The Autumn of Joan Didion

The writer’s work is a triumph—and a disaster.

Before dinner, when I was hanging out in the kitchen nibbling on blanched almonds and waiting around to help my mother serve, she told me to go out and talk to Joan—not in the sense of chatting with an important up-and-comer, but in the sense of bailing out Mark’s student. I went and sat down on the floor next to her chair. Among her misfortunes, when offered a seat in the living room, she had chosen the armchair my mother usually sat in, which had not become apparent to her until my father took his place in the matching one beside it, and she realized they were in the power positions, looking out at the other guests.

“So you have a daughter?,” I asked, because—what else are you going to say?

“Yes,” she said tensely, but added nothing else, just looked at me searchingly.

Her extreme brevity would have seemed curt—like a snub—except for the fact that it’s impossible to snub a 14-year-old girl while sitting in her mother’s chair preparing to eat that good woman’s daube and Strawberries Romanov.

I asked a couple of follow-up questions—how old was the child? What was her name? But because each of those simple inquiries went to the same place (nowhere, albeit accompanied by the same anxious expression), and because I had not yet mastered the art of “drawing someone out,” as we girls were then always encouraged to do—although Mata Hari would not have been able to draw Joan Didion out—I gave up and headed back to the kitchen.

Years later—after reading everything else by her I could get my hands on—I read Didion’s first novel, Run River, and encountered the deeply autobiographical character of Lily Knight McClellan, about whom a jerk college boy at Berkeley says: “Taking out Lily Knight was like dating a deaf mute.” Lily’s sister-in-law remarks acidly (Didion’s fiction always includes the wisecracking, jaded older woman): “Somebody holds the door open for Lily in a hardware store, and she thinks she has a very complex situation on her hands.” My asking Joan if she had a daughter was evolving into another complex situation.

I served dinner, sat beside my father through two courses, and then wandered away to watch television and eat an early dessert, while the professors and their wives drank Irish coffee and laughed and while the visiting writer clutched her purse on her lap and waited to leave. The consensus was that the little lady had her work cut out for her.

There was also the impression that she had returned to Berkeley a prodigal, but ready at last to put herself on the right path. And it was entirely possible! All she had to do was move back to town, get her clothes under control, put her nose to the grindstone of Henry James criticism, and, with a few years of earnest work, she would be rewarