while others regaled the group with experiences that seemed far more redolent of the “writer’s life” – international, glamorous, drug-induced – than anything Didion had known growing up in Sacramento. (She went on to take a job composing advertising copy for Vogue, which she credits with teaching her to write.) The same essay includes a ream of rejection letters for an early short story widely condemned as too depressing: “I’m sorry,” wrote a representative of Good Housekeeping magazine, “we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time.”

But the pieces most revealing of Didion’s self are those that discuss the act of writing itself. In “Why I Write” (1976) Didion directly confronts the question of the first person – of what it means for a writer to assume an identity on the page and a relationship with an invisible reader. “In many ways,” she observes, “writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind .” In another essay, on Hemingway’s style, she parses precisely how the very grammar of his sentences reveal “a certain way of looking at the world”: Didion too has a specific way of looking that binds together all her work, whether she’s watching Nancy Reagan pretend to pick flowers for a photoshoot, attending a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous or a reunion of airforce veterans in a Las Vegas hospitality suite, or parsing the mission statement of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC. Didion writes of “needing room in which to play with what I did not understand”. Her pieces often feel ambiguous, even ambivalent, and her detachment can at times be bemusing: the reader is left wondering where her stake is grounded in the stories she tells. Yet her particular skill lies in asking questions too far-reaching to be contained on the page, that reverberate far beyond the essay, as her images lodge themselves in the reader’s conscience.

The collection – expansively introduced by Hilton Als – touches on many of the themes that run through Didion’s work: the power of illusion, which she learned about at Vogue and later in Hollywood; the unspoken dynamics of makeshift, often precarious communities; the dangerous thrill of pursuing dreams. Recalling San Simeon, the castle on a hill in California which she would glimpse from the highway as a child, she reflects on the impact of knowing that just beyond reach lay this opulent paradise of shimmering turrets and battlements. “San Simeon,” she writes, “was an imaginative idea that affected me, shaped my own imagination in the way that all children are shaped by the actual and emotional geography of the place in which they grow up, by the stories they are told and the stories they invent.” There’s an echo here of Didion’s most famous line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In that essay – “The White Album” – Didion describes a period between 1966 and 1971 when she “I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself”. Let Me Tell You What I Mean , its chapters largely rooted in this discombobulating period, is a valuable addition to the literature of self-doubt and self-awareness, an elegant untangling of what and why we remember and forget.

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Joan Didion: A guide to five of her most influential books

An overview of the Didion books you'll revisit for the rest of your days

joan didion

Joan Didion inspired countless writers and readers to put pen to paper and write about the world as they see it. Her unique style, restrained yet honest, affecting yet never sentimental, is peerless. Famed for her incisive depictions of American life and personal journalism, she never wasted a word, nor a character. Her seminal essay for Vogue , On Self-Respect first published in 1961, was written not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.

Didion's work chronicled the mood of the '60s, the highs and the lows, as well as the human experience in general - few writers have explored the subject of death and loss with as much insight, control or candour. Her skill lay not only in her style of prose, but her ability to astutely observe the behaviour of others. She saw what others missed.

Here, we celebrate five of her most influential books.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968

joan didion books

Although Slouching Towards Bethlehem wasn't Didion's first book ( Run, River of 1963 was), it was the one that cemented her as a prominent writer. A collection of essays about California in the '60s, her work explores the beauty and the ugliness of the decade, from the hippy community of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury to a woman accused of murdering her husband. Considered an essential portrait of American life in the '60s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem received positive attention as soon as it was published and its fandom has only grown over the decades since.

The White Album, 1979

joan didion books

Another collection of essays, The White Album deals with the late '60s to late '70s and the aftermath of the former. She studies the Women's Movement, shares her psychiatric report, parties with Janis Joplin and visits Linda Kasabian, who served as a lookout while members of the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate, in prison. These diverse essays see Didion capture the anxiety of the era and try to make sense of the Manson murders, the event many believe caused the '60s to end abruptly.

Where I Was From, 2003

joan didion books

Didion revisits the California she grew up in, specifically Sacramento County where she lived with her family, but also the state more generally. She questions the history she was taught, debunks Californian mythology and traces her ancestors and their journey moving west. She writes candidly about her upbringing, while exploring class issues with nuance. Where I Was From is one of Didion's lesser-known books, but shouldn't be.

The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005

joan didion books

Written in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is an account of loss and grief - and the ways in which it can drive us to insanity. Hers was one of the first books to talk about bereavement beyond funerals, tracking the days and months that follow with her signature detachment. She writes about her own 'magical thinking' - how she can't bring herself to get rid of her husband's shoes because she thought he might need them when he returns. It sounds like pure misery, but Didion's deadpan tone impressively stops it from being so.

Blue Nights, 2011

joan didion books

Just a month before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, Didion's daughter, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis, aged 39. Blue Nights - a devastating account of her daughter's life and death - challenges how much tragedy one person can take. She laments over the passage of time and worries about growing older, lonelier. This is a heartbreaking tome, but solace for anyone who has ever faced the incomparable loss of losing a child.

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Why Joan Didion Matters More than Ever

By Nathan Heller

Joan Didion

Joan Didion, who turns eighty in December, has tended to be both too easily admired and too rapidly dismissed. The admiration often rises from a sense that Didion’s writing is an exercise in frank self-revelation, the disclosures of an astute cultural observer who is fragile, and yet, in the high speed and higher fashion of her life, profoundly cool. Her following among English majors past and present has become its own cliché; a lot of little magazines and literary websites fill with arch essays that want to tell you things, churn with incantatory parallels, and narrate in a self-aware first person attuned to the damning ironies of public life. Those who dismiss Didion do so on similar terms. Her writing is called out for being solipsistic, histrionic, and gratuitously portentous: what Martin Amis, in one of the most attentive criticisms, described as a “somewhat top-heavy interest in madness and stupefaction—the vanished knack of ‘making things matter.’”

Both claims have grounds, but, as this fall’s crowd-funded documentary-in-progress about Didion will surely reveal, neither is fair. What sets Didion apart is not the intimacy of her writing or her Cassandra dreams for American culture (although both are noteworthy). It’s her careful craft across a broader spectrum than most writers have available, her skill in making work that acts not only on the way you think but on the way you feel. Airplane pilots speak of “angle of attack,” and, in Didion’s best nonfiction, the angle is precise both intellectually and emotionally. Her defining quality isn’t candor or conviction but unusual, almost unrivaled, compositional control.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s debut essay collection, introduced readers to that style nearly half a century ago. Line by line, the book shimmers with vivifying details (“He had with him a small red book of Mao’s poems, and as he talked he squared it on the table, aligned it with the table edge first vertically and then horizontally”) and phrases so pristinely metered and charged as to be unimprovable (“This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school”). But a lot of people can write stylishly, and many journalists might have reported such essays as well or better. (Didion has claimed a distaste for one-on-one interviews.) Her strength lay in the narrative vantage that she brought to the page, an approach that rested, as much as anything, on the way she cast herself.

This aspect of her craft goes past the caricature. At first glance, Didion’s writing appears to be filled with intimacies—the stories from her daily routine, her anxieties, her past. But how candid were these reports? The idea that Didion is a compulsively confessional writer, a frail and unhinged casualty of modern life, is largely an effect of this self-portraiture itself; look closely, and her hot outpourings cool to stone. As the critic Katie Roiphe pointed out just over a decade ago, the most striking thing about Didion’s self-disclosures was how little they disclose. Yes, she describes herself as being “quarrelsome” and “frightened” and “recalcitrant.” But this was to establish at once that the tourism piece she was writing from Hawaii was not, in fact, the usual sort of Hawaii tourism piece. Yes, Didion quotes from her own 1968 evaluation at the psychiatric clinic of St. John’s Hospital in her second collection, The White Album. Yet that does crucial work instantiating and, in some sense, officializing the general cultural anxiety she’s been trying to describe. (It also sets up a flash-cut structure for the scrapbook-style essay that follows.) She discusses her own insecurities on a return to her alma mater, Berkeley, in the sprawling hybrid essay “Pacific Distances”—but this effects a crucial turn from discussion of the post-sentimental present to the atomic-age past. Every bit of self-disclosure in Didion’s work was pruned to the minimum of necessary information and deployed as functionally as cathedral columns. Those who praise her candor are as mistaken as those who slam her solipsism. Didion’s talent is Mozartian, building simultaneously on several scales, in several registers—and always with a razor arc of finely tuned control.

The result climbs to a pitch most writing fails to reach. Didion’s nonfiction is more widely loved than her five novels (or her screenplays), in part because it’s more imaginatively seductive: Her controlled first person helps imbue the writer’s habits with the lambent glamour of a lifestyle-magazine spread. To read her is to fall into a world of cooking for Janis Joplin, reading Orwell at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel beach, zooming down the Mexican coast, and tracking New York junkies over the first days of the Christmas season . It’s to get to know a character who has precise aversions (Madison Avenue in the morning, air conditioning of any sort) and eccentrically discerning tastes (Henri Bendel jasmine soap, Payard cakes, open Corvettes, a really puzzling amount of fried chicken). Decades before the “humblebrag” became a pop-culture trope, Didion was one of its finest practitioners. (“I would be construed as the kind of loon who had maybe 300 degrees of sea view and kept all the chairs in a kind of sooty nook behind the fireplace.”)

Does that mean her quiet glamour was a trick of the pen? It depends how you define glamour. In Didion’s unconstructed moments—in an interview, say—she emerges less as a beacon of the writerly good life than as an avid craft hound, eager to tell you about her technical choices for getting the words on the page. Her fascination with her writing, as a craft, is genuine and deep. Only a person who loves the writer’s desk this much would think to describe magazine journalism, not an obviously glamorous profession, as if it were the last leg of a rock tour. Didion’s delight in her work is transfigured by that work, allowing her to cast the writing business as a high-flying, impossibly exciting job.

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It was Didion’s luck, and readers’, that this controlled portrait of dissolution was perfectly pitched to echo the atomizations and upheavals of the American sixties. She rapidly became one of the era’s leading chroniclers and balladeers. But the cultural circumstances of that era and its burnt-out wake did not last, and, much to Didion’s credit, neither did her approach. In some of the lesser essays of The White Album, Didion’s writing sometimes has a played-out, schticky quality, and she may have known it: Immediately after publishing that book, she explicitly left her early style behind.

From there, in ways not always noted, she kept experimenting, changing, challenging herself. She tried using fractured, metered sentences in her fiction. She turned her nonfiction away from observational reporting and toward the argued analytical essay—an approach that culminated in her piece about the Central Park Jogger assault case, “ Sentimental Journeys .” And she reinvented her critical project. Perhaps because Didion had been adept at a particular sort of self-narration in the public eye, she could spot versions and perversions of the same in others, and increasingly she targeted writers ( Woody Allen, Bob Woodward ) who she thought were fooling right-minded people with elaborate mirages. She helped to transform the analytical mind-set of political journalism. (It is common today to speak of the “narrative” in electoral politics; Didion largely invented this way of thinking.) She became celebrated. She became reliable. Then, when she was on the cusp of her seventies, death in the family tore her life apart.

The books that narrated that crisis, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, brought Didion mainstream popularity. It’s often assumed that this was due to their heartrending subject matter—the death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, and of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. Yet many people have written frank accounts of wrenching family losses; few catch the national imagination so vividly. Didion was specially equipped to write these books because, in some sense, they were works for which she’d been rehearsing all her working life. Her carefully balanced first person, apparently confessional but functionally constructed, allowed her to seem raw while still offering legibility of meaning and form. Her eye for ominous irony let her turn a fleeting crisis and sustained loss into a captivating investigative narrative. Her romanticization of the writer’s life gained full expression in the flash-cut memories woven through the books: Didion driving across the desert by night at more than a hundred miles per hour; Didion and Quintana ordering room service from a string of five-star hotels; Didion struggling “to keep myself on the correct track” in the weeks following Dunne’s death.

The speed, the tumult, the glamour—it had all been there, but never so urgently. Many writers write vexed introspection, or detail-oriented reporting, or counterintuitive cultural commentary, or lifestyle journalism. But so far only Didion has done all four in perfect synthesis, a prose that, at its best, can fire on every cylinder and work on multiple fields of the imagination at once. The ultimate standard for great writing is not clarity or intelligence or entertainment. It’s the capacity to haunt: to get under the reader’s skin and stay there even as external circumstances change. Didion’s finest books are haunting, which is why they are still discovered, admired, and pawed-over. To read her is to understand what writing, at its most exquisitely controlled, can do.

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“To Be A Writer, You Must Write”: How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion

Evelyn mcdonnell on the writing process of one of america's leading literary ladies.

Joan Didion looks straight at the camera, with her fist curled in front of her mouth—as if to indicate it is through her hands that the taciturn thinker speaks. Appropriately, a manual typewriter takes up half the frame in this iconic black-and-white photo taken by Nancy Ellison in 1976.

When she was a teenager, Didion taught herself to type and to write by pecking out stories by Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad on an Olivetti Lettera 22. Her goal: “To learn how the sentences worked,” she told the Paris Review . Thus began her immersion in the physical act as well as the craft of writing. Call it a form of machine learning. “I’m only myself in front of my typewriter,” Didion once told an editor at Ms. magazine.

At some point her father, in one of his random financial schemes, bought a load of Royal 200 typewriters, one of which became Didion’s accomplice. She took it with her everywhere. A typewriter is included in the carry-on items in the packing list she published in The White Album . Her idea was not to write on the plane, but while she waited in the airport, she would sit “and start typing the day’s notes.” This is one of many instructive lessons offered by Joan Didion. She must have hauled a typewriter with her in 1955, when, at age twenty, she took a train alone from Boston back to Sacramento, after a month spent in Mademoiselle ’s guest editor program. She typed multiple letters to her Mademoiselle colleague and college friend Peggy LaViolette on hotel stationery along the way. “Never being one to throw myself wholeheartedly into Adventure, I carefully got a seat alone, barricaded myself in with wicker basket, typewriter, mangled copies of old magazines and thought I could sleep all night,” she typed in one missive.

Many writers become so attached to a physical process that changing tools with the times is not easy; some never manage it. Neil Gaiman, the futurist, has said he prefers to write his novels in longhand. I still print out my writing and edit it on paper, a routine I was chuffed to hear Didion recommend to Hilton Als in an interview late in her life. Over the decades Didion graduated from notebook to manual typewriter to electric typewriter to computer, again demonstrating her openness to progress. Still, she did complain to author Maxine Hong Kingston about the transition to electric in a 1978 letter, saying that combined with moving and quitting smoking, the “reprogramming…had caused an inordinate amount of stress.” She switched to a computer in 1987 and eventually came to love the editing capabilities of word processing programs. “It did for me what geometry was supposed to have done,” she said.

Writers are prone to obsessive interest in other writers’ processes. We write because we are readers, and we read, in part, to see how others write. Didion was a bookworm. When she wasn’t sitting on the fender of her car, she was far from the snakes at the Sacramento library on a Friday night with her friend Maurice, or maybe her gal pal Nancy Kennedy (whose brother Anthony later became a Supreme Court justice and spoke at Joan’s memorial). Photos and videos document her various homes stacked floor to ceiling with books. Among the items sold at auction by her estate in 2022 were Didion’s collections of works by George Orwell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Norman Mailer.

Joan was an avid consumer of culture in general, with broad interests that did not divide art into high and low: She named one anthology after a Yeats poem, another after a Beatles album. Writer and friend Calvin Trillin called her Brentwood home “the West Coast literary consulate,” but she and Dunne largely financed it with Hollywood hack work. She loved biker films, interviewed Jim Morrison for the Saturday Evening Post and Joan Baez for the New York Times , wrote an important essay about Georgia O’Keeffe, and was close friends with writer and artist Eve Babitz ( Slow Days, Fast Company ) and writer and screenwriter Nora Ephron ( When Harry Met Sally ).

There’s a 1971 interview with Joan on YouTube, posted by the Center for Sacramento History. Some of the audio is missing, but the footage of Didion in her office in her Franklin Avenue house is, well, pure gold. She’s wearing a brown flared miniskirt and a black V-neck shirt that fastens in the back. She has tucked her shoulder-length strawberry blond hair behind her ears, as she did, and freckles dot her cheeks. She’s talking about growing up in rural environments; her Valley accent is strong. I’m not talking San Fernando Valley here; I’m talking the almost southern twang of the Central Valley, that Didion said she picked up from the many refugees from the Oklahoma dust bowl with whom she went to school. This is how Didion spoke: not with the English accent of Vanessa Redgrave, who portrayed her in the stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking , or the crisp patrician consonants of Barbara Caruso, who reads the audiobook of that text, but like a freckle-faced country girl. The camera pans across shelves full of books and books piled on the desk, lingering on volumes written by Didion and Dunne. Joan snips an article out of a newspaper in front of a cabinet of haphazardly placed manila folders, presumably full of other clippings. She’s talking about worrying herself sick about a comma being out of place while admitting she doesn’t have the same fastidious approach to her housekeeping. (This is the secret life of women writers: We can’t be good mothers, wives, daughters, writers, cooks, and housekeepers.) She sits on a black leather couch with leopard-print pillows, smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback that’s open on her lap.

“I like words and I’m very excited by seeing what can be done with words,” she says. “ Play It a s It Lays is a very short novel. I worked on it for five years but when I finished it, I thought every word was exactly right. Now I can’t even read it because words pop out at me, or sentences that I think ought to be changed.”

Didion once told a participant in a writing seminar that to get through writer’s block, you had to write one sentence, and then another, and then another.

To be a writer, you must write.


joan didion famous essays

Excerpted from The World According to Joan Didion by Evelyn McDonnell. Copyright © 2023. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Evelyn McDonnell

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How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend

By Lili Anolik

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In a 1969 column for Life, her first for the magazine, Joan Didion let drop that she and husband, John Gregory Dunne, were at the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce,” surely the most famous subordinate clause in the history of New Journalism, an insubordinate clause if ever there was one. The poise of it, the violence, the cool-bitch chic—a writer who could be the heroine of a Godard movie!—takes the breath away, even after all these years. Didion goes on: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.” I suppose I’m operating under a similar set of impulses—a mixture of candor, self-justification and self-dramatization, the dread of being misapprehended coupled with the certainty that misapprehension is inevitable (Didion’s style is catching, but not so much as her habit of thought)—when I tell you I’m scared of her.

Before I get into why, I need to clarify something I said. Or, rather, something I didn’t say and won’t say, but which I’m anxious you’re going to think I said: that Didion isn’t a brilliant writer. She is a brilliant writer—sentence for sentence, among the best this country’s ever produced. And I’m not disputing her status as cultural icon either. As large as she looms now, she’ll loom larger as time passes—I’d bet money on it. In fact, I don’t want to diminish or assault her in any way. What I do want to do is get her right. And over the past 11 years, since 2005, when she published the first of her two loss memoirs, one about Dunne, the other about Quintana, her daughter, she’s been gotten wrong. And not just wrong, egregiously wrong, wrong to the point of blasphemy. I’m talking about the canonization of Didion, Didion as St. Joan, Didion as Our Mother of Sorrows. Didion is not, let me repeat, not a holy figure, nor is she a maternal one. She’s cool-eyed and cold-blooded, and that coolness and coldness—chilling, of course, but also bracing—is the source of her fascination as much as her artistry is; the source of her glamour too, and her seductiveness, because she is seductive, deeply. What she is is a femme fatale, and irresistible. She’s our kiss of death, yet we open our mouths, kiss back.

The subject of this piece, though, is not just a who, Didion, but a what, Hollywood. So to bring them together, which is where they belong, a natural pairing, this: I think that Didion, along with Andy Warhol, her spiritual twin as well as her artistic, created L.A.—that is, modern L.A., contemporary L.A., the L.A. that is synonymous with Hollywood. And I think that Didion alone was the vehicle—or possibly the agent—of L.A.’s destruction. I think that for the city of Los Angeles, Didion is the Ángel de la Muerte.

There. I said it. Now you know why I’m scared. Who wants to get on the Ángel de la Muerte’s bad side? Not that I believe I’m going to. Because I have one last thing to add, and I don’t care how weird and screw-loose it sounds: I think she wanted me to say it.

An Ingénue, Disingenuous

The Joan Didion who moved from New York to L.A. in June of 1964 was no more Joan Didion than Norma Jeane Baker was Marilyn Monroe, or Marion Morrison was John Wayne, or, for that matter, Andrew Warhola was Andy Warhol. She was a native daughter, but only sort of. The California she grew up in—the Sacramento Valley—was closer in spirit to the Old West than to the sun-kissed, pleasure-mad movie colony. Just shy of 30, she’d recently married Dunne. Both had been working as journalists, she for Vogue, he for Time. Her first book, a novel, the traditional if not quite conventional Run River, had been published the year before. Critics hadn’t taken much notice; neither had readers. Hurt, likely a little angry too, she was ready for a new scene. Dunne was equally itchy to blow town. Plus, he had a brother in the industry, Dominick —Nick.

In his memoir Popism, Warhol wrote, “The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.” Old Hollywood, of course, didn’t know it was finished. Was carrying on like it was show business as usual. And it still hadn’t wised up the following spring when the Didion-Dunnes arrived.

