Joan Didion, “new journalist” who explored culture and chaos, dies at 87
Joan Didion, whose biting dispatches on California culture and the chaos of the 1960s established her as one of the leading exponents of the new journalism, and whose novels “Play It as It Lays” and “The Book of Common Prayer proclaimed the arrival of a harsh, laconic and distinctive voice of American fiction, died Thursday at her Manhattan home. She was 87 years old.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to an email from Paul Bogaards, an executive at Knopf, Ms Didion’s publisher.
Ms Didion rose to prominence with a series of incisive and incisive feature articles in Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post that explored the frayed edges of postwar American life. California, his native state, provided him with his richest material. In crisp, knowing vignettes, she captured its harshness and beauty, its role as a magnet for restless settlers, its golden promise and endangered past, and its power as a cultural laboratory.
“We believed in new beginnings,” she writes in “Where I Was From” (2003), a psychic portrait of the state. “We believed in luck. We believed in the miner who scratched one last stake and hit the Comstock Lode. “
In two groundbreaking early collections of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979), she turned her cold, worried gaze on the Haight-Ashbury hippies, on eccentrics and scholars like Bishop James Pike and Howard Hughes, on the film industry in the post-studio era, and the death-tinged music of The Doors.
Ms Didion’s reporting reflected Norman Mailer’s prescription for “extremely personalized journalism in which the character of the narrator was one of the elements of how the reader would ultimately assess the experience.”
His attraction to hotspots, disintegrating personalities and burgeoning chaos came naturally. In the title essay of “The White Album,” she included her own psychiatric assessment after arriving at the outpatient clinic at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, complaining of dizziness and nausea.
He said, in part, “In his opinion, she lives in a world of people with strange, conflicting, misunderstood and, most importantly, underhanded motivations that inevitably engage them in conflict and failure. This description, which Ms. Didion did not dispute, could describe the archetypal heroine of her novels.
“Her talent was to write about the mood of culture,” writer Katie Roiphe said in an interview. “She managed to channel the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s through her own very idiosyncratic and personal, that is, seemingly personal, writing. She was perfectly in tune with the times, with her sensitivity a little paranoid, a little hysterical, nervous. It was a perfect conjunction of the writer with the moment.
Ms. Didion then turned to political reporting, publishing lengthy essays for the New York Review of Books on the civil war in El Salvador and the culture of Cuban emigrants in Miami; they were published in book form under the names “Salvador” and “Miami”.
“She was fearless, original and a wonderful observer,” said Robert B. Silvers, who was the editor of The New York Review of Books, which began publishing Ms Didion’s work in the early 1970s, said in a 2009 interview for this obituary. long on the bigger picture. She was a great journalist.
Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934 in Sacramento to Frank and Eduene (Jerrett) Didion. She was a fifth-generation Californian descendant of settlers who left the hapless Donner Party in 1846 and took the safest route. Her father was a finance officer in the military, her mother was a housewife, and during WWII the family moved from post to post before returning to Sacramento after the war.
As a teenager, Ms. Didion typed chapters in Hemingway’s novels to see how they worked. She was deeply influenced by Hemingway’s handling of dialogue and silence. Joseph Conrad was another formative influence.
During her freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with a BA in English in 1956, Ms. Didion submitted a first draft of a short story to Mademoiselle and won a place as a fiction writer. guest for the magazine. The following year, she won an essay competition sponsored by Vogue. Refusing a trip to Paris, the first prize, she went straight to work at the magazine, where her prose received a rigorous but idiosyncratic schooling as she transitioned from writing promotional texts to being assistant editor. “In an eight-line caption, everything had to work, every word, every comma,” she said later.
In the early 1960s, Ms. Didion wrote for Vogue, Mademoiselle and National Review, often on topics such as “Jealousy: is it curable?” At the same time, she published a popular debut novel, “Run, River” (1963), about the collapse of a family in Sacramento. While not as skinny as his later fiction, he introduced the concerns that ruled his later novels – violence, terror, the sickening feeling that the world was getting out of hand – and familiarized readers with “The Woman. Didion, “described by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times Magazine as a desperate resident of” a clearly personal wasteland, wandering along highways or across countries in an effort to erase the pain of consciousness. “
In 1964, she married John Gregory Dunne, a Time writer with whom she had been friends for several years. They moved to California and started writing screenplays. They also adopted a girl, Quintana Roo, taking her name from the Mexican state, whom they had come across while looking at a map.
