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Joan Didion

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Joan Didion
Didion in 1970
Didion in 1970
Born(1934-12-05)December 5, 1934
Sacramento, California, U.S.
DiedDecember 23, 2021(2021-12-23) (aged 87)
New York City, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • journalist
  • memoirist
  • essayist
EducationUniversity of California, Berkeley (BA)
  • Memoir
  • drama
Literary movementNew Journalism[1]
Notable works
(m. 1964; died 2003)
ChildrenQuintana Roo Dunne

Joan Didion (/ˈdɪdiən/; 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.[2][3][4]

Didion's career began in the 1950s after she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine.[5] She would go on to publish essays in The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. Her writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of 1960s counterculture, Hollywood lifestyle, and California history and culture. Didion's political writing in the 1980s and 1990s concentrated on the subtext of political rhetoric and the United States's foreign policy in Latin America.[6][7] In 1991, she wrote the earliest mainstream media article to suggest that the Central Park Five had been wrongfully convicted.[5] In 2005, Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year following the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. She later adapted the book into a play that premiered on Broadway in 2007. In 2013, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by president Barack Obama.[8] Didion was profiled in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, in 2017.

Early life and education


Didion was born on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California,[9][10] to Eduene (née Jerrett) and Frank Reese Didion.[9] She had one brother, five years her junior, James Jerrett Didion, who became a real estate executive.[11] Didion recalled writing things down as early as age five,[9] although she said she never saw herself as a writer until after her work had been published. She identified as a "shy, bookish child," an avid reader, who pushed herself to overcome social anxiety through acting and public speaking. During her adolescence, she would type out Ernest Hemingway's works to learn how his sentence structures worked.[10]

Didion's early education was nontraditional. She attended kindergarten and first grade, but, because her father was a finance officer in the Army Air Corps and the family constantly relocated, she did not attend school regularly.[12] In 1943 or early 1944, her family returned to Sacramento, and her father went to Detroit to negotiate defense contracts for World War II. Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir Where I Was From that moving so often made her feel as if she were a perpetual outsider.[10]

Didion received a B.A. in English from University of California, Berkeley, in 1956.[13] During her senior year, she won first place in the "Prix de Paris" essay contest, sponsored by Vogue,[14] and was awarded a job as a research assistant at the magazine. The topic of her winning essay was the San Francisco architect William Wurster.[15][16]





During her seven years at Vogue, from 1956 to 1964, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor.[14][16] Mademoiselle published Didion's article "Berkeley’s Giant: The University of California" in January 1960.[17] While at Vogue, and homesick for California, she wrote her first novel, Run, River (1963), about a Sacramento family as it comes apart.[9] Writer and friend John Gregory Dunne helped her edit the book.[12] John—the younger brother of author, businessman, and television mystery show host Dominick Dunne[12]—was writing for Time magazine at the time. He and Didion married in 1964.

The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1964, intending to stay only temporarily, but California remained their home for the next 20 years. In 1966, they adopted a daughter, whom they named Quintana Roo Dunne.[9][18] The couple wrote many newsstand-magazine assignments. "She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more," Nathan Heller reported in The New Yorker. "Their [Saturday Evening] Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well."[19]

In Los Angeles, they settled in Los Feliz from 1963 to 1971, and then, after living in Malibu for eight years, she and Dunne moved to Brentwood Park, a quiet, affluent, residential neighborhood.[20][15]

Slouching Towards Bethlehem


In 1968, Didion published her first nonfiction book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California.[21][15] Cited as an example of New Journalism, it used novel-like writing to cover the non-fiction realities of hippie counterculture.[22] She wrote from a personal perspective, adding her own feelings and memories to situations, inventing details and quotes to make the stories more vivid, and using metaphors to give the reader a better understanding of the disordered subjects of her essays: politicians, artists, or just people living an American life.[23] The New York Times characterized the "grace, sophistication, nuance, [and] irony" of her writing.[24]



Didion's novel Play It as It Lays, set in Hollywood, was published in 1970, and A Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1977. In 1979, she published The White Album, another collection of her magazine pieces from Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.[15] In The White Album's title essay, Didion documented an episode she experienced in the summer of 1968. After undergoing psychiatric evaluation, she was diagnosed as having had an attack of vertigo and nausea.

After periods of partial blindness in 1972, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but remained in remission throughout her life.[16][25] In her essay entitled "In Bed," Didion explained that she experienced chronic migraines.[26]

Dunne and Didion worked closely for most of their careers. Much of their writing is therefore intertwined. They co-wrote a number of screenplays, including a 1972 film adaptation of her novel Play It as It Lays that starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld and the screenplay for the 1976 film of A Star is Born.[27] They also spent several years adapting the biography of journalist Jessica Savitch into the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer film, Up Close & Personal.[12][27]

1980s and 1990s


Didion's book-length essay Salvador (1983) was written after a two-week trip to El Salvador with her husband. The next year, she published the novel Democracy, the story of a long, but unrequited love affair between a wealthy heiress and an older man, a CIA officer, against the background of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Her 1987 nonfiction book Miami looked at the different communities in that city.[12] In 1988, the couple moved from California to New York City.[16]

In a prescient New York Review of Books piece of 1991, a year after the various trials of the Central Park Five, Didion dissected serious flaws in the prosecution's case, making her the earliest mainstream writer to view the guilty verdicts as miscarriages of justice.[28] She suggested the defendants were found guilty because of a sociopolitical narrative with racial overtones that clouded the judgment of the court.[29][30][31]

In 1992, Didion published After Henry, a collection of twelve geographical essays and a personal memorial for Henry Robbins, who was Didion's friend and editor until his death in 1979.[32] She published The Last Thing He Wanted, a romantic thriller, in 1996.[33]

The Year of Magical Thinking


In 2003, Didion's daughter Quintana Roo Dunne developed pneumonia that progressed to septic shock and she was comatose in an intensive-care unit when Didion's husband suddenly died of a heart attack on December 30.[12] Didion delayed his funeral arrangements for approximately three months until Quintana was well enough to attend.[12]

On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative of her response to the death of her husband and the severe illness of their daughter. She finished the manuscript 88 days later on New Year's Eve.[34] Written at the age of 70, this was her first nonfiction book that was not a collection of magazine assignments.[19] She said that she found the subsequent book-tour process very therapeutic during her period of mourning.[35] Documenting the grief she experienced after the sudden death of her husband, the book was called a "masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism" and won several awards.[35]

Visiting Los Angeles after her father's funeral, Quintana fell at the airport, hit her head on the pavement and required brain surgery for hematoma.[34] After progressing toward recovery in 2004, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, aged 39, during Didion's New York promotion for The Year of Magical Thinking.[35] Didion wrote about Quintana's death in the 2011 book Blue Nights.[9]


Didion at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2008

Didion was living in an apartment on East 71st Street in Manhattan in 2005.[34] Everyman's Library published We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a 2006 compendium of much of Didion's writing, including the full content of her first seven published nonfiction books (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Salvador, Miami, After Henry, Political Fictions, and Where I Was From), with an introduction by her contemporary, the critic John Leonard.[36]

Didion began working with English playwright and director David Hare on a one-woman stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking in 2007. Produced by Scott Rudin, the Broadway play featured Vanessa Redgrave. Although Didion was hesitant to write for the theater, she eventually found the genre, which was new to her, exciting.[35]

Didion wrote early drafts of the screenplay for an untitled HBO biopic directed by Robert Benton on Katharine Graham. Sources say it may trace the paper's reporting on the Watergate scandal.[37]

Later works


In 2011, Knopf published Blue Nights, a memoir about aging that also focused on Didion's relationship with her late daughter.[38] More generally, the book deals with the anxieties Didion experienced about adopting and raising a child, as well as the aging process.[39]