Nick, young though he was, was Old Hollywood. Professionally he hadn’t made it: a second-rate producer in a second-rate medium, TV. But socially he’d hit the heights. He and wife Lenny threw lavish, stylish parties, and lots of them. A month before the Didion-Dunnes showed, they’d thrown their most lavish and stylish, a black-and-white ball inspired by the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. (That the ball—a ball!—wasn’t in color is a detail almost too on the nose. Soon the whole town would turn psychedelic, and such evenings would seem so old-fashioned as to have been in black and white even if they weren’t.) Among the splendidly monochromatic: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, David Selznick and Jennifer Jones, Billy Wilder, Loretta Young, Natalie Wood. Also present, Truman Capote, who, in a gesture either of rip-off or homage, would stage his own black-and-white ball in New York. Nick’s invitation would get lost in the mail.

In later years, Didion and Dunne would play a double game with Hollywood: they were participants who were also onlookers; supported by the industry but not owned by it; in the thick of it and above the fray. They seemed much less ambivalent in their early years. In their early years, they wanted in. A line invoked by both so often you know they must have believed it gospel is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: “We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood.” How lucky for them then that they were the brother and sister-in-law of Nick, and thus part of the Hollywood family, if poor relations. And, as poor relations, they were given castoffs: clothes, Natalie Wood’s (for Didion); houses, too. They rented Sara Mankiewicz’s, fully furnished, though Mankiewicz did pack up the Oscar won by her late husband, Herman, for writing Citizen Kane.

So Didion and Dunne wanted in and got in, but they wanted in deeper. Hollywood’s appeal for writers isn’t hard to figure: it’s about the only place they can strike it rich. And doing it for the money seems to be how a writer stays respectable, at least in the eyes of fellow writers. Says writer Dan Wakefield, a friend of the couple’s from New York, “They didn’t give a shit about the movies except it was a way to make a lot of money. And I totally respect that.” Only maybe the Didion-Dunnes weren’t just tricking after all. Wrote Dunne, “The other night, after a screening, we went out to a party with Mike Nichols and Candice Bergen and Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand. I never did that at Time. ” They were doing it then for love, too, if not of the movies, of the glamour and celebrity that movies bring. Says writer Josh Greenfeld, a friend of the couple’s from L.A., “Joan and John were star fuckers. They wouldn’t miss a party. They could do four in a night—come, see what had to be seen, go.” And Don Bachardy, the artist and longtime lover of Christopher Isherwood, then a reigning figure on the L.A. literary scene, recalls their ardent pursuit of Isherwood. “They were both highly ambitious, and Chris was a rung on the ladder they were climbing. I don’t like to tell on Chris, but he wasn’t very fond of either of them. I think he found her clammy.” (Isherwood already told on himself. He makes numerous unflattering references to Didion and Dunne—“Mrs. Misery and Mr. Know-All”—in his diaries.)

The basic plan, careerwise, seems to have been that Nick would provide Didion and Dunne with introductions and they’d try their hands, collective—it would be a team effort—at scriptwriting. Their hands would remain idle for seven years, not counting an episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre. Well, idle and full. In 1964, Didion struck up a relationship with a magazine highly receptive to her sensibility and interests, The Saturday Evening Post. It would become the primary home for her work until its publisher filed for bankruptcy in 1969. And in 1966, she’d have a baby—or, have a baby without quite having had a baby. She and Dunne adopted, at birth, a girl, Quintana Roo. So Didion had plenty to keep her occupied.

Besides, she didn’t need the movies to become a star.

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ONE HAPPY FAMILY Joan, John, and Quintana, photographed by Julian Wasser in their L.A. home in 1968.

A Star Is Born, an Immaculate Conception

In 1968, Didion published Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays mostly and most strikingly about California, and, with a single exception, composed entirely while living in her new hometown. Slouching would become a touchstone for a decade and an era, its readers more than mere readers but followers, devotees, fans. The critics were just as beguiled. The New York Times called it “a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.” And the writing is great: direct and matter-of-fact, yet lyrical and poetic and hypnotic, too—writing that casts a spell, though whether you’ve been enchanted or cursed isn’t wholly clear. The true triumph of Slouching, however, is Joan Didion, or, rather, “Joan Didion,” the central character in a book that famously denies that the center exists, or at least that it’s capable of holding; also, as it happens, the most enduring creation of Joan Didion.

We’re told at *Slouching’*s outset that it was written in a state of acute emotional distress. From the preface: “I went to San Francisco [for the title piece, about the hippie scene in the Haight] because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.” And many of the stories “Didion” tells are real-life horror stories: a suburban housewife who, one night when she was out of milk, set fire to her dumb lug of a husband; High Kindergarten, where children were given LSD; Howard Hughes. And yet the tone of the telling is noticeably, conspicuously not horrified; nor is it distressed, or even emotional; it’s the opposite, is composed, affectless, flat. There are, I should note, two places in the book where the tone changes, becomes tender. The first is in “John Wayne: A Love Song.” (Didion admirers like, I suspect, to believe that that “Love” is ironic—it’s not; she’s sweet on the Duke, who in his simplicity and stoicism represents to her a masculine ideal.) The second is in “Goodbye to All That,” her profile of her young self.

Like Warhol, “Didion” presents herself as an observer—no, a witness—to unspeakable acts. In fact, “Death and Disaster,” Warhol’s early-60s series depicting all manner of grisliness—car accidents, riots, suicides—could have been the title of Slouching, and maybe a better one. (The Yeats reference, in retrospect, seems a little alarmist.) “Didion” is absorbed, intensely, in what’s going on around her, but is not involved; her gaze fixed, even salivating, yet also vacant. Her motto might be: See everything, hear everything, do nothing. Still, her nothing is something, her extreme passivity a form of extreme aggression. She takes events, people, places that inspire violent and chaotic feelings—passion, hope, terror, despair—and subdues them, controls them, counteracting their awesome power simply by looking at them in a certain way. Her look, Warhol’s look, too—it’s aestheticizing, providing a psychic distance, a paradoxical kind of a cool. A burned-out cool. A cool that gives off heat.

The Strange Case of Earl McGrath

So New York had missed Didion’s star quality, its eye passing right over her. Not L.A., though. (Warhol, too, incidentally, would have to leave New York, go to L.A., to get discovered. It was the Ferus Gallery, on La Cienega, that gave him his big break, his first fine-arts show back in 1962, him and his soup cans.) L.A. knew how to talent-spot. But in 1968, it didn’t know much else. It was in a state of flux, or maybe crisis. The culture had swung counter, and the movies hadn’t swung along with it, not fully. Nineteen sixty-eight, remember, was the year of John Wayne’s The Green Berets, about what a super-fantastic idea the Vietnam War was. Music, not movies, had captured the hearts and minds of the younger generation. Old Hollywood, though, now knew it was Old. Wrote Nick Dunne, “Everything was changing…. People were starting to smoke pot…. Hairdressers started to be invited to parties.” And even if it wasn’t clear what exactly the New was, it was clear that Didion was part of it. She and Dunne began to move in different circles, most notably Earl McGrath’s.

Who is Earl McGrath? A mystery man I was never able to solve, is the short answer. Didion dedicated The White Album, her essay collection mainly about L.A. during the years she and Dunne and Quintana lived in a house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood (1966–71), to him, which should give you some idea of his importance to her. He reminds me of Jay Gatsby, not for the obvious reason, though for that reason too—he threw killer parties—but because the claims made about him seem outlandish yet, somehow, plausible: “he ran Bobby Kennedy’s career”; “he ran Rolling Stones Records”; “he ran an art gallery”; “he was head of production for Twentieth Century Fox”; “he married an Italian countess”; “he gave Steve Martin his I’m-a-Little-Teapot routine.” All of that—some of that, none of that—though, was just a front, a cover. What he did really was get to know the ultra-hip and get them to know each other. Says artist Ron Cooper, “Earl is the Gertrude Stein of our era. He had a salon like Stein. I met Andy Warhol through him and Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper and Michelle Phillips and Michael Crichton and Joan and John, of course—and, oh, just an amazing roster of people.” Says singer-actress Michelle Phillips, “If you went to Earl’s, you were going to a party that you knew was going to be staffed and stuffed with the most interesting, fuckable people, always, always.”

Drugs were a big part of the scene. Says writer Eve Babitz, “Mostly pot and acid and speed—Dexedrine, Benzedrine. I thought Joan was more in control than we were, but I reread the The White Album. She didn’t sound in control, did she?” So was Harrison Ford. Says Babitz, “Harrison was a carpenter then, a terrible one. He built a deck for John Dunne and John was outraged it took so long. John really expected him to build it! And Earl was in love with Harrison. He let Harrison basically get away with murder as far as his carpentry was concerned. But Fred Roos [famed casting director for Francis Ford Coppola] hired Harrison and made him finish his project, and then got him in Star Wars. ”

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Didion’s social life was now so vibrant, so vivid, so potent, her imaginative life became vulnerable to it. Says Babitz, “Michelle Phillips told the best stories in town. I remember her once lying down on the floor and telling that amazing story about Tamar Hodel. [Hodel, then 26, decided to kill herself after a love affair ended badly. She asked Phillips, then 17, to help. Phillips, believing it her duty as a friend, agreed. Hodel swallowed a bottle of Seconal. Phillips fell asleep beside her in bed. Fortunately, other friends came home in time to call an ambulance.] I guess Joan was listening.”

The Auteur Theory

In 1969, Didion completed her third book, Play It as It Lays. “Joan Didion” was back, no matter that she was now called Maria Wyeth, and Play It a novel. Maria, a B actress fast sliding down the alphabet, has an estranged director-husband and a brain-damaged child, and is telling her story from a sanatorium. Things she does: has sex, listlessly, takes drugs, also listlessly, bleeds a lot—from a botched abortion—cries even more—from the abortion, but for other reasons, too. In the climactic scene, she cradles her friend, the homosexual producer, BZ, in bed as he overdoses on Seconal (sound familiar?).

Play It is a Hollywood book, not just because it’s about Hollywood people, but because it’s a book that’s also a movie. Didion’s the star. (I should mention here that “writer” was only ever her fallback plan; as a child she’d wanted to act.) The author photo on the jacket, taken by Julian Wasser, is an arresting one—Didion was always a shrewd subject, understood how the camera should see her, had an actress’s sixth sense about lighting and mood—and shows a young woman, pretty and slight and troubled-looking. Between her fingers, a cigarette, rakishly angled, smolders. All decidedly Maria-ish. And if you’d caught the shots of Didion in Time in ‘68 (Wasser again), you’d know that, like Maria, who cruises the nerve pathways of the city to soothe hers—the San Diego Freeway to the Harbor to the Hollywood, and so on—she drives a Corvette. It’s a snap to picture her cracking hard-boiled eggs on her steering wheel, drinking Coca-Colas at gas stations.

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A STAR IS BORN Quintana, Joan, John, and his nephew Tony that same year.

Stars, though, weren’t really stars in Hollywood, directors were. And in Play It, Didion was that kind of star, too. If there’s a prose equivalent to freeze-frames and jump cuts, this book is full of them; chapters are fractured, one just 28 words long; and the amount of white on the pages makes them look like miniature movie screens. Plus, her eye is eerily close to that of a camera’s: all-seeing yet uncaring, a mode of perception both alienated and alienating.

And with Play It, Didion was able to return a favor. L.A. discovered Didion; now she was discovering it. Because if Play It actually were a movie, surely its opening credits would have read AND INTRODUCING L.A. The L.A. in Play It wasn’t the L.A. that existed in the popular imagination of the time: a sunny land of innocent, adolescent pleasures, Surfin’ U.S.A., Eden before the fall. It’s shadow L.A., jaded L.A., and it’s hell on earth, or, L.A. being L.A., hell in paradise. It’s the L.A. of plastic lemons and silver medallions and masseurs who want to be screenwriters. Didion intended, I think, to write a hate letter to L.A.; it’s a love letter, though, in spite of itself. For Auden, L.A. was “The Great Wrong Place.” It was for Didion, too, only her Wrong was so Wrong it was Right. She seduced even as she condemned. And there’s also this: the fact that Didion, the girl New Journalist, the novelist who’d figured out how to be a female Hemingway (a contradiction in terms, yet she’d done it), chose the city as her subject was its own kind of validation and recommendation. Says Babitz, “Joan made it O.K. to be serious about L.A.” Warhol made it O.K. before Didion, but only just. The profane assertion of his Marilyn Diptych (1962) was that movie stars had replaced religious icons as objects of worship; and, by extension, that L.A., home of Hollywood, was the country’s new spiritual mecca. What’s more, L.A., thanks to Warhol and Didion—maybe a handful of others—was becoming the country’s new cultural mecca, too. New York? How about Old Hat.

Psycho Killer, Qui Est-Ce Qu’il Est?

The times were wild and weird, and getting ever wilder and weirder. Didion was almost uncannily in touch with them. Her health, mental and physical, began to break down. After an attack of vertigo and nausea, she checked herself into a psychiatric clinic. Later she’d write, “An attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

As bad as that summer was, though, it would get worse. Dark forces were gathering, gaining momentum. From The White Album: “I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town.... Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable.” And then the disciples of an aspiring musician and ex-con named Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, and four others at the house Tate rented with husband Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive, and suddenly everything was both. Didion: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” Perhaps most unsettling of all: there was murder, but no murderer, not at first. Says Julian Wasser, “The cops didn’t know shit, as usual. Roman took me and Tommy Thompson [a journalist] and a psychic to the house. He’d just gotten back from Europe. It was his first time on the scene. The carpet had a three-foot circle of jellied blood. Roman was crying. He wanted me to take pictures to give to the psychic so he could find out who did it.” Says Michelle Phillips, “For a long time, nobody knew it was Manson. Everyone was a suspect. I started carrying a gun in my purse. To me, that was the end of the party.”

Manson embodied so many counterculture clichés he was an almost allegorical figure: a singer-songwriter who’d come to L.A. with a guitar and hopes of stardom. You could find one of him on every corner, at least the corners by the Troubadour and the Whisky. Bogeyman as Everyman. And the Manson “Family” was like some grotesque parody of the era’s peace-love-and-brotherhood ethos, the monster under the flower child’s bed.

Didion and the Manson murders were linked, if only in Didion’s mind. She sees occult significance in the fact that Polanski, at a party he attended with Tate, had spilled red wine on the dress she wore to her wedding, and that she and he were godparents to the same child, even if she can’t figure out exactly what that significance is, even if her cool intelligence won’t allow her to use the word “occult.” Yet there’s no question of the guilt in her tone. Is that because she felt somehow responsible for him? Did she believe he was a hallucination she’d conjured mid-migraine (her “vascular headache[s] of blinding severity”)? A vision sprung to life during her psychic collapse the summer before (from the doctor’s report: “In [the patient’s] view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations”)? Her bad juju (“I remember a babysitter telling me that she saw death in my aura”) made flesh?

Or maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe this is the right one: Did Didion believe herself so harmonically—or, rather, disharmonically—in tune with the vibrations being struck around her, so imaginatively sympathetic a participant in her time and place, in the melancholy and despair lurking beneath hippiedom’s blissed-out surface, in the hate that is the flip side of the Love Generation, that she became the medium of an evil spirit, the conduit through which it passed into the world, or did she believe she summoned it? In other words, was she Manson’s instrument or was he hers?

Who’s Afraid of John Gregory Dunne?

John Gregory Dunne was Didion’s husband, the father of her child, her first editor—that “in lieu of filing for divorce” clause, written, you’ll recall, in 1969, went through his red pencil before *Life’*s—and co-screenwriter. All of which gives you some idea of how essential to her he was. Not the whole idea, though. Here’s how essential: without Dunne there would have been no Didion, not Didion as we know Didion. But before I talk about him, I want to talk about Didion’s other mate, maybe her soulmate, if only in my imagination, Andy Warhol.

Didion is, and always has been, small, frail, quiet, recessive. As was Warhol. In so many ways, Didion was a Warhol who could pass, her smallness and frailness registering as pretty, gamine; her quietness and recessiveness as feminine, refined. She was, too, that least threatening figure—a wife. He, in contrast, was homely—blotchy-skinned and bulbous-nosed and bewigged—and obviously sexually Other. His weirdness was unconcealable, writ large. He had no choice but to turn it into personal style. In any case, these two mice became—not just against the odds, but seemingly against nature, certainly against their natures—social lions. How?

Entourages. The world’s rawness was too much for Warhol. A protective layer was necessary. Says Ferus co-owner Irving Blum, “Andy needed to travel with people—he used them as shields.” (It could easily be argued, by the way, that Warhol summoned his evil spirit. Valerie Solanas—a flamboyant oddball, just his type—was a member of his entourage. She’d written a play she thought he was going to produce. When she realized he wasn’t, she shot him. In a physical sense, she failed. Not in a metaphysical, though. Once her bullets entered his body on June 3, 1968—the summer that had Didion’s head spinning, stomach churning—it was the end of much of what was daring and original in his work.) Entourages, too, were good for the mystique.

Didion’s entourage was an entourage of one: Dunne. “Joan was very soft-spoken and shrinking,” says Don Bachardy. “John was very talky. He was her mouthpiece.” Didion, no doubt, is genuinely introverted. But she’s also somebody who, by her own admission, can spend “most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.” She’s a control freak, basically. And conversation, as opposed to writing, is interactive, improvisatory. To engage in one you have to renounce a measure of control. Dunne’s garrulousness allowed her to take some of that control back, to pick and choose her spots. Says writer David Freeman, “John was the talker. I’ll tell you this, though. When she started talking, he knew to shut up.”

This, too: while shyness can be a symptom of insecurity, it can also be a weapon in a power play. Says Josh Greenfeld, “Joan’s weakness is her strength. It got John to run interference.” And run it he did. To get to Didion you had to go through Dunne. This was true socially—at parties, and on the telephone (it was he who always answered). And professionally. He did the meetings and the memos, the pushing around. The last sentence in a fax he sent to the Writers Guild when a studio was slow on payment: “[O]ur position is fuck them, let’s arbitrate.” He was Didion’s protector. And her caretaker. Says writer-actress Jennifer Salt, a one-time neighbor, “John was a very concerned and doting husband. A big part of their life was her migraines.”

So, essentially, their marriage was an endless re-enactment of a classic scenario: a damsel in distress, a big strong man coming to her rescue. (Big strong men, we know from Didion’s John Wayne profile, are very much her thing.) Or was it? Dot dot dot.

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The couple in New York City in 1983.

Dunne wasn’t Didion’s match artistically. Not so much a slight as it might sound. Dunne was a fine writer; Didion just happens to be more than that. And he seemed to have accepted his second-best status. Says Greenfeld, “John told Brian [Moore, the Irish novelist] he was walking on the beach one night and he ran into Jesus and Jesus said, ‘I love your wife’s work!’ ” Very smartly, too, Dunne carved out his own literary territory, his interests running to crooked cops and crooked crooks, gangsters and studio heads, i.e., gangsters by another name. Harder for Dunne to accept: that he wasn’t Didion’s match psychologically either. Greenfeld again: “What you see in John, you get in Joan. He came on blustering and tough, but he was softhearted.”

That Didion could wipe the floor with Dunne anytime she chose must’ve been disturbing for him. And confusing. The girl he’d married, a slip of a thing, bookish and wallflowerish, turned out to be this spooky genius, a poet of paranoia or possibly a clairvoyant of paranoia fulfilled. And those were boozy days. From Isherwood’s Diaries: “[Joan] drinks quite a lot. So does [John].” Dunne was a rager too. In that Life piece, Didion mentions “kicked-down doors.” Says Babitz, “Joan had migraines because she was married to John. He’d give anyone a migraine. He was an alcoholic and he broke down doors.” Often, though, when a man gets violent with a woman physically, it’s because he feels beat-up emotionally. Scratch a bully find a victim.

There’s a scene, very revealing, I think, in Vegas (1974), carefully described by Dunne as “a memoir” and “a fiction which recalls a time both real and imagined,” though in a letter to writer Jane Howard he admitted that the “real and imagined” was a fakeout, an attempt to throw his mother—“the Mum”—off the autobiographical scent. Vegas is about a writer who leaves his wife—also a writer—and child—a little girl, adopted—to live in Las Vegas, precisely what Dunne did for six months in the early 70s. (In lieu of divorce coming perilously close to divorce divorce.) The scene is a phone call between the protagonist and his wife:

“What’s new with you?” she said. “Jackie’s got me a date with a nineteen-year-old tonight. She’s supposed to suck me and fuck me.” “It’s research … You’re missing the story if you don’t meet her.” “But I don’t want to fuck her.” There was a long silence at the other end of the telephone. “Well, that can be part of the story, too,” she said. There seemed nothing more to say. I was the one who was supposed to be detached.

This isn’t a conversation. It’s warfare. And the wife defeats the husband. A no-contest contest. How she does it: by not doing anything. She exhibits neither shock nor rage nor sadness at the prospect of his getting together with a teenager. In fact, she encourages him to, all but dares him. Which is the exact moment he turns meek and little-boy, backs down and off. Plainly, he’s terrified of his wife. Well, why not? She’s a dangerous character. (The answer to the section’s opening question, by the way: Not Joan Didion.)

Interestingly, Quintana, at around this time, seems to have been driven to equal extremes to attract Didion’s attention. In her memoir Blue Nights, Didion tells a story of a five-year-old Quintana calling Camarillo, the state mental hospital, to ask what she should do if she was going crazy. Didion tells another story of Quintana, at the same age, calling Twentieth Century Fox to ask what she should do to become a movie star. Quintana was clearly desperate to turn herself into one of her mother’s characters—an insane person or a famous person, preferably both, like Maria Wyeth.

