How Joan Didion Became Joan Didion

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Joan Didion in Malibu, 1972.

Henry Clarke / Getty Images

By 1964, just three years after she started writing searching personal essays for Vogue, Joan Didion was plainly itching to write about something other than herself. Her life was also changing. She had published a slim novel, Run River, whose journey to the bookstore had been a grand disappointment. The title had been chosen by the publisher, and the editor had altered the form of the novel entirely, changing its experimental structure into something quite conventional. She had also married John Gregory Dunne, a sometime friend, after he’d supported her through the end of a long love affair. The pair decided to quit their magazine jobs and move to California, where they had a vague plan to make careers in television.

Vogue, apparently unwilling to cut apron strings altogether, asked Didion to begin reviewing films for it. In her opening column for 1964, written just a month before she married, Didion declared her critical approach would be somewhat democratic:

Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will possibly strike you as simple-minded. To engage my glazed attention a movie need be no classic of its kind, need be neither L’Avventura or Red River, neither Casablanca nor Citizen Kane; I ask only that it have its moments.

She went on to cast positive votes for The Philadelphia Story, The Spirit of St Louis, and Charade. Pauline Kael had not yet quite broken through to mainstream movie reviewing and I Lost It at the Movies hadn’t yet been published, but we can see in Didion’s words a relatively similar approach. She too would spend her career insisting there were moments of brilliance even in what was unquestionably trash.

Didion and her husband, John Dunne, 1977.

AP Images / Associated Press

Didion alternated her assignment on the movies with another writer, which seems to have prevented her from reviewing memorable films. She was trying to write with flair, though, in short spaces, and most of the reviews are sprightly, wisecracking things that seem more like Parker than Didion. She hated The Pink Panther: “possibly the only seduction ever screened (David Niven vs. The Princess) with all the banality of the real thing.” She liked The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but commented that Debbie Reynolds “tends to play these things as if the West was won by jumping up and down and shouting at it.” She confessed a weakness for teenage surfing movies, “an enthusiasm I should try to pass off as sociological.” Like Kael, she too hated The Sound of Music, calling it:

More embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people like Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.

Gradually, though, Didion got bored with film reviews. Her review of The Sound of Music was so caustic that Vogue fired her, as she tells it. (This was another connection to Kael, who had been fired for panning the same movie at McCall’s.) In any event, she was moving on to other subjects in a column that she and Dunne soon set up at the Saturday Evening Post.

Ivan Obolensky, Inc.

At the Post, Didion’s writing would undergo a major shift in tone, too. There are hints of the elegiac, distinctive earlier Didion voice in “On Self-Respect,” and in another essay she wrote for Vogue on American summers. But, given the Post’s willingness to send her into the field, she found a groove. It helped that California of the 1960s was fertile ground for twisting stories that provided Didion with the opportunity to follow a disturbing note longer than a column or two. She started off writing for the Post about Helen Gurley Brown (whom she found silly) and John Wayne (whom she did not), but it was the first of the crime pieces that hit a chord with the magazine’s readers — and also reads as the first true Didion piece.

It was titled “How Can I Tell Them There’s Nothing Left?” But the title Didion would give it in her own collection, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” was the one that would stick. Nominally chronicling a local murder, in which a wife was accused of burning her husband to death in the family car, Didion immediately pulled back to a wide-angle view of everything that was plaguing California, not to mention most of the rest of America:

This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book. 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 hairdresser’s school.

The woman was eventually convicted of murdering her husband, but naturally the residents of the San Bernardino valley—the part of California Didion was describing in that long, unwinding opening paragraph—did not take kindly to being characterized this way. “I am worried about Joan Didion,” wrote one Howard B. Weeks, who also listed his profession: vice president for public relations and development at Loma Linda University. “We recognize these feelings as symptoms commonly observed in young New York writers who venture into the Great Unknown beyond the Hudson.” This letter illustrates that Didion hadn’t quite yet broken through to the mainstream; Howard B. Weeks did not know he was lecturing the woman who would become the signature American writer from California on the subject of her own home.

