Joan Didion

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The publication of a recent unauthorized biography of Joan Didion has reopened the conversation on her career, with some turning their guns on her canon, but I still vote “yes,” especially in regards to her writing about her native California. 

One assignment in the Golden State that never panned out as planned was her 1976 reportage of the Patty Hearst trial in San Francisco, which was supposed to run in Rolling Stone. Didion couldn’t find the thread of the court proceedings of the debutante terrorist but used the experience to work over some of her own knots.

A few of her recollections of this period have been published in the New York Review of Books. The essay jumps around, touching on two different coming-of-age stories which occurred, roughly speaking, in the same milieu. Really intended for Didion completists. The introduction:

I had told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that I would cover the Patty Hearst trial, and this pushed me into examining my thoughts about California. Some of my notes from the time follow here. I never wrote the piece about the Hearst trial, but I went to San Francisco in 1976 while it was going on and tried to report it. And I got quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions. This didn’t lead to my writing the piece, but eventually it led to—years later—Where I Was From (2003).

When I was there for the trial, I stayed at the Mark. And from the Mark, you could look into the Hearst apartment. So I would sit in my room and imagine Patty Hearst listening to Carousel. I had read that she would sit in her room and listen to it. I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

—March 23, 2016•

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Reassessment–a chastening, even–often attends the publication of a biography, especially in the cases of writers or politicians. Joan Didion’s received a surprising number of calls for impeachment with the publication of Tracy Daugherty’s book about her.

I’ve never been a fan of Play It As It Lays (leave the smut to the professionals, please), but Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are sensational (in the best sense of the word). Yes, Didion was a fashion-magazine veteran savvy enough to wear cool sunglasses and pose at the wheel of her Stingray, but her efforts at auto-iconography don’t even rate when compared to, say, Hunter S. Thompson’s. Since they both had the chops, who even cares?

A lot of the backlash stems from the then-aphasiac author’s depiction of California as haywire during the ’60s and ’70s. Her home state, that traitor! Sure, a big-picture take of the fantasia that is California can’t completely satisfy, and perhaps her portrait flattered East Coasters, but maybe most disturbing is that she did land on numerous and troubling truths of that place in that time. Although some will argue that these were mere distortions.

From a very well-written Barnes & Noble review of Daugherty’s bio by Tom Carson, a self-described Didion skeptic:

In her prime, she didn’t have casual readers; her gift for imposing her sensibility on events didn’t permit it. The paradox of The Year of Magical Thinking‘s success was that it introduced her to a nonliterary audience largely unaware that she’d been generating intimations of morbidity, desolation, and the existential jitters out of pretty much any topic put in front of her, from 1968’s career-defining essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem on. When “California” still blended the worst of heaven and the best of hell in Noo Yawk intellectuals’ minds, no other writer matched native daughter Didion at being the anti−Beach Boys.

In her home state’s very entertaining transformation from freakish American exotica to the place lit by rockets’ pink glare that the other forty-nine all try to be, she’s a pivotal figure: the last West Coast chronicler to make a career of insisting that where she came from was special, strange, and always latently monstrous. That happened to be precisely the view her culturally unnerved audience wanted endorsed at the time, but Didion also invited derision by treating her perpetually threatened morale as the ultimate gauge of how badly the twentieth century was botching its job. In a memorable hit piece, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called her “a neurasthenic Cher.” Pauline Kael read Didion’s “ridiculously swank” 1970 novel Play It as It Lays “between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” Maybe not insignificantly, she tends to drive other woman writers up the wall — especially if, like Kael, they’re California gals themselves — more than men, who usually flip for her solemn tension.•


In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiled Didion, when she still called California home.

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Image by Ted Streshinsky.

In his New Yorker piece about Tracy Daugherty’s Joan Didion biography, The Last Love Song, Louis Menand states that “‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ was not a very good piece of standard journalism.” Well, no. Nor was the Flying Burrito Brothers very good classical music, but each of those assessments is probably beside the point.

