American author Joan Didion, who was known for her moving essays, memoirs, novels and screenplays, as well as for sharing her grief over the deaths of her husband and daughter, has died at the age of 87.
The cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, her publisher Knopf said in a statement on Thursday.
Didion first emerged as a writer of substance in the late 1960s as an early practitioner of “new journalism”, which allowed writers to take a narrative, more personalised perspective.
Her 1968 essay collection, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a title borrowed from poet William Butler Yeats, looked at the culture of her native California.
The title essay offered an unsympathetic view of the emerging hippie culture in San Francisco and a New York Times review called the book “some of the finest magazine pieces published by anyone in this country in recent years”.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
R.I.P. Joan Didion pic.twitter.com/mctWEnKqFX
— Film at Lincoln Center (@FilmLinc) December 23, 2021
Didion had an air of casual glamour and writerly cool and in her heyday frequently was typically photographed in oversized sunglasses or lounging nonchalantly with a cigarette dangling from a hand. She was 80 in 2015 when the French fashion house Celine used her as a model in an advertisement campaign for its sunglasses.
Tragedy inadvertently led to a career resurgence in the 2000s as Didion wrote of the deaths of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in The Year of Magical Thinking, and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in, Blue Nights.
Didion’s works were insightful, confessional and tinged with ennui and scepticism. The Los Angeles Times praised her as an “unparalleled stylist” with “piercing insights and exquisite command of language”.
British writer Martin Amis referred to Didion as the “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness” and she was especially incisive in writing about the state. Her 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, showed Los Angeles, through the eyes of a troubled actor, to be glamorous and vapid while the 2003 essay collection Where I Was From, was about the culture of the state, as well as herself and her family’s long history there.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” Didion said in a speech at her alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975.
From California to New York
Her life and career were captured in the 2017 documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, by her nephew, actor-filmmaker Griffin Dunne. The New Yorker magazine called the film, which borrowed its title from another Yeats work, “an intimate, affectionate, and partial portrait”.
Didion ended up in New York by winning a college essay contest that provided an internship at Vogue magazine in the late 1950s. She met Dunne there two years later.
Didion and Dunne, who were married nearly 40 years, split their lives between Southern California and New York and managed to be leading figures in both literary circles and Hollywood. The parties at their Malibu beach house, where Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter before his Star Wars fame, drew crowds that included singer Janis Joplin, moviemakers Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese and actor Warren Beatty, who was reportedly infatuated with Didion.
Dunne was demonstrative and garrulous while Didion could come off as introverted. Their marriage was rocky at times and Dunne moved to Las Vegas for a while. In an essay in, The White Album, Didion wrote that they once took a vacation in Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce”.
Through it all they edited each other’s work and collaborated on screenplays for the 1976 remake of, A Star Is Born, The Panic in Needle Park – the 1971 film that gave Al Pacino his first starring role, as well as the movie adaptations of Play It as It Lays, and Dunne’s novel, True Confessions.
The couple moved to New York in 1988 and after Dunne suffered a heart attack at the dinner table in 2003, Didion wrote of the ensuing heartache in The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” she wrote.
YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING was the first book I can recall picking up to read with the intention of trying to understand grief. It was so foreign to me then; it felt like Joan Didion (also foreign to me then) was explaining that my life bordered a country I hadn’t realized existed.
— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) December 23, 2021
Twenty months after Dunne’s death, Didion returned to the place of grief when Quintana Roo died from acute pancreatitis after a series of health problems, which she chronicled in Blue Nights.
The diminutive Didion dwindled to 75 pounds (34kg) after the deaths but began to come out of it by working on a one-woman stage version of Magical Thinking that opened on Broadway in 2007 with Vanessa Redgrave starring and David Hare directing.
Didion, whose other books included the novel, A Book of Common Prayer, and non-fiction works, Miami, and Salvador, was presented the National Medal of Arts in 2013 by President Barack Obama.