Didion did not slide into her groove immediately. The next piece she wrote seemed almost a step away from anything that could possibly annoy anyone. It was entitled “The Big Rock Candy Figgy Pudding Pitfall.” Despite her having savaged Helen Gurley Brown and J. D. Salinger for being essentially trivial persons, one guesses this was the kind of piece Didion wrote for money. It details an effort to cook twenty figgy puddings and make twenty hard-candy trees. But it seemed to reflect a state of distress about how her domestic arrangements were working out:

I am frail, lazy and unsuited to doing anything except what I am paid to do, which is sit by myself and type with one finger. I like to imagine myself a “can-do” kind of woman, capable of patching the corral fence, pickling enough peaches to feed the hands all winter, and then winning a trip to Minneapolis in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. In fact, the day I stop believing that if put to it I could win the Pillsbury Bake-Off will signal the death of something.

Dunne appears in this article as a benevolent, comic figure, who upon confrontation with the supplies asks, “Exactly what kind of therapy are we up to this week?” But nowhere in this article does Didion mention that earlier that year, she and Dunne had adopted a child they named Quintana Roo Dunne. The anxiety, though, about being some kind of domestic goddess—“the kind of woman who made hard-candy topiary trees and figgy puddings”—smells of what the women’s magazines all call nesting.

Didion, circa 1977.

CSU Archives / Everett Collection

For one of the first issues of the new year, she wrote an essay the magazine entitled “Farewell to the Enchanted City.” (Later generations of readers would come to know it better by the title “Goodbye to All That.”) This was when the first hint of her career-long obsession with the stories we tell ourselves would begin to explicitly emerge. Didion suggests that the New York of her imagination had dominated the real one the whole time she actually lived there:

Some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was. Some time later there was a song in the jukeboxes on the Upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.

Didion visits Alcatraz Prison.

Ted Streshinsky Photographic Archive / Getty Images

This essay is so famous it is said to have spawned its own mini genre of essays about leaving New York. Like the song on the jukebox, it expresses the feelings everyone has about a common experience. The brilliance of the essay is that even in the act of writing it Didion reenacts an emotional cliché, the narrator telling a past self how silly and stupid she was to fall for a story that everyone falls for. This self-conscious style, a personal matter conveyed at a distance, would become Didion’s signature. Even when she wrote about something as personal as her divorce, she did it at a remove, turning it over in her hand, polishing it to a shine that concealed certain roughnesses in the center.

Dunne and Didion soon had a regular column in the Saturday Evening Post, sharing a byline. It looks odd to contemporary eyes, especially because of the illustration the magazine used at the top of each column, drawings of them both. If Dunne had written the column, the illustration would show his face in front of Didion’s; if she had written it, her face would move in front of his.

Her columns were generally the more interesting explorations of the pair, her knack for inspiring a reaction was top-notch. Her essay on migraines would appear in that space, as would her reporting of a decommissioned Alcatraz and a devastating sketch of Nancy Reagan, then the first lady of California:

She has told me that the governor never wore makeup even in motion pictures and that politics is rougher than the picture business because you do not have the studio to protect you . . . “Having a pretty place to work is important to a man,” she has advised me. She has shown me the apothecary jar of hard candies she keeps filled on the governor’s desk.

Almost a month later, Nancy Reagan was still smarting from the sting, telling the Fresno Bee, “I thought we were getting along fine together. Maybe it would have been better if I snarled a bit.”

This technique—appearing to let the subject simply carry on without interruption from Didion’s evaluations or thoughts making themselves absurd—became her standard mode of operation. It would be the way she would spend large swaths of her famous explorations in Haight-Ashbury. She would begin the essay with a long incantation about how the “center was not holding,” then trek into the widening abyss to find people who would reveal themselves in a line or two. Meeting two young Deadheads, for example:

I ask a couple of girls what they do. “I just kind of come out here a lot,” one of them says. “I just sort of know the Dead,” the other says.