Menand claims Didion poorly contextualized the Hippie movement, but the early stages of his own article suffers from the same. He asserts the Flower Child craze and the thorny period that followed it was similar to the Beats of the previous decade, just weekend faddists lightly experimenting with drugs. But the counterculture of the late-1960s blossomed into a massive anti-war movement, a much larger-scale thing, and the youth culture’s societal impact wasn’t merely a creation of opportunistic, screaming journalism. Menand wants to prove this interpretation wrong, but he doesn’t do so in this piece. He offers a couple of “facts” of indeterminate source about that generation’s drug use, and leaves it at that. Not nearly good enough.

I admire Menand deeply (especially The Metaphysical Club) the way he does Didion, but I think her source material approaches the truth far more than this part of Menand’s critique does. Later on in the piece, he points out that Didion wasn’t emblematic of that epoch but someone unique and outside the mainstream, suggesting her grasp of the era was too idiosyncratic to resemble reality. But detachment doesn’t render someone incapable of understanding the moment. In fact, it’s often those very people who are best positioned to.

The final part of the article which focuses on how in the aftermath of her Haight-Ashbury reportage, Didion had a political awakening from her conservative California upbringing, though not an immediate or conventional one. This long passage is Menand’s strongest argument.

An excerpt:

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.

The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.

Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”•

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In the 1968 New York Times Book Review, Dan Wakefield wrote of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, rightfully lavishing praise on what was an instant journalistic classic and one that has since stood the test of time. Didion had escaped New York for the West Coast to write most of the pieces, struck almost silent by a sort of aphasia induced by an indeterminant anxiety. She still managed to communicate. An excerpt:

“The author writes about the contemporary world– quite often the Western United States where she grew up and where she has returned after the writer’s almost obligatory boot-camp training in New York City– and though her own personality does not self-indulgently intrude itself on her subjects, it informs and illuminates them.

The reader comes to admire what can only be called the character of this observer at work, looking in as well as out, noting, for instance, in a piece about a young California Maoist that is a classic portrayal of a certain kind of political zealot of either left or right:

‘As it happens I am comfortable… with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or history.’

In her portraits of people, Miss Didion is not out to expose but to understand, and she shows us actors and millionaires, doomed brides and naïve acid-trippers, left-wing ideologues and snobs of the Hawaiian aristocracy in a way that makes them neither villainous nor glamorous, but alive and botched and often mournfully beautiful in the midst of their lives’ debris. Her portrayals remind me most of the line of a great poem of Robert Frost that says, speaking of us all, ‘Weep for what little things could make them glad.’

Miss Didion is the only writer I know who has captured something of the real mystique and essence of Joan Baez, a frank but elusive subject whom more than one reporter has muffed in the most hopeless manner. (I know; I am one of them.) The fragile innocence as well as the pathos of the students at Miss Baez’s Workshop for Non-Violence are caught in Miss Didion’s description of one of their sessions breaking up as the sky turns dark in the late afternoon, and how they all are ‘reluctant about gathering up their books and magazines and records, about finding their car keys and ending the day, and by the time they are ready to leave Joan Baez is eating potato salad with her fingers from a bowl in the refrigerator, and everyone stays to share it, just a little while longer where it is warm.’

The title piece is about Haight-Ashbury, and conveys the complexity and the ‘atomization’ of the hippie scene not as the latest fashionable trend, but as a serious advanced stage of society in which things are truly ‘falling apart’ as in Yeats’s poem. Compare this piece with Time magazine’s hapless cover story on the hippies last year, and you will see why ‘group journalism’ is usually inferior to a single, talented writer using the ‘method’ explained by Miss Didion: ‘When I went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around a while, and made a few friends.’

That is how the best things are always done– a fact they won’t believe when you try to explain it at a writers conference. (They think you’re keeping a secret about how it’s really done.)”