But back to Dunne: once this period—the publication of Play It, the book’s major-cultural-eventness—passed, he mellowed or was tamed, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, the marriage settled down. And by the 80s, Didion would be telling The New York Times that she and Dunne were “terrifically, terribly dependent on one another,” a statement that warms the heart or chills the blood, again depending on your viewpoint.

Kiss Me Deadly

In 1971, the Didion-Dunnes would move out of the house on Franklin Avenue to a house in Trancas, just north of Malibu. The couple’s careers as screenwriters would begin in earnest, starting with that year’s The Panic in Needle Park, and lasting until Dunne’s death in 2003. The moment they leave Hollywood to go Hollywood, though, is the moment I lose interest in them as Hollywood figures.

There is one movie of theirs, however, I do want to discuss: Play It as It Lays (1972). As I already said, the book is both book and movie. Didion’s temperament is a director’s in that her controlling intelligence is so, well, controlling. The world Maria inhabits is a contrived one—an artifice. Not for an instant do you believe that the story can end other than in calamity, that life’s random energies have a shot against tragedy’s classic structure. If a character burped or cracked a joke, you feel the whole thing would collapse. Which is why Play It, taken on its own terms, is profound, high art; and, not taken on its own terms, profoundly silly, high camp. Pauline Kael’s assessment of the book (she slammed it en route to slamming the movie) was so devastating because she laughed at it—“I found the … novel ridiculously swank, and I read it between bouts of disbelieving giggles”—and once you start laughing, you can’t stop.

A movie, by definition, is not taking the book on its own terms, since a movie is made by many people, even if one of them is a “Didion freak” (Frank Perry, the director, a self-description) and two others are Didion and Dunne (they wrote the script). The movie exposed the book. Showed how weak the central concept was, how purest-corn and junk-Hollywood: the glamour of desolation, the romance of despair, how low-life are those living the high life, etc. Only, unlike the junk-Hollywood product, Play It took itself seriously. The movie also showed that for Play It to work—and the book, whether you like it or not, does work—it needed the magic of Didion’s prose. Otherwise it’s just a bummer version of The Bad and the Beautiful.

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Play It as It Lays (1970).

It didn’t have to be. Didion’s first pick for director was Sam Peckinpah. Didion in a letter to Peckinpah: “I want you to [do the movie]—you are the only person … I can see taking it beyond where it is and bringing back a picture of the very edge.” Peckinpah seems, on the face of it, a counter-intuitive choice. The material was contemporary, urban, feminine. He was a director of Westerns, often set in the past, and extremely violent. Yet his violence was beautiful—sensuous and painterly—and he was a fatalist, and thus close to Didion in sensibility. Her hope, too, was that he would not just film the book—what Perry ended up doing—but reimagine it, and “[bring] back a picture of the very edge.” Or, maybe, over the edge. It always struck me as false that Maria was so tranquil behind the wheel. How much more joy would she have gotten from her rides if she’d left devastation in her wake? Is there a better way for one of the most alienated characters in modern literature to connect than inside her metal shell, her barest touch resulting in blood and guts and severed limbs? (Didion: “Actually, I don’t drive on the freeway. I’m afraid to.”) Peckinpah, I think, would have said what Didion couldn’t quite: that Maria—that Didion—was a victim who was also a victimizer. He’d have turned Play It into Warhol’s Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times at 24 frames per second.

That version, of course, never happened. The studio balked at Peckinpah. Missed opportunities are always a shame. This one, though, was especially shameful because it was also Didion and Dunne’s best opportunity to catch the American New Wave.

In 1969, the summer of Manson, Easy Rider roared onto screens trailing clouds of motorcycle exhaust and marijuana smoke. A new era in movies had begun. This new era, New Hollywood, was really an end-of-an-era era. Its decade was the 70s, and the 70s were less the 70s than the post-60s, the 60s once the light had been snuffed out. Its movies were, unsurprisingly, dark: innocence was lost or violated, promise unfulfilled, effort futile. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. And while Didion and Dunne were in New Hollywood, literally (their house in Trancas was a stone’s throw from New Hollywood Central, the houses of Julia and Michael Phillips, producers of Taxi Driver, and actresses Jennifer Salt and Margot Kidder, where every weekend people like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Schrader—all unknowns then—could be found drinking wine, smoking grass, and talking movies), they were never of it, even if they’d occasionally attend its parties. I don’t think they quite knew what “it” was.

“A few decades hence, these years may appear to be the closest our movies have come to the tangled, bitter flowering of American letters in the 1850s.” Pauline Kael wrote those words in her introduction to Reeling, her collection of reviews, 1972–75, including that humdinger of Play It. In the 70s, movie culture would become central to American culture. Kael was its voice, which meant she was American culture’s voice, which meant Didion no longer was. Didion didn’t take the usurpation lying down. She went after Kael, writing in 1973, “The review of pictures has been … a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else.” No serious writer takes movies seriously, is, essentially, what she’s saying. And yet movies were, at that moment, it, the hot art form. So Didion, who missed nothing, had missed a major cultural shift. And just like that, the sharpest point on the cutting edge was dull, out of it, passé. That the movie she and Dunne are best known for is A Star Is Born (1976), a remake of a remake of a remake of a remake, tells, I think, the story of their Hollywood career.

So after 1969, Didion’s special extra intuition was gone. (Kael, incidentally, wouldn’t outlast her decade either. Her moment ended in 1979, when Warren Beatty, that skilled seducer, sweet-talked her into leaving The New Yorker for Paramount.) Didion would continue to be a great writer, but would cease to be a visionary one. While a number of her later books hit the best-seller list, they failed, with the exception of The White Album, published in 1979 though about the earlier period, to truly resonate. Her days as a cultural phenomenon were over.

Until the passing of Dunne and Quintana. In their deaths, Didion was resurrected professionally. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) was a critical sensation—winner of the National Book Award—and a commercial one, selling a million-plus copies, far more than any other book in her career. And its sequel, Blue Nights (2011), was another smash. Why?

In this piece’s opening I called Didion a femme fatale. I said it to startle and I said it because it’s true. I suspect she’s one in life. I know she’s one in art. Her method, which is also her genius, has been to attenuate nature, strip it of its force and vitality. And then nature did that to her. Did it by aging her, taking away her youth and beauty. Did it again, and more violently, by taking away those she loved most. With just about anybody else, it would have ended there—heartbreak of that magnitude breaking the spirit and the will, as well. Not with Didion, though. She did it right back to nature. Magical Thinking and Blue Nights are loss and grief and pain transformed into meditations on loss and grief and pain; they’re loss and grief and pain aestheticized. Death has always been Didion’s great subject and theme, as it was Warhol’s. And in these memoirs, she’s confronting it directly, more than confronting it, besting it. Art won out over life, another way of saying the artist won out over the human being. It’s her triumph. It’s also her tragedy.

Joan Didion and John Dunne: Photos of Their Life in L.A.

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On the Shelf

Let Me Tell You What I Mean

By Joan Didion Knopf: 192 pages, $23 If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from , whose fees support independent bookstores.

Joan Didion is one of America’s greatest writers. She is also, thanks to her equal mastery of images, one of its greatest icons. There she is, leaning on that yellow Corvette, perched by that massive typewriter, side-eyeing her family on that Malibu balcony.

Her two memoirs of horrific loss, “ The Year of Magical Thinking ” and “ Blue Nights ,” punctured Didion’s unobtainable aura in a way that, paradoxically, only amplified her status. Circa 2012, she was the writer nearly every young woman wanted to be. She was aspirational; she became a brand. Her famous packing list became a shopping slideshow; her famous shades made her the star of a Céline ad, an icon of fragility and resilience.

And then, in 2015, an unauthorized biography by Tracy Daugherty, “ The Last Love Song ,” was published. Millennials learned an uncomfortable truth about Didion’s politics. She is not a leftist. She is not even a liberal.

That year, Zan Romanoff wrote in the Cut of a “shift in the larger critical conversation, which by 2011 had regularly begun to include discussions of privilege and class.” (The Céline ad didn’t help.) Rachel Cusk raised questions about Didion’s “lack of humility.” Lisa Levy claimed “the deluge of praise heaped” on “Blue Nights” “has been excessive, bordering on sycophantic.” On Goodreads, a community discussion of the first memoir is titled “the money and privilege of Didion’s life is a turnoff.”

Now comes “ Let Me Tell You What I Mean ,” a new collection of old essays. Half of them appeared during the ‘60s in the Saturday Evening Post, the same publication that assigned her to write what would eventually become “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem .” In our own chaotic era, with the center again failing to hold, they offer an opportunity to reassess those critiques of privilege — to see afresh the writer who preceded the icon, the one who stood outside the culture, looking in.

Joan Didion's "Let Me Tell You What I Mean"

Louis Menand , reviewing “The Last Love Song” in the New Yorker, gives important background on “Slouching,” the book that made Didion’s name. “It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant,” Menand writes. “Her editors at the Post understood perfectly how she would react. They designed the cover before she handed in that piece.”

This collection includes “ Why I Write ,” a straightforward accounting of Didion’s craft adapted from a lecture she gave at Berkeley, wherein she looks up at the Bevatron , the particle accelerator at the Lawrence Berkeley lab. “When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the Bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong,” she says. “I was only wondering if the lights were on in the Bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.”

It seemed very important to Didion that everyone know she was not being “political.”

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The misuse of language is a frequent subject of Didion’s, especially the kind of useless verbiage that comes out of politicians’ mouths. Her contempt for this kind of “non-speak,” as she said about John Kerry, came as early as “Getting Serenity,” in which she attends a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. “They spoke in general as if from some subverbal swamp,” she writes, “snatching at phrases as they floated by.”

In considering what these pieces tell us, it helps to pore over another body of Didion’s work. By 1988, she was writing regularly about politics for the New York Review of Books . To read through her archive there is to take a joyride with a woman less and less patient. The writer who had started by only looking at the Bevatron was beginning to acknowledge that the power of sight can be political. She chastised Bill Clinton for his murky platform, then defended him during impeachment proceedings. She linked Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to 9/11 and warned that our incuriosity after the attack could not be a good sign. This was a writer who had voted for Goldwater. What was unchanged was her extreme skepticism — or what you might call cynicism.

In “Last Words,” Didion’s stunning appreciation of Hemingway and the best essay in “Let Me Tell You,” she reveals her approach to reporting, writing and, in fact, living. “The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.”

Didion is a militant nonjoiner. Even amid the immense wave of good feelings that enveloped many citizens after the election of Barack Obama, she refused to be swept up. In the NYRB, she wrote: “Irony was now out. Naiveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in. Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.” Hemingway’s individualism might be “romantic.” But Didion’s is not.

Joan Didion in 2011

“Let Me Tell You What I Mean” could be Didion’s motto, but these essays were written by a sheltered writer just beginning to stake out her worldview, making the glimmers of transformation worth noting.