The flatness of these answers spoke for the emptiness of those who spoke them. Most of the readers of the Saturday Evening Post agreed with Didion on this point, the letters unusually full of praise for her insight into the barbarians of the hippie cult, as it was popular to call them at the time. There were some objectors, like Sunnie “The Daisy” Brentwood, who continued to insist that “the majority of the flower children are good kids who are trying to improve the world and make it a better place to live.”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Didion’s view won out in the end, not least because this essay would become the title piece of her stand-alone 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the book that established Didion’s reputation. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Didion’s friend Dan Wakefield argued that Didion was “one of the least celebrated and most talented writers of my own generation.” He pointed out that Didion was easier to interpret, for example, than another trendy young woman writer of the moment named Susan Sontag. Wakefield’s thorough celebration of the book was echoed by just about every reviewer. Some of them stumbled over the pairing of Didion’s brilliance with her gender: Melvin Maddocks of the Christian Science Monitor cryptically remarked, in what appeared to be a compliment:

Journalism by women is the price the man’s world pays for having disappointed them. Here at their best are the unforgiving eye, the unforgetting ear, the concealed hat-pin style.

That is one way of looking at it; though the reference to hat pins is clearly trivializing, the notion that the opinions were a “price” rather than a gift is somewhat revealing. Didion had cultivated a persona in her writing that was just as disappointed with women—Gurley Brown, the Deadheads, Nancy Reagan, the figgy pudding domestics—as it was with the “man’s world,” wherever that was. It wasn’t feminine so much as just perceptive, sharp. Certain doors of perception are more open to women, but it doesn’t mean that men can’t see what women are pointing out, if only they’d settle down, listen, and look.

After Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the literary profilers came out of the woodwork. In droves, they began to interview her, attaching the beautiful photographs of her slight frame to headlines like “Joan Didion: Writer with Razor’s Edge,” and “Slouching Towards Joan Didion.” It was by then the 1970s. Alfred Kazin, that old friend of Hannah Arendt’s, promptly got himself assigned to fly out to California. He met the Didion-Dunnes in high spirits at the house they then occupied in Malibu, together writing a screenplay based on Play It as It Lays, her 1970 novel about a dissatisfied actress named Maria Wyeth that had gotten her rave reviews. Kazin noted the difference between the way Didion often spoke of herself in print: as fragile, ill, on the verge of divorce in a famous Life column in 1969, and the way she was in person, more a creature of sensible steel than frivolous silk:

Joan Didion is a creature of many advantages, as is clear from her own belief that she had the sense to get born and to grow up in Sacramento before so many discomfiting things began to happen to the Golden State.

Kazin continued to catalog discrepancies. Didion’s voice was “so much stronger than her own little girl’s voice!” Though the address in Malibu would seem to connote relaxation, he finds the sound of the waves below deafening: “People who live in a beach house don’t know how wary it makes them.” He called her a moralist, pointed out that she had an obsession with seriousness. He notes that always she was writing as a cultural critic, even in fiction, wanting to diagnose the ills of whatever subject she had—a propensity she shared with Mary McCarthy, though their fiction voices are far apart. He even connected her with Arendt, who had once told him that Americans seemed to despair far more than she had ever seen people do in Europe.

By the time Kazin’s profile was published, Didion was, quite simply, a star. But the Saturday Evening Post, the place that had let her write lyrically about migraines, about going home to Sacramento, or that flew her to Hawaii for a piece, had folded. She looked for other homes. Life magazine offered her a contract to write a column. But the relationship soured immediately; Didion asked to go to Saigon, because many writers—including Sontag and McCarthy—had already been there. Her editor demurred, telling her that “some of the guys are going out.” Her anger at this blithe dismissal turned into the now-famous column she wrote about visiting Hawaii during the prediction of a huge tidal wave:

My husband switches off the television set and stares out the window. I avoid his eyes, and brush the baby’s hair. In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices. We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.

Vintage Books


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