In the 1970s, Tom Brokaw profiles Didion:

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Joan Didion is one now, but when she was three her up-and-down marriage to fellow writer John Gregory Dunne was the topic of a 1976 People profile by John Riley. An excerpt:

Every morning Joan retreats to the Royal typewriter in her cluttered study, where she has finally finished her third novel, A Book of Common Prayer, due out early next year. John withdraws to his Olympia and his more fastidious office overlooking the ocean, where he’s most of the way through a novel called True Confessions. “At dinner she sits and talks about her book, and I talk about mine,” John says. “I think I’m her best editor, and I know she’s my best editor.”

While John played bachelor father to Quintana in Malibu, Joan spent a month in Sacramento—where she wrote the last 100 pages of the novel in her childhood bedroom in her parents’ home. She’s retreated there for the final month of all three novels. Her mother delivers breakfast at 9; her dad pours a drink at 6. The rest of the regimen: no one asks any questions about how she’s doing. Joan, a rare fifth-generation Californian, is the daughter of an Air Corps officer. She studied English at Berkeley and at 20 won a writing contest that led to an editing job with Vogue in New York. ‘All I could do during those days was talk long-distance to the boy I already knew I would never marry in the spring,’ she later wrote. John grew up in West Hartford, Conn., where his father was a surgeon. He prepped at a Catholic boarding school, Portsmouth Priory, and studied history at Princeton (where his classmates included Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and actor Wayne Rogers). After college he wrote for TIME.

He and Joan met in New York on opposite halves of a double date. When John’s girl passed out drunk in Didion’s apartment, she fixed him red beans and rice and, he recalls, “We talked all night.” Yet they remained only friends for six years until 1963, when they lunched to discuss the manuscript of her first novel, Run River. A year later they married.

California became home after Joan’s hypersensitivity pushed her to the brink of a crack-up in New York. ‘I cried in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,’ she recalls. “I could not work. I could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty.” Finally, in L.A., John and Joan began alternating columns in The Saturday Evening Post (they are presently sharing a his-and-hers column titled “The Coast” for Esquire). Soon they collaborated on their first filmscript, The Panic in Needle Park (which was co-produced by John’s brother Dominick). Her delicately wrought essays were collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, while John turned out nonfiction studies of the California grape workers’ strike (Delano) and 20th Century-Fox (The Studio).

They are only now emerging from two years of antisocial submersion in their novels. “This was the only time we’ve worked simultaneously on books,” John groans. “It was enormously difficult. There was no one to read the mail or serve as a pipeline to the outside world.” Finished ahead of John, Joan is baking bread, gardening and reestablishing contact with cronies like Gore Vidal and Katharine Ross. Unlike most serious writers, Joan and John have banked enough loot from the movies (they did script drafts for Such Good Friends and Play It As It Lays, among others) to indulge in two or three yearly trips to the Kahala Hilton in Hawaii. “Once you can accept the Hollywood mentality that says because you get $100,000 and the director gets $300,000, he’s three times smarter than you are, then it becomes a very amusing place to work,” John observes dryly. But, he adds: “If we didn’t have anything else, I think I’d slit my wrists.”

They’re currently dickering over two Hollywood projects, one about Alaska oil and another about California’s water-rights wars in the 1920s.•

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In 1979, Joan Didion wrote for an essay for the New York Review of Books about a trio of Woody Allen films–Manhattan, Annie Hall and Interiors–commenting that the filmmaker’s adult characters had taken on the qualities of adolescents, becoming consumed with their place in the world–charting their loves and losses–listing their faves and likes, as if writing in a school yearbook in the air. And this, of course, was long before social networks gave us the tools to completely realize such a thing–to become a global village that’s connected if not mature. The opening:

“Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary

What is arresting about these recent ‘serious’ pictures of Woody Allen’s, about Annie Hall and Interiors as well as Manhattan, is not the way they work as pictures but the way they work with audiences. The people who go to see these pictures, who analyze them and write about them and argue the deeper implications in their texts and subtexts, seem to agree that the world onscreen pretty much mirrors the world as they know it. This is interesting, and rather astonishing, since the peculiar and hermetic self-regard in Annie Hall andInteriors and Manhattan would seem nothing with which large numbers of people would want to identify. The characters in these pictures are, at best, trying. They are morose. They have bad manners. They seem to take long walks and go to smart restaurants only to ask one another hard questions. ‘Are you serious about Tracy?’ the Michael Murphy character asks the Woody Allen character in Manhattan. ‘Are you still hung up on Yale?’ the Woody Allen character asks the Diane Keaton character. ‘I think I’m still in love with Yale,’ she confesses several scenes later. ‘You are?’ he counters, ‘or you think you are?’ All of the characters in Woody Allen pictures not only ask these questions but actually answer them, on camera, and then, usually in another restaurant, listen raptly to third-party analyses of their own questions and answers.