For instance, in “Fathers, Sons, and Screaming Eagles,” she goes to a reunion of WWII veterans in Las Vegas. Many of them look back on their time in the war with pride. But most are now fathers of sons who are fighting and dying in Vietnam. This is how Didion closes the piece, which was written in 1968: “Walter Davis broke open a roll, buttered it carefully, and put it down again, untouched. ‘I see it a little differently now,’ he said.”

Joan Didion writes through ‘Blue Nights’

Oct. 30, 2011

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison wrote in her epic 1980 takedown of Didion, “I am different becomes I am superior.” Or, in the parlance of 2020, cynicism is a privilege. Not everyone can afford to be cynical about politics, or indeed about hope. But Didion’s emphatic outsiderness reads differently now, in 2021. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Times magazine after the attack on the Capitol. Didion’s cynicism has always been about the demand for truth, especially in language. And truth is above politics. Or it used to be.

How desperately Didion wanted us to believe she was just “looking” at the Bevatron. If you look long enough, you begin to see. Today, we are never just looking at the Bevatron. And neither, ultimately, was Didion.

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We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not..

From the essay “On Keeping a Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion Portrait by Jerry Bauer

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About joan didion.

Joan Didion was a journalist, novelist, memoirist, essayist, and screenwriter who wrote some of the sharpest and most evocative analyses of culture, politics, literature, family, and loss. She won the National Book Award in 2005 for The Year of Magical Thinking .


The new york public library acquires the papers of joan didion and john gregory dunne.



   biography & memoir  .

Joan Didion Blue Nights book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion and her infant daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.


Joan Didion Let Me Tell You What I Mean book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion.


Joan Didion Run River book cover with a photo of tree branches reflected in water


Joan Didion Salvador book cover with a portrait of Joan Didion


Let me tell you what i mean.

With a foreword by Hilton Als, these pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. They showcase Joan Didion’s incisive reporting, her empathetic gaze, and her role as “an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time” ( The New York Times Book Review ).

Joan Didion Let Me Tell You What I Mean book cover


joan didion famous essays

JANUARY 27, 2023

New york public library acquires joan didion’s papers.

The joint archive of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, includes manuscripts, photographs, letters, dinner party guest lists and other personal items.



A celebration of the life of joan didion.

On September 21, 2022, the Cathedral Church of Saint John Divine hosted a celebration of Joan Didion’s life and work.

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“She captured moments in American culture with penetrating clarity and style,” says PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown in this remembrance of the life and work of Joan Didion.

Gathered here are some of the files, photographs, manuscripts, notes, book jackets, and other items connected to Joan Didion’s life and legacy. We’re making this remarkable body of work accessible to everyone and will be adding stories and galleries as new items become available.

Portrait of Joan Didion by John Bryson

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What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion

By Nathan Heller

Joan Didion

In the spring of 1967, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, freelance writers married to each other and living in Los Angeles, were engaged to write a regular column for the Saturday Evening Post . This was a good gig. The space they had to fill was neither long nor short—about twelve hundred words, a gallop larger than the Comment that opens this magazine. The Post paid them well, and Didion and Dunne each had to file one piece a month. The column, called “Points West,” entailed their visiting a place of West Coast interest, interviewing a few people or no people, and composing a dispatch. Didion wrote one column about touring Alcatraz, another on the general secretary of a small Marxist-Leninist group. The Post was struggling to stay afloat (it went under two years later), and that chaos let the new columnists shimmy unorthodox ideas past their desperate editors. Didion’s first effort was a dispatch from her parents’ house. A few weeks later, her “Points West” was about wandering Newport, Rhode Island. (“Newport is curiously Western,” she announced in the piece, sounding awfully like a writer trying to get away with something.) The column work left time for other projects, and Didion spent the spring through September of 1967 on a ten-thousand-word assignment about the hippie movement, the rest on a novel she’d been struggling with. At some point, an editor suggested that she had the makings of a collection, so she stacked her columns with past articles she liked (a report from Hawaii, the best of some self-help columns she’d churned out while a junior editor at Vogue ), set them in a canny order with a three-paragraph introduction, and sent them off. This was “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ,” her first nonfiction book. It has claims to being the most influential essay collection of the past sixty years.

Didion, now eighty-six, has been an object of fascination ever since, boosted by the black-lace renaissance she experienced after publishing “ The Year of Magical Thinking ” (2005), her raw and ruminative account of the months following Dunne’s sudden death. Generally, writers who hold readers’ imaginations across decades do so because there’s something unsolved in their project, something that doesn’t square and thus seems subject to the realm of magic. In Didion’s case, a disconnect appears between the jobber-like shape of her writing life—a shape she often emphasizes in descriptions of her working habits—and the forms that emerged as the work accrued. For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments. She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more. (Their Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well.) And yet the mosaic-like nonfiction books that Didion produced are the opposite of jobber books, or market-pitched books, or even useful, fibrous, admirably executed books. These are strange books, unusually shaped. They changed the way that journalistic storytelling and analysis were done.

Because a sentence of Didion is unmistakable, people often presume that her advances were in prose style. The opening of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection announced her voice:

The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.

There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.

Most writers of nonfiction operate in the sphere of high craft: like a silversmith producing teapots, they work to create elevated and distinctive versions of known objects. A master will produce a range of creative variations, yet the teapots always remain teapots, and the marks of individuation rise from a shared language of form and technique. Didion’s nonfiction was produced in that craftwork tradition, but it operates more in the sphere of art: it declares its own terms and vernacular, and, if successful, conveys meaning in a way that transcends its parts.

The title essay of her second collection, “ The White Album ” (1979), offers the clearest glimpse of how that reimagination happens. The heart of the essay is a cluster of “Points West” columns: brief reports on protests at San Francisco State, a Huey Newton press conference, a studio visit with the Doors—her normal craftwork as a working writer. When composing the “White Album” essay, Didion lined those pieces up like flagstones in a path. Together, she knew, they had to tell a bigger story, because they came from the same place (coastal California) in the same time (1968) and from the same vantage (hers). But what was the story?

To figure it out, Didion started adding stones from elsewhere in the quarry: circumstances surrounding the production of the newsstand columns, details from her home life. She included an extract from a psychological evaluation she’d had that summer. (“The Rorschach record is interpreted as describing a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses.”) She wrote about remembering a line by Ezra Pound on the drive to report at San Francisco State. She threaded these bits with what she called flash cuts, scene changes separated by space breaks; in other words, she started with the craft part—the polished sentences, the tidy magazine page—and built outward, collaging what was already published with what wasn’t, reframing and rejuxtaposing what had been previously pinned in pristine prose. This process of redigesting published craftwork into art is how Didion shaped her nonfiction books for fifty years. It made her farseeing, and a thorny voice about the way public stories were told.

The prickliness of Didion’s project was on my mind as I read her new collection, “ Let Me Tell You What I Mean ” (Knopf). “New” here refers mostly to the state of the binding, because the newest thing that Didion contributed is twenty years old. The foreword, very fruitful, is by Hilton Als . The volume’s keystone is a few “Points West” columns from 1968 which she in some cases had collaged into previous books but which have not been reprinted in their original, stand-alone form until now. In that sense, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is less a selected essays than a rejected essays, a director’s un-cut of her older work. Traditionally, this is the sort of collection squeezed out by itchy heirs after an author’s death.

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It’s happy news, then, that the book still offers some familiar pleasures. The earliest columns, from the late sixties, remain crisp and engaging on the page (not a given for late-sixties writing). Other essays, such as a piece on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from 1989, are, if not exactly urgent, nice to have around. Didion stopped publishing new material in 2011, a silence that’s well earned but bittersweet in light of recent events, and “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is meant to summon the old feelings. Yet the book ends up a study in the limits of Didion’s prose, because its parts, for all their elegance, don’t make a whole. Devoted readers will find the book unrecognizable as a Didion collection in any real sense.

To understand why, it is useful to go back to the summer of 1967, when Didion was writing her report on the hippies—the title essay of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The late-sixties youth movements purported to be about community and coming together, but Didion saw them as a symptom of a shared society unravelling and public communication breaking down. (The title comes from a Yeats poem that begins, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”) “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization,” she later explained. Struggling to describe this dissolution, she decided to express the problem structurally. The hippie essay, written as a series of pruned scenes from the Haight-Ashbury separated by breaks, marked her first true use of flash cuts.

The piece “failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads,” Didion later wrote. But the concept of atomization, and the collage technique, stuck. When Didion was gathering essays for her first collection, she did something notable with a piece she called “Los Angeles Notebook.” She took one of her “Points West” columns, about the Santa Ana wind, and put a flash cut after it. She lopped off the opening to a critics piece she’d written on books by Helen Gurley Brown and dropped that in, followed by another cut. In this way, she built a new essay from the wholes and bits of old material, tracing out flares of life around Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. They were part of one story, but, crucially, they did not connect.

Didion had spent four years failing to write a novel called “ Play It as It Lays .” What she disliked in the work in progress, about an actress in Los Angeles, was that it smelled of “novel”; everything seemed formed and directed in a way that was untrue to life. In 1969, after reworking the “Los Angeles Notebook” essay, Didion saw how to make the novel work. “Play It as It Lays” (1970) is commonly said to be about anomie, but more specifically it’s about a world in insular pieces, of characters trapped in their Hollywood realms. (Didion envisioned a novel of tight scenes, consumed in a single sitting—a book written as a movie, in other words, and thus caged within the storytelling rhythms of the industry.) The novel’s short chapters, some of them less than a page, change vantage and jump characters among disparate spheres using freeways and white space. “I played and replayed these scenes and others like them, composed them as if for the camera, trying to find some order, a pattern. I found none,” one of her characters says. “Play It as It Lays” was Didion’s first fiction of atomization.

Didion went on to use the collage technique to assemble the long pieces in “The White Album” and the books that followed, reconsidering her own published craftwork and later bringing that scrutiny to texts produced by other people. Where she saw evidence of atomization in American society, she made efforts to push back.

“The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are the Wall Street Journal , the Los Angeles Free Press , the Los Angeles Open City , and the East Village Other ,” Didion wrote in a “Points West” column from 1968 which opens the new collection. She likes the alternative press not because it’s good or useful (“I have never read anything I needed to know in an underground paper”) but because it breaks past a communication barrier. These papers assume that the reader “will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style.”

Shared language and a common ethic are precisely what Didion had noticed coming apart in the supposedly liberated togetherness of the late sixties. And the problem, in her view, did not fade when the love beads went away. In “ Insider Baseball ,” her influential piece for The New York Review of Books , born of tagging along with the Presidential campaigns of 1988, she argued that the so-called “democratic process” had become unlinked from the people it was supposed to speak to and for:

Access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.