A photograph of Didion shot by Juergen Teller was used as part of the 2015 spring-summer campaign of the luxury French fashion brand Céline, while previously the clothing company Gap had featured her in a 1989 campaign.[16][40] Didion's nephew Griffin Dunne directed a 2017 Netflix documentary about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.[41] In it, Didion discusses her writing and personal life, including the deaths of her husband and daughter, adding context to her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.[42]

In 2021, Didion published Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of 12 essays she wrote between 1968 and 2000.[43]



Didion died from complications of Parkinson's disease at her home in Manhattan on December 23, 2021, at the age of 87.[9]

Writing style and themes


Didion viewed the structure of the sentence as essential to her work. In the New York Times article "Why I Write" (1976),[44] Didion remarked, "To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed... The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind... 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."[44]

Didion was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose writing taught her the importance of how sentences work in a text. Her other influences included George Eliot and Henry James, who wrote "perfect, indirect, complicated sentences".[45]

Didion was also an observer of journalists,[46] believing the difference between the process of fiction and nonfiction is the element of discovery that takes place in nonfiction, which happens not during the writing, but during the research.[45]

Rituals were a part of Didion's creative process. At the end of the day, she would take a break from writing to remove herself from the "pages",[45] saying that without the distance, she could not make proper edits. She would end her day by cutting out and editing prose, not reviewing the work until the following day. She would sleep in the same room as her work, saying: "That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're right next to it."[45]

In a notorious 1980 essay, "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect," Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called Didion a "neurasthenic Cher" whose style was "a bag of tricks" and whose "subject is always herself".[47] In 2011, New York magazine reported that the Harrison criticism "still gets her (Didion's) hackles up, decades later".[48]

Critic Hilton Als suggested that Didion is reread often "because of the honesty of the voice."[49]

Personal life


For several years in her 20s, Didion was in a relationship with Noel E. Parmentel Jr., a political pundit and figure on the New York literary and cultural scene.[50] According to Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, he actually met her through Parmentel, and Didion and Dunne remained friends for six years before embarking on a romantic relationship. As he later recalled, when they shared a celebratory lunch after Dunne finished reading the galleys for her first novel, Run, River, "while [h]er [significant] other was out of town, it happened."[51] Didion and Dunne subsequently married in January 1964 and remained together until his death from a heart attack in 2003. Breaking a long-held silence on Didion, whose work he had championed and for which he found publishers, Parmentel was interviewed for a 1996 article in New York magazine.[52] He had been angered in the 1970s by what he felt was a thinly veiled portrait of him in Didion's novel A Book of Common Prayer.[53]

In 1966, while living in Los Angeles, she and John adopted a daughter, whom they named Quintana Roo Dunne.[9][18]

A Republican in her early years, Didion later drifted toward the Democratic Party, "without ever quite endorsing [its] core beliefs."[54]

As late as 2011, she smoked precisely five cigarettes per day.[55]

Awards and honors


The Joan Didion: What She Means Exhibition


The Hammer Museum at University of California, Los Angeles, organized the exhibition Joan Didion: What She Means. Curated by The New Yorker contributor and writer Hilton Als, the group show was on view from 2022 and is scheduled to travel to the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2023. Joan Didion: What She Means pays homage to the writer and thinker through the lens of nearly 50 modern and contemporary international artists such as Félix González-Torres to Betye Saar, Vija Celmins, Maren Hassinger, Silke Otto-Knapp, John Koch, Ed Ruscha, Pat Steir, among others.[70][71]

Published works






Screenplays and plays



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Further reading

External media
audio icon 2005 audio interview of Joan Didion by Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio – RealAudio
audio icon Didion and Vanessa Redgrave on NPR's Morning Edition
audio icon Didion on NPR's Fresh Air discusses The Year of Magical Thinking
audio icon Podcast #46: Joan Didion on Writing and Revising, NYPL, Tracy O'Neill, January 29, 2015
video icon In Depth interview with Didion, May 7, 2000