Tribute to literary icon Joan Didion, who died at 87

Joan Didion's provocative social commentary and her detached and methodical literary voice made her a unique lucid critique of a particularly turbulent era.

Source: PAA

Didion’s early work included her flagship 1968 essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” – which delighted critics and made her a true star – as well as “The White Album”, another collection of essays focused on LA, and “Play It as It Lays,” a novel about Hollywood lives.

Decades after her heyday as a Hollywood socialite, screenwriter, essayist and novelist, Didion has once again found herself in the limelight for her startlingly honest writings on grieving over a heartbreaking double tragedy.

Didion was 69 when her husband and screenwriter partner John Gregory Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack and, less than two years later, the couple’s daughter, Quintana Roo, was killed at age 39 from acute pancreatitis.

“This was never supposed to happen to him, I remember thinking – outraged, as if he had been promised a special exemption,” Didion wrote in his 2011 memoir “Blue Nights”.

“When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.”

Raised in the Sacramento Valley of California, Didion was a “shy, bookish child,” as she would later say, who found solace in reading everything she could get her hands on.

Joan Didion and her husband, John Dunne, at their Malibu home in December 1977.

Source: PAA

She graduated in English from the University of California at Berkeley and was hired by Vogue after winning an essay competition.

It was while working for the magazine in New York that she met Dunne – a novelist – and the couple married in 1964, just before their 30th birthday.

Didion’s brother Nick was a moderately successful film producer, and the couple joined him in Los Angeles in June 1964, renting a house owned by the widow of Oscar-winning “Citizen Kane” co-writer Herman J Mankiewicz.

By then, Didion had already written a first novel, “Run River”, but was not yet the cult figure she would become.

The couple threw themselves wholeheartedly onto the celebrity party scene, enjoying nights out with Warren Beatty, Natalie Wood and Barbra Streisand, and while waiting to adopt their newborn daughter.

Writers were quick to post tributes, noticing Didion’s unique writing voice and recalling the “seismic impact” it had on their own evolution as writers.

‘Kiss of death’

Noted for her upbeat but seductive prose, Didion wrote in her first Life magazine column in 1969 that she and Dunne were at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu “instead of filing for divorce.”

A pioneer of the literary non-fiction school of new journalism, Didion shed light on the values ​​of a city where old Hollywood was usurped by the less innocent “Easy Rider” counterculture and the Manson family murders. , with movies overtaking music as the hot art form.

Didion and Dunne embarked on a screenwriting partnership starting with “The Panic in Needle Park” in 1971 and including “A Star is Born” (1976) with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and “Up Close and Personal” (1996), with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

She wrote five novels, 13 non-fiction works, and six screenplays, and with her days as a “cool” celebrity largely behind her, Dunne’s death in 2003 sparked something of a rebirth.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” – Didion’s 2005 dissection of the trauma of losing her husband – has won numerous awards and has sold over a million copies.

“Blue Nights”, which explored the most devastating blow in the loss of Quintana Roo, has been described by the late writer Christopher Hitchens as a work of “intense dignity and courage”.

Didion hit the headlines again in 2015 when French luxury brand Celine used a photo for an ad campaign showing her with silver hair styled in a bob, dressed in black with huge sunglasses – an icon a once again in its ninth decade.

“What she is is an irresistible femme fatale,” novelist Lili Anolik noted in a profile for Vanity Fair in 2016.

“She is our kiss of death, yet we open our mouths, we kiss back.”

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