Politics had come to be programming produced for élites, by élites, in a bubble disconnected from others. If this warning seemed eccentric on the eve of electing an institutional Vice-President and, four years later, the Man from Hope, it does not seem so today. The problem Didion first identified in 1967 has been treated as a revelation in recent years.

Her position as a disaffected insider—hanging out with the Doors but crying foul on the Summer of Love, writing for the newsstand but declaiming its idiocy—made her an aggressive contrarian. In fact, her recent canonization notwithstanding, Didion spent most of her career as a magnet for daggers in the letters columns. “Between Joan Didion and me it is still a missed connection,” a reader complained in 1969, responding to a Life column she wrote for a while (abortively, owing to its unpopularity with editors). In The New York Review of Books a decade later: “Evidently where Joan Didion lives problems of love and psyche evaporate in a haze of margaritas by age twenty-one and folks can get down to the real business of living.”

That was in response to a searing broadside against the films of Woody Allen which Didion published in 1979. Allen had recently released “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” reaching his peak of appeal among people likely to read essays by Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books . She objected to the films’ urbane-sounding references (“the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class”), and she was annoyed by characters’ superficial-seeming efforts to be deep (“They share sodas, and wonder ‘what love is’ ”). In Didion’s view, Allen’s movies were a simpleminded person’s idea of a smart person’s picture. She was needling her readers, naturally, but the objection also shows a lot about her narrative intelligence and about the way she should be read.

If atomization is one of the key concepts in Didion’s work, another is what she came to call “sentimentality”: belief in a story with a preordained shape and an emotional logic. That kind of storytelling was everywhere in America, she thought. And it was insidious, because it allowed destructive ideas to sneak in underneath the petticoats of right-thinking endeavors. One of the columns in the new collection picks apart a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. What irked Didion was that although the meeting seemed to be about taking responsibility, it actually refracted blame. “I thought that it was simply the predilection of many of the members to dwell upon how ‘powerless’ they were, how buffeted by forces beyond their control,” she wrote. “There was a great deal of talk about miracles, and Higher Presences, and a Power Greater Than Ourselves”—prefab sentimental stories that let gamblers avoid seeing things squarely. Done well, contrarianism is based on the idea that what matters isn’t which team colors you wear but which goal the ball lands in when you kick it. Didion did it well and, as with the hippies , traced how a moment of supposed healing spun toward delusion and drove people farther apart.

Atomization and sentimentality exacerbate each other, after all: you break the bridges of connection across society, and then give each island a fairy tale about its uniqueness. Didion was interested in how that happens. One of her most frequently read essays is a late-sixties account of loving and leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That.” It tends to be remembered as a half-trite paean to a white-collar New York youth, a kind of classed-up precursor to the “ Emily in Paris ” Weltanschauung. Yet the essay’s actual point is astringent. New Yorkers’ mythology about their city’s sophistication and specialness, Didion suggested, was another sentimental narrative. She had found her place in town by embracing that view, but outgrew it in time—“at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more,” she wrote. And so she moved to Los Angeles, where the grownups live.

This claim for California as a stronghold of urbanity and groundedness was contrary, even petulant. Didion had grown up in Sacramento and began her reporting from California at a moment when the national narrative of the West Coast—what went on there, what it meant—was shaped by editors and emissaries from New York. (That hasn’t changed.) But, where the Eastern press had decided that California stood for futurism, beaches, lush life, and togetherness, Didion insisted on a California of dusty houses, dry inland landscapes, fires and snakes, and social alienation. Like her contemporary the Bay Area poet Robert Hass, she was obsessed with the motions of mind but shy of abstractions; both realized that what is often called “the world of ideas” is vulnerable to tendentious manipulation. And so they pinned their ideas to details of landscape: this realization fixed to this tree, or the sight of the Bevatron at night, that one to a jasmine-covered porch—the Northern California style of intellection. What this meant was that thinking was an experiential process that emerged in movement from place to place—in the flash cuts—and you didn’t need a sentimental narrative in order to give it sense, as you did in New York.

Didion left the city in 1964, but this remained her perception when she returned twenty-four years later:

The insistent sentimentalization of experience . . . is not new in New York. A preference for broad strokes, for the distortion and flattening of character, and for the reduction of events to narrative, has been for well over a hundred years the heart of the way the city presents itself: Lady Liberty, huddled masses, ticker-tape parades, heroes, gutters, bright lights, broken hearts, eight million stories in the naked city; eight million stories and all the same story, each devised to obscure not only the city’s actual tensions of race and class but also, more significantly, the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable.

Man walks past movie theater called “Neurotoplex” that plays movies about neuroses.

This description of “distortion and flattening,” of reducing life to recognizable story lines, is from “ New York: Sentimental Journeys ,” a study of the Central Park jogger case that Didion wrote, in 1991, for The New York Review of Books . The case—in which a twenty-eight-year-old female banker was brutalized and raped and five youths of color were convicted, and then, decades later, exonerated—became a Rorschach blot, with some people (largely white) seeing a city “systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass” and others (largely of color) seeing a city “in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.”

Didion saw something else: a city victimized by decades of fatuous thinking and poor planning. New York, she thought, had clung to sentimental narratives about melting pots and special opportunities—“the assurance that the world is knowable, even flat, and New York its center, its motor, its dangerous but vital ‘energy’ ”—to the extent of being blind to the fraying of its civic and economic fibre. In crisis, New Yorkers simply doubled down, appointing heroes or villains in the jogger case, trying to keep the fairy tale aloft. “Sentimental Journeys” was a controversial piece when it appeared, yet it offered a frame for New York’s dramas over the next three decades. Even more important, it insisted on a link between the fate of a society and the way that its stories were told.

What it meant to be a writer—imaginatively and morally—had interested Didion since she spent her teen-age years retyping Hemingway sentences, trying to understand the way they worked. Fifty years later, she wrote about his afterlives in “ Last Words ,” an essay for this magazine condemning the publication of books that Hemingway had deemed incomplete. To edit a dead author’s near-finished work for publication, Didion thought, was to assume that he or she was playing by the usual rules. But it was precisely not working in this consensus realm that made great artists great.

A common criticism of Didion suggests that the peppering of her prose with proper nouns (the Bendel’s black wool challis dress, the Grès perfume) is somehow unserious. (For whatever reason, these complaints usually come from men.) But the correct way to understand this impulse is in the lineage of front writing. As Adam Gopnik has noted in these pages, it is Hemingway who’s forever telling you which wines to enjoy while fighting in Spain, how to take your brasserie coffee—how to make his particular yours. Didion feminized that way of writing, pushing against the postwar idea that women writers were obliged to be either mini Virginia Woolfs, mincing abstractions from the parlor, or Shulamith Firestones, raging for liberation. Part of what Didion took from Hemingway, by her account, was a mind-set of “romantic individualism,” “looking but not joining,” and a commitment to the details that gave distinctiveness and precision to that outside view. A trip to the Royal Hawaiian in the midst of a rocky marriage, the right soap to pack for a reporting trip while your husband stays with the baby: in Didion’s work, these were as important in their hard details as Hemingway’s crabe mexicaine and Sancerre at Prunier. Hemingway mythologized his authorial life style so well that generations of writers longed to live and work his way. Didion saw what he was doing, and appropriated the technique.

Yet what made the modernists daring was sometimes a weak point of their endeavor: the writing doesn’t always let readers know how it wants to be read. Hemingway’s theory was that if you, the writer, could reduce what you saw in your imagination to the igniting gestures and images—don’t elaborate why you feel sad about your marriage ending; just nail the image of the burning farmhouse that launched you on that train of thought—then you could get readers’ minds to make the same turns at the same intersections, and convey the world more immersively than through exposition. He explained his theory rarely and badly (hence the endless rancid chestnuts about lean prose, laconic dialogue, and crossing important things out), but Didion didn’t miss the point. “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. . . . The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture,” she noted, in “Why I Write.” And yet she added in signposts Hemingway left out. A first-rate Didion piece explains its terms as it goes, as if the manual were part of the main text. She is perpetually on guard about saying stuff either not clearly enough (the title “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” emerges from her work) or so clearly as to be subject to “distortion and flattening,” and thus untrue to what she means.

“I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture” is how she puts it in “Telling Stories,” an essay from 1978 included in the new collection. She is explaining why she lost, or maybe never had, a desire to write salable short stories—tightly constructed pieces hung on a “little epiphany.” For her, the key to capturing life on the page without the usual sort of reduction, she says in the same essay, was figuring out how to use the first person across time.

Didion’s “I” ended up nearly as known as Hemingway’s “and,” and carries the same mixed blessing of being caricatured more than characterized. The caricature has Didion as a histrionic oversharer—a kind of literary Tori Spelling. Yet her reasons for embracing the “I” were mostly technical. You had to let readers know who you were and where your camera stood, she thought. It meant that Didion was always in her own crosshairs, and eventually turned the contrarian impulse on herself.

One of the commonest motifs in Didion’s writing is, bizarrely, Oregon Trail-type survivalism. She had been taught that those who colonized California were “the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.” She had been raised to believe that, as her mother put it, California was now “too regulated, too taxed, too expensive.” In “ Where I Was From ” (2003), she finally put this origin story of heroic, contrary individualism under the glass.

Didion built the book in her usual way, setting down reported articles and weaving in flashes of personal context. What created California economically and politically, she showed, was actually constant support from the East-reaching web of American society, industry, and, especially, the federal government. “The sheer geographical isolation of different parts of the state tended to obscure the elementary fact of its interrelatedness,” she wrote. The refusal to acknowledge this public interrelatedness, to insist on the determining value of the personal, the private, and the exceptional, had been California’s fragmenting delusion, and her own. I suspect that “Where I Was From” is among the least read of Didion’s nonfiction books, which is unfortunate, because it’s her “Gatsby”: the book in which she scrutinized her most basic ideas of heroic particularism and found that she had not escaped “the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime.” That’s a moving thing for a writer to acknowledge, and a hard one. The final sentences of the book are Didion’s suggestion that she’s not quite ready, in her life, to give the sentimental story up.

The intense burst of mythologizing that attended Didion’s books about the deaths of her husband (“The Year of Magical Thinking”) and her daughter (“ Blue Nights ,” from 2011) arrived, then, with a certain weirdness. One can now order something called a “Didion dress,” modelled on her late-sixties wardrobe. Not long ago, in a bookshop, I came across a Picador Modern Classics edition of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” shrunk down to pocket size, presumably to be carried in the way that certain people carry miniature versions of the Bible or the Constitution. I tried and failed to think of a writer who’d treat such a thing more mercilessly than the author of that book.

An artist who has spent years doing the work on her own terms should not look fashionability in the mouth. But it is odd to find Didion embraced by the world of mainstream sentimental thinking which she charged against for decades. One wonders whether the fans for whom she’s now an Instagram totem, or the many journalists who claim her, realize that she cast her career toward challenging precepts and paragons like theirs.