‘How come you guys got divorced?’ they ask each other with real interest, and, on a more rhetorical level, ‘why are you so hostile,’ and ‘why can’t you just once in a while consider my needs.’ (‘I’m sick of your needs’ is the way Diane Keaton answers this question in Interiors, one of the few lucid moments in the picture.)What does she say, these people ask incessantly, what does she say and what does he say and, finally, inevitably, ‘what does your analyst say.’ These people have, on certain subjects, extraordinary attention spans. When Natalie Gittelson of The New York Times Magazine recently asked Woody Allen how his own analysis was going after twenty-two years, he answered this way: ‘It’s very slow…but an hour a day, talking about your emotions, hopes, angers, disappointments, with someone who’s trained to evaluate this material—over a period of years, you’re bound to get more in touch with feelings than someone who makes no effort.’

Well, yes and (apparently) no. Over a period of twenty-two years ‘you’re bound’ only to get older, barring nasty surprises. This notion of oneself as a kind of continuing career—something to work at, work on, ‘make an effort’ for and subject to an hour a day of emotional Nautilus training, all in the interests not of attaining grace but of improving one’s ‘relationships’—is fairly recent in the world, at least in the world not inhabited entirely by adolescents. In fact the paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school. The characters in Manhattan and Annie Hall and Interiors are, with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, ‘class brains,’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life.”

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From an interview posted at the Los Angeles Review of Books which Jon Wiener conducted with Joan Didion one week after September 11, 2001:

Jon Wiener:

The news today is that President George W. Bush has just launched —

Joan Didion:

‘Operation Infinite Justice.’ Yes.

Jon Wiener:

You’ve always paid close attention to our political rhetoric. What do you make of ‘Operation Infinite Justice’?

Joan Didion:

At first it sounded like we were immediately going to be bombing someone. Then it sounded like it was going to be something like another war on drugs, a very amorphous thing with a heightened state of rhetoric and some threat to civil liberties.”•

For a real challenge, build King Kong on top of the Twin Towers”:

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Those who feared (envied, perhaps) the new freedoms enjoyed by the young people of the 1960s found their counterargument in Charles Manson, a pathetic slip of a man who somehow fashioned himself into a poisonous pied piper capable of leading children to their demise. In the White Album, Joan Didion wrote about the crimes in the broader context of the wide-open Los Angeles of the era, where rumors of horrible occurrences had previously been spoken of only in hushed tones. “Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable,” she wrote, the words bleeding out like a threat. In the aftermath of the horrendous 1969 mass murder carried out by the former bright-eyed children of the Manson Family, Life magazine made the ringleader its cover subject and published a long article by Paul O’Neil about Manson and his minions. The opening:

“Long-haired, bearded little Charlie Manson so disturbed the American millions last week–when he was charged with sending four docile girls and a hairy male acolyte off to slaughter strangers in two Los Angeles houses last August–that the victims of his blithe and gory crimes seemed suddenly to have played secondary roles in the final brutal moments of their own lives. The Los Angeles killings struck innumerable Americans as an inexplicable controversion of everything they wanted to believe about the society and their children–and made Charles Manson seem to be the very encapsulation of truth about revolt and violence by the young.