Over time, they became a glamorous bi-coastal couple, with one foot in Hollywood and the other in the literary salons of Manhattan. Mr. Dunne died of a heart attack at age 71 in 2003. Two years later, Quintana Roo Dunne has passed away of pancreatitis and septic shock at age 39. Ms Didion wrote about her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness in “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), which won the 2005 National Book Award for Non-Fiction and was adapted for the stage from Broadway in 2007 in a solo production with Vanessa Redgrave. Ms. Didion brought up the subject of her daughter’s death in her 2011 memoir, “Blue Nights”.
Ms. Didion has built a tripartite career devoted to reporting, scriptwriting and fiction. The reporting, she once said, forced her into the lives of others and allowed her to gather the information and impressions that fueled her fiction. “Something in a situation is going to bother me, so I’ll write an article to find out what’s bothering me,” she told The Paris Review in 2006. Screenwriting, on the other hand, was a diversion, like doing crossword puzzles. It was exceptionally successful at all three.
In 1970, she and her husband, after choosing a story about drug addicts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wrote the screenplay for “Panic in Needle Park,” a film that gave Al Pacino his first lead role. Their second screenplay was an adaptation of Ms. Didion’s second novel, “Play It as It Lays” (1970), the elliptical tale of a young actress who drives compulsively on California highways to forget about her failed marriage, abortion and illness. mental health of his daughter. . The film version, released in 1972, starred Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.
With their third scenario, Mrs. Didion and her husband won the gold. With James Taylor and Carly Simon in the lead for the lead roles, they rewrote “A Star Is Born” to bring it into the rock ‘n’ roll era. Starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, the film became a box office hit and paid its writers handsomely.
The couple went on to collaborate on “True Confessions”, the film version of Mr. Dunne’s 1977 novel, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, and “Up Close and Personal” (1996), a television soap opera starring Robert Redford and Michelle. Pfeiffer.
In her third novel, “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977), Mrs. Didion placed her heroine, the dreamer and damaged Charlotte Douglas, in a fictional Central American country torn apart by revolutionary politics. This larger canvas foreshadowed a series of long and in-depth articles on political topics, often written for the New York Review of Books. A trip to El Salvador, then in the grip of a civil war, provided the material for the very impressionist “Salvador” (1983), a VS Naipaul-esque trip to the heart of darkness.
The intricacies of Cuban-American politics were the subject of “Miami” (1987), another protracted foray into personal journalism that some critics began to find boring. Everywhere Ms. Didion went, it seemed, she found the same set of circumstances: impending chaos, an atmosphere saturated with terror and nonsense described by unwitting participants in cliché language indicated by quotation marks.
“She always seems to be writing on the brink of such terrible disaster that her only available answer is to retire into some kind of autism,” Adam Kirsch wrote in The New York Sun in 2006. (“I have a theatrical temper , “Ms. Didion once told an interviewer.)
In 2015, St. Martin’s Press published “The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion” by Tracy Daugherty. Two years later, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” a documentary film produced and directed by Griffin Dunne, the son of his brother-in-law, journalist Dominick Dunne, was shown on Netflix.
She left no immediate survivors.
In her later years, Ms Didion abandoned traditional reporting and wrote a form of cultural critique focusing on how the press and television interpreted certain events, including the presidential elections and the beating and raping of a jogger in Central Park in 1989.
Several of these essays were included in the collections “After Henry” (1992) and “Political Fictions” (2001), which focused on the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton. In 2006, Everyman Publishing published “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction”. In “South and West: From a Notebook”, published in 2017, Ms Didion returned to the 1970s and recaptured her impressions of the Deep South, where she and her husband had traveled on a mission for Life magazine, and from other thoughts on California. .
The voice has remained the same: harsh, accomplice, sometimes cynical. Despite her deceptively frail appearance, she maintained the position of a frontier woman shaped by the dire circumstances of her native state. She said it succinctly in “Where I Was From”:
“You were supposed, if you were a Californian, to know how to tie a corral with bark, you were supposed to show your wits, kill the rattlesnake, keep going. “
Alex Traub contributed reporting.