Soon after the death of Joan Didion was announced on the news, I received a text from Roselie, an old friend from Saint Mary’s College who remembered that she came into my room during our sophomore year and found me reading Didion who, evidently, I highly recommended, so she read her too. I was 19 years old at the time, the age my daughter is now. I was not a sophisticated 19 year old, but reading Didion made me feel like I could be- in thirty years. Didion’s writing was so particular- if it were booze, it would be vodka in a frosted bottle straight out of the freezer.
At the time, I was also besotted with the work of Kenneth Koch, the playwright, poet and Columbia professor, who wrote hilarious, enchanting, avant-garde plays. The Red Robins, Bertha Queen of Norway and George Washington Crossing the Delaware are written with the relentless humor and pep of Mel Brooks by way of Dario Fo. Koch was also a beautiful poet- and my poetry professor Max Westler introduced Koch with the reverence he deserved.
Koch and Didion were at that time, in the 1980’s, New Yorkers, (though Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne were bi-coastal). Koch, Dunne and Didion could have been the faces on the postage stamp of the decade. I imagined them on the streets of New York, running into Susan Sontag or joining the Ephron sisters for lunch at Cafe Des Artistes, places I had never been and writers I had not met. The original writers and cast of Saturday Night Live might meander through- you see where this is going. I imagined the poets, novelists, playwrights, television writers and screenwriters, the writers I revered, soaking up the city that in my imagination, was the destination of my highest dream- the place where writers were welcome, nurtured, and published- which made New York City the only place on planet earth to live.
Didion’s origins were pure Wild West, California Gold Rush and all. But, like most New Yorkers, who aren’t from here, but become natives over time, it wasn’t long before she found artistic success on her own terms, in a place where that’s often elusive. As a journalist, she worked for Time, Vogue and other magazines, then began to write longer pieces and eventually a novel. Didion gained an audience for her work, and soon, that audience spread to include practically every reader who was yearning to read observations of the culture of that time with a serious bent. Her essays were considered the gold standard in the genre. Her screenplays, co-written with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were critically acclaimed and included some bonafide hits (A Star is Born, 1976) and adaptations of Dunne’s novels. On the personal side, Didion and Dunne had a long marriage of 40 years that lasted until his death. They worked together, so make that 40-year run- 80 years- because they managed to stay together in a very tough business. They had the rarest of Hollywood commodities: respect. You can read all about what their life was like, because she described it in The Year of Magical Thinking. As they built a career, a life together, eventually expanding their family to include a baby girl they adopted in 1966. They named her Quintana Roo. You can read about Quintana Roo in Magical Thinking and more in Blue Nights, the follow up to The Year of Magical Thinking.
Continue reading in Remembering Joan Didion: Part Two.