What failure of the human condition could produce a Charlie Manson? What possible aspects of such a creature’s example could induce sweet-faced young women and a polite Texas college boy to acts of such numbing cruelty–even though they might have abandoned the social and political precepts of their elders like so many other beaded and bell-bottomed mother’s children in 1969? Some of the answers seemed simple enough if one weighed Charlie Manson on the ancient scales of human venality. He attracted and controlled his women through flattery, fear and sexual attention and by loftily granting them a sort of sisterhood of exploitation–methods used by every pimp in history. He sensed something old as tribal blood ritual which most of us deny in ourselves–that humans can feel enormous fulfillment and enormous relief in the act of killing other humans if some medicine man applauds and condones the deed. But Charlie was able to attune his time-encrusted concepts of villainy to the childish yearnings of hippie converts–to their weaknesses, their catchwords, their fragmentary sense of religion and their enchantment with drugs and idleness–and to immerse them in his own ego and idiotic visions of the apocalypse.”

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In a 1995 New York Review of Books analysis of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Joan Didion reveals, unsurprisngly, a petty man with grandiose notions. It’s not that he never argues for interesting ideas but that he instantly cheapens them with a crassness and a lack of intelligence. An excerpt:

Even Mr. Gingrich’s most unexceptionable arguments can take these unpredictable detours. The “Third Wave Information Age” offers “potential for enormous improvement in the lifestyle choices of most Americans,” opportunities for “continuous, lifelong learning” that can enable the displaced or downsized to operate “outside corporate structures and hierarchies in the nooks and crannies that the Information Revolution creates” (so far so good), but here is the particular cranny of the Information Revolution into which Mr. Gingrich skids:

Say you want to learn batik because a new craft shop has opened at the mall and the owner has told you she will sell some of your work. First, you check in at the ‘batik station’ on the Internet, which gives you a list of recommendations. … You may get a list of recommended video or audio tapes that can be delivered to your door the next day by Federal Express. You may prefer a more personal learning system and seek an apprenticeship with the nearest batik master. … In less than twenty-four hours, you have launched yourself on a new profession.

Similarly, what begins in To Renew America as a rational if predictable discussion of “New Frontiers in Science, Space, and the Oceans” takes this sudden turn: ‘Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park? … Wouldn’t that be one of the most spectacular accomplishments of human history? What if we could bring back extinct species?’ A few pages further into “New Frontiers in Science, Space, and the Oceans,” we are careering into ‘honeymoons in space’ (“imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions”), a notion first floated in Window of Opportunity, in that instance as an illustration of how entrepreneurial enterprise could lead to job creation in one’s own district: “One reason I am convinced space travel will be a growth industry is because I represent the Atlanta airport, which provides 35,000 aviation-related jobs in the Atlanta area.”

The packaging of space honeymoons and recycled two-liter Coca-Cola bottles is the kind of specific that actually engages Mr. Gingrich: absent an idea that can be sold at Disney World, he has tended to lose interest.•

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The opening of Joan Didion’s writing about the sad and torturous Terri Schiavo case, in the New York Review of Books in 2005:

“Theresa Marie Schindler was born on December 3, 1963, to prosperous and devoutly Catholic parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, in a Philadelphia suburb, Huntingdon Valley. Robert Schindler was a dealer in industrial supplies. Mary Schindler was a full-time wife and mother. They named their first child for Saint Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic who believed the Carmelites insufficiently reclusive and so founded a more restrictive order. We have only snapshots of Theresa Marie Schindler’s life before the series of events that interrupted and eventually ended it. According to newspaper accounts published in the wake of those events, there had been the four-bedroom colonial on the leafy street called Red Wing Lane. There had been the day the yellow Labrador retriever, Bucky, collapsed of old age in the driveway and Theresa Marie tried in vain to resuscitate him. There had been the many occasions on which her two gerbils, named after the television characters Starsky and Hutch, got loose and into the air-conditioning unit in the basement.

She gained more weight than she wanted to. The summer she graduated from high school she went on a NutriSystem diet and began to lose the weight. Until then she hung out at the mall. She did not date. She bought her little brother Bobby his first Bruce Springsteen album. She pasted birthday cards into a scrapbook. She read Danielle Steel novels. She saw An Officer and a Gentleman with Richard Gere and Debra Winger four times in one day. She went to a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school, where the single activity listed in her yearbook entry was ‘Library Aide,’ an extracurricular effort on which she and a friend had settled for the express purpose of having something besides their names in the yearbook. The college application process, in the sense of the crucial competition that it was for many in her generation, an exercise in the marshaling and burnishing of deployable accomplishments, seems not to have entered the picture.