It matters only because everything matters. Didion once wrote, “Style is character,” and, because the phrase has seemed to apply to her life and work, it often gets quoted to mean that character comes down to nothing more than style. But the line, which appears in an essay about Georgia O’Keeffe, is actually about the burden of creative choice. “Every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character,” Didion wrote. Reducing the world, as on the canvas or the page, is a process of foreclosing on its fullness, choosing this way and not that one, and how you make those choices reveals everything about the person that you are. Didion praised O’Keeffe for “hardness” in trying to render in art what sensible people told her was unrenderable. “ ‘The men’ believed it was impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York,” she wrote. She was impressed by O’Keeffe’s snubbing of those who received her work devotedly but unseriously: “This is a woman who in 1939 could advise her admirers that they were missing her point, that their appreciation of her famous flowers was merely sentimental.” And she lauded O’Keeffe’s frank engagement with her time. “She is simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees,” Didion wrote, and she meant it, too. ♦

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Tropicana Las Vegas Closing Tuesday to Make Way for a Baseball Stadium

The hotel and casino, which opened in 1957, will end its storied run when it closes on Tuesday. A Major League Baseball stadium will rise in its place.

At the entrance to the Tropicana Las Vegas. Its sign is lit and the hotel towers in the background.

By Johnny Diaz

The famous Tropicana Las Vegas resort, which held the city’s longest-running cabaret and was known for its lavish midcentury décor, will close on Tuesday as it prepares for demolition to make way for a new Major League Baseball stadium.

The resort’s gaming floor will close at 3 a.m. on Tuesday, and the hotel’s last guests will be required to check out by noon that day, according to the website for the resort , which is owned by Bally’s Corporation, the gaming, betting and entertainment company.

After the demolition, about nine acres of the 35-acre parcel will be granted to the Athletics baseball team for the construction of a 30,000-seat stadium, the resort said. The stadium is expected to host the team beginning in 2028.

There was discussion last year that the Tropicana would be redeveloped to make room for an integrated resort, casino and ballpark complex. Specific designs are still being finalized, according to the resort.

The Tropicana has had a storied run on the Las Vegas Strip since it opened in 1957 as the most lavish hotel and casino in the city, with a cascading 60-foot fountain and shimmering pool that piped Muzak underwater.

The longtime magicians Siegfried and Roy debuted there. Sean Connery’s James Bond stayed the night. Feathered showgirls danced in its Folies Bergère cabaret. One photo taken in 1980 captured the dancers playfully carrying the comedian Joan Rivers for an awards show at the hotel.

But it’s been years since the resort’s heyday, and the casino has become a relic as the city has evolved by offering entertainment that could be found in other big metro markets: major professional sports teams.

Over the years, the N.F.L. , the N.H.L. , the W.N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament have all had teams and marquee events move to the city.

Last summer, the governor of Nevada signed a bill agreeing to finance up to $380 million of the $1.5 billion baseball stadium to lure the Athletics to a site on the Las Vegas Strip.

In November, Major League Baseball approved the relocation of the Athletics to Las Vegas, where the organization is set to open its new ballpark on the Tropicana site, according to the league .

The team will play its 2024 season at the Oakland Coliseum in California and is working with the league to evaluate options for a place to play in the interim after that season.

“We are excited to begin this next chapter in Las Vegas,” John Fisher, the Athletics’s managing partner and owner, said in a statement.

The new ballpark will feature a roof that has five overlapping layers that were inspired by a traditional baseball pennant and views of the city’s skyline, according to the league. Plans for the outfield include a large cable-net glass window facing the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard and an 18,000-square-foot Jumbotron.

On the resort’s Instagram account , longtime visitors expressed bittersweet sentiments about the resort’s closing and reminisced about the “red midcentury inspired décor,” their memories of the casino, the magic shows they enjoyed and the staff they met.

Johnny Diaz is a general assignment reporter covering breaking news. He previously worked for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and The Boston Globe. More about Johnny Diaz

Inside the World of Sports

Dive deeper into the people, issues and trends shaping professional, collegiate and amateur athletics..

No More  Cinderella Stories?: Expansion of the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament has been a popular topic. But adding more teams could push small schools like Oakland, which upset Kentucky, out of the action .

Caitlin Clark’s Lasting Impact: People have flocked to watch the Iowa basketball star  on TV and in person. But will her effect on the popularity and economics of women’s sports linger after her college career ends ?

Gambling Poses Risks for Leagues:   The situation involving the former interpreter for Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger and pitcher, shows that when it comes to wagering on games, professional leagues have more than just the players to watch .

Unionization Efforts: How is a football team different from a marching band? The National Labor Relations Board is considering this question as it tries to determine whether some college athletes should be deemed employees .

Delayed Gratification: Doping rules, legal challenges and endless appeals have left some Olympic medalists waiting for their golds .


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  1. Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her

    The essay appears in 1967's Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive text of the lit­er­ary non­fic­tion of the six­ties along­side the work of John McPhee, Ter­ry South­ern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thomp­son.In Didion's case, the empha­sis must be decid­ed­ly on the lit­er­ary—her essays are as skill­ful­ly and imag­i­na­tive­ly ...

  2. 6 Essays By Joan Didion You Should Know

    Joan Didion is lauded as one of the best literary journalists to emerge from the New Journalism school in the '60s, among Tom Wolfe, Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, and one of California's wittiest contemporary writers.Best known for her sharply reported stories that service frequently dystopian and despondent cultural commentary, even Didion's more journalistic works are in part ...

  3. Beyond the Books: Joan Didion's Essays, Profiles and Criticism

    Dec. 23, 2021. Joan Didion, who died on Thursday at 87, is best known for her essay collections — " Slouching Towards Bethlehem ," " The White Album " and " After Henry ," to name a ...

  4. Joan Didion, in her own words: 23 of the best quotes

    Joan Didion, who has died aged 87, inspired writers and readers for decades. Her journalism, memoirs, and cultural and political commentary made her a unique chronicler of 20th-century culture.

  5. Joan Didion's 7 Best Books, From Essays To Fiction

    Joan Didion's best books, from essays to fiction Here, we round up the imperative reads by the late iconic author, who died Thursday at the age of 87. Dec. 23, 2021, 7:54 PM UTC

  6. Essential Joan Didion Pieces to Read Now, Later, Forever

    Goodbye to All That (1967) Joan set the standard for "New York, I love you, but I must leave you" essays, now floating around every book and blog, with Goodbye to All That in 1967. I could list a dozen essays (I'll spare you) that trample over the trope, the New York love affair gone wrong arc.

  7. Joan Didion dead at 87: Essential books, essays to read now

    Boris Kachka. Dec. 23, 2021 1:24 PM PT. Joan Didion, who died Thursday at 87, produced decades' worth of memorable work across genres and subjects: personal essays, reporting and criticism on ...

  8. Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion review

    Half of the 12 essays in this collection were written for the Saturday Evening Post in the late 1960s, while the latest is from 2000; in them we see Didion exploring the possibility of that ...

  9. Joan Didion

    Joan Didion (/ ˈ d ɪ d i ən /; December 5, 1934 - December 23, 2021) was an American writer and journalist.She is considered one of the pioneers of New Journalism along with Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe.. Didion's career began in the 1950s after she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. Over the course of her career, Didion wrote essays for many magazines ...

  10. Joan Didion: A guide to five of her most influential books

    The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005. Written in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is an account of loss and grief - and the ways in which it can drive us to ...

  11. On Self-Respect: Joan Didion's 1961 Essay from the Pages of

    December 23, 2021. Joan Didion, author, journalist, and style icon, died today after a prolonged illness. She was 87 years old. Here, in its original layout, is Didion's seminal essay "Self ...

  12. Why Joan Didion Matters More than Ever

    In some of the lesser essays of The White Album, Didion's writing sometimes has a played-out, schticky quality, and she may have known it: Immediately after publishing that book, she explicitly ...

  13. A Guide to Joan Didion's Books

    A Guide to Joan Didion's Books. Ms. Didion was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here is an overview of some of her works, as reviewed in The Times. Joan ...

  14. "To Be A Writer, You Must Write": How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion

    A typewriter is included in the carry-on items in the packing list she published in The White Album. Her idea was not to write on the plane, but while she waited in the airport, she would sit "and start typing the day's notes.". This is one of many instructive lessons offered by Joan Didion. She must have hauled a typewriter with her in ...

  15. Joan Didion

    Joan Didion (born December 5, 1934, Sacramento, California, U.S.—died December 23, 2021, New York, New York) was an American novelist and essayist known for her lucid prose style and incisive depictions of social unrest and psychological fragmentation.. Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956 and then worked for Vogue magazine from 1956 to 1963, first as a ...

  16. The Radical Transparency of Joan Didion

    The Radical Transparency of Joan Didion. Dec. 24, 2021. Neville Elder/Corbis, via Getty Images. By Frank Bruni. Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for ...

  17. How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend

    Didion: "Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.". Perhaps most unsettling of all: there was murder, but no murderer, not at first. Says ...

  18. Joan Didion: Essays & Conversations

    Born in Sacramento, California, on December 5, 1934, Joan Didion received a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956. She wrote for Vogue from 1956 to 1963, and was visiting regent's lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley in 1976. Didion also published novels, short stories, social commentary, and essays.

  19. How Joan Didion's 1960s read differently in 2021

    Joan Didion in 2011, around the time "Blue Nights" was published. (Brigitte Lacombe) "Let Me Tell You What I Mean" could be Didion's motto, but these essays were written by a sheltered ...


    Joan Didion was a journalist, novelist, memoirist, essayist, and screenwriter who wrote some of the sharpest and most evocative analyses of culture, politics, literature, family, and loss. She won the National Book Award in 2005 for The Year of Magical Thinking. Read More.

  21. Evelyn McDonnell, author of a new book about Joan Didion, talks about

    My recent search for Joan Didion's muse — a fortuitous assignment that resulted in the book "The World According to Joan Didion" — led me home. My fascination with Didion's essays, articles, novels, screenplays, dress, domiciles, and overall way of moving in and seeing the world was ignited decades ago in an undergraduate journalism ...

  22. Joan Didion: Essays & Conversations

    About the author (1984) Born in Sacramento, California, on December 5, 1934, Joan Didion received a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956. She wrote for Vogue from 1956 to 1963, and was visiting regent's lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley in 1976. Didion also published novels, short stories, social ...

  23. What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion

    Allen had recently released "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan," reaching his peak of appeal among people likely to read essays by Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books. She objected to the ...

  24. Tropicana Las Vegas Closing Tuesday to Make Way for Baseball Stadium

    The hotel and casino opened in 1957. A Major League Baseball stadium will rise in its place. By Johnny Diaz The famous Tropicana Las Vegas resort, which held the city's longest-running cabaret ...