She enrolled in the two-year program at Bucks County Community College, where, in a psychology class during her second semester, she met Michael Schiavo. He was from Levittown. He is said to have been the first person she had ever kissed. At the time they married two years later, in 1984, she was just under twenty-one; he was eight months older. After a honeymoon at Disney World, they moved in with her parents in Huntingdon Valley, then, when the Schindlers decided two years later to move to Florida, preceded them there. They lived first in a condominium the Schindlers had in St. Petersburg. Theresa Schindler Schiavo clerked at the Prudential Insurance Company. She dyed her hair blonde. She lay out by the pool and drank several quarts of iced tea a day. Michael Schiavo, who after his wife’s cardiac arrest would begin and eventually complete studies in nursing and respiratory therapy at St. Petersburg Junior College, took restaurant jobs.”

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'You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there.' (image by John Atherton.)

From “Goodbye To All That,” Joan Didion’s famous 1967 essay in which she said farewell to New York City not forever but for a long spell:

“Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about. I could go to a party and meet someone who called himself Mr. Emotional Appeal and ran The Emotional Appeal Institute or Tina Onassis Blandford or a Florida cracker who was then a regular on what the called ‘the Big C,’ the Southampton-El Morocco circuit (‘I’m well connected on the Big C, honey,’ he would tell me over collard greens on his vast borrowed terrace), or the widow of the celery king of the Harlem market or a piano salesman from Bonne Terre, Missouri, or someone who had already made and list two fortunes in Midland, Texas. I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of them would count.

You see I was in a curious position in New York: it never occurred to me that I was living a real life there. In my imagination I was always there for just another few months, just until Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May.”


From “Marrying Absurd,” Joan Didion’s 1967 essay about getting hitched in Las Vegas, a garish man-made oasis that shouldn’t logically exist, but does so stubbornly, spectacularly, almost mythically:

“What people who get married in Las Vegas actually do expect–what, in the largest sense, their ‘expectations’ are– strikes one as a curious and self-contradictory business. Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies’ room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets. Almost everyone notes that there is no ‘time’ in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future (no Las Vegas casino, however, has taken the obliteration of the ordinary time sense quite so far as Harold’s Club in Reno, which for a while issued, at odd intervals in the day and night, mimeographed ‘bulletins’ carrying news from the world outside); neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks ‘STARDUST’ or ‘CAESAR’S PALACE.’ Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with ‘real’ life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of beholder all of which makes it an extraordinary and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.” (Thanks TETW.)


Elvis marries Priscilla, Las Vegas, 1967:

More Joan Didion posts:



The opening of Holy Water,” Joan Didion’s 1977 essay about H2O, a scarce and precious thing in Southern California, with its endless summer, omnipresent swimming pools and expansive deserts:

Some of us who live in arid parts of the world think about water with a reverence others might find excessive. The water I will draw tomorrow from my tap in Malibu is today crossing the Mojave Desert from the Colorado River, and I like to think about exactly where that water is. The water I will drink tonight in a restaurant in Hollywood is by now well down the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River, and I also think about exactly where that water is: I particularly like to imagine it as it cascades down the 45-degree stone steps that aerate Owens water after its airless passage through the mountain pipes and siphons.

As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale. I know the data on water projects I will never see. I know the difficulty Kaiser had closing the last two sluiceway gates on the Guri Dam in Venezuela. I keep watch on evaporation behind the Aswan in Egypt. I can put myself to sleep imagining the water dropping a thousand feet into the turbines at Churchill Falls in Labrador. If the Churchill Falls Project fails to materialize, I fall back on waterworks closer at hand — the tailrace at Hoover on the Colorado, the surge tank in the Tehachapi Mountains that receives California Aqueduct water pumped before — and finally I replay a morning when I was seventeen years old and caught, in a military-surplus life raft, in the construction of the Nimbus Afterbay Dam on the American River near Sacramento. I remember that at the moment it happened I was trying to open a tin of anchovies with capers. I recall the raft spinning into the narrow chute through which the river had been temporarily diverted. I recall being deliriously happy.•



From Joan Didion’s 1966 article, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (originally entitled, “How Can I Tell Them There’s Nothing Left?”), which profiled Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller, a mother of three who murdered her husband in lovely San Bernardino one sun-drenched day:

Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie, in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio. For this is a Southern California story. She was born on January 17, 1930, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of Gordon and Lily Maxwell, both school teachers hers and both dedicated to the  Seventh-Day Adventist Church whose members observe the Sabbath on Saturday, believe in an apocalyptic Second Coming, have a strong missionary tendency, and, if they are strict, do not smoke, drink, eat meat, use makeup, or wear jewelry, including wedding rings. By the time Lucille Maxwell enrolled at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington, the Adventist school where her parents then taught, she was an eighteen-year-old possessed of unremarkable good looks and remarkable high spirits. “Lucille wanted to see the world,’ her father would say in retrospect, ‘and I guess she found out.”

The high spirits did not seem to lend themselves to an extended course of study at Walla Walla College and in the spring of 1949 Licille-Maxwell met and married Gorgon (“Cork”) Miller, a twenty-four-year-old graduate of Walla Walla and of the University of Oregon dental school, then stationed at Fort Lewis as a medical officer. “Maybe you could say it was love at first sight,” Mr. Maxwell recalls. “Before they were ever formally introduced, he sent Lucille a dozen and a half roses with a card that said even if she didn’t come outon a date with him, he hoped she’d find the roses pretty anyway.” The Maxwells remember their daughter as a “radiant” bride.

Unhappy marriages so resemble one another that we do not need to know too much about the course of this one. There may or may not have been trouble on Guam, where Cork and Lucille Miller lived while he finished his Army duty. There may or may not have been problems in the small Oregon town where he first set up private practice. There appears to have been some disappointment-about their move to California: Cork Miller bad told friends that he wanted to become a doctor, that he was unhappy as a dentist and planned to enter the Seventh-Day Adventist College of Medical Evangelists at Loma Linda, a few miles south of San Bernardino. Instead he bought a dental practice in the west end of San Bernardino County, and the family settled there, In a modest house on the kind of street where there are always tricycles and revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets. That was 1957.  By the summer of 1964 they had achieved–the bigger house on the better street and the familiar accouterments of a family on its way up: the $30,000 a year, the three children for the Christmas card, the picture window, the family room, the newspaper photographs that showed “Mrs. Gordon Miller, Ontario Heart Fund Chairman.” They were paying the familiar price for it. And they had reached the familiar season of divorce.•

Joan Didion interviewed in Los Angeles in the 1970s by NBC News.

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A photo of Didion 30 years after this interview. (Image by David Shankbone.)

This 1978 Paris Review Q&A with Joan Didion had a sad coda when the interviewer Linda Kuehl died soon after the tapes were transcribed. From what I can gather online, Kuehl, who was writing a book about Billie Holiday at the time, committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window. Didion, who’s written so elegantly on the topic of death before and since, filled in for the late interviewer and wrote the opening paragraphs, crediting Kuehl’s intelligence for making her at ease, not something easily done. A few excerpts from the Q&A.


Paris Review: You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why.

Joan Didion: It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something that way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.


Paris Review: When did you know you wanted to write?

Joan Didion: I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl, but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone. I was struck a few years ago when a friend of ours–an actress–was having dinner here with us and a couple of other writers. It suddenly occurred to me that she was the only person in the room who couldn’t plan what she was going to do. She had to wait  for someone to ask her, which is a strange way to live.


Paris Review: What are the disadvantages, if any, of being a woman writer?

Joan Didion: When I was starting to write–in the late fifties, early sixties–there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles, Flannery O’ Connor, of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I’m not sure this is true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved–I suppose–deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.

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Michael Silverblatt: “Joan, please pardon me if I cry during this interview." (Image by David Shankbone.)

Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm program, is interviewed in the latest issue of The Believer about the many writers he’s conversed with over the years. It’s a fun read. A couple of excerpts follow.


Michael Silverblatt: I was really, really afraid of Joan Didion, simply because she’s a no-nonsense type. She has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is “Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.” I was very scared, and that fear did not lessen, as it usually does with subsequent interviews. In fact, when The Year of Magical Thinking came out, about her husband’s death—that was a really hard interview to do! To talk to someone about the book about the death of her husband just after her daughter had died as well? And she had been talking about it all around the country, giving public readings. I’m in the position of someone extending meaningless condolence. If I don’t extend it, I seem like a jerk, but if I ask tough questions I also seem like a jerk. How was I going to do this interview? I was scared of her subject. Also of having at that time my own parents dealing with illnesses. I said to her, “Joan, please pardon me if I cry during this interview. And I’m very nervous about being unable to speak, because this is a subject that you’ve been handling that I don’t handle very well.” And she took my hand and she said, “I’ll get you through it.”


The Believer: Do you ever become friends with your guests?

Michael Silverblatt: Kurt [Vonnegut] didn’t sign books, he didn’t stay on, he was escorted into a car immediately through a back door, but he said, “Give me your book,” and drew a picture of himself and a bubble coming out of his mouth saying, “Would you be my friend?” and gave me his phone number and he looked at me and said, “I’m so lonely.” I had started reading him before he was discovered, around the time of Mother Night. He meant a lot to me. I had a hunger verging on addiction to enjoy how funny and inventive he was. He wasn’t Pynchon, he wasn’t Barth, he wasn’t Barthelme, he wasn’t the writers he was grouped with, but he had his finger on an American zaniness that hadn’t really been seen since Mark Twain. We began a phone relationship and saw each other several more times before his death.

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I presented an excerpt some time back from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion’s great collection of reportage about life in California during the 1960s and 1970s. Now I offer a passage from The White Album, her other incisive non-fiction book about that place and time. From the title piece, this excerpt concerns the Tate-LaBianca murders perpetrated by the Manson Family in 1969, which caused the L.A.’s open minds and open doors to be locked shut. To read Didion tell it, those horrific killings were an almost inevitable shattering of a city of glass. An excerpt:

“We play ‘Lay Lady Lay’ on the record player, and ‘Suzanne.’ We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house in Franklin Avenue, and in the evenings the smell of jasmine came in through all the open doors and windows. I made a bouillabaisse for people who did not eat meat. I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town. There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. The mystical flirtation with the idea of  ‘sin’–this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far,’ and that many people were doing it–was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips were blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

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I’ve never been as big a fan of Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays as some are, but I love her non-fiction, especially her must-read collections about the ‘6os and its aftermath, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

The title essay in the former collection, a first-person account of the so-called Summer of Love, is brilliant street-level reportage and a ugly riposte to depictions of the time and place as paradisiacal.

Didion had descended into a personal torpor previous to heading to the Bay Area, but she emerged with a clear-eyed portrait, which was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post. An excerpt:

“I am looking for a guy named Deadeye and I hear he is on the Street this afternoon doing a little business, so I keep an eye our for him and pretend to read the signs in the Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street when a kid, sixteen, seventeen, comes in and sits on the floor beside me.

‘What are you looking for?’ he says.

I say nothing much.

‘I been out of my mind for three days,’ he says. He tells me he’s been shooting crystal, which I pretty much already know because he does not bother to keep his sleeves rolled down over the needle tracks. He came up from Los Angeles some number of weeks ago, but he does not remember the number, and now he’ll take off for New York, if he can find a ride. I show him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He wonders where Chicago is. I ask where comes from. ‘Here,’ he says. I mean before here. ‘San Jose, Chula Vista, I dunno. My mother’s in Chula Vista.’

A few days later I run into him in Golden Gate Park when the Grateful Dead are playing. I ask if he found a ride to New York. ‘I hear New York’s a bummer,’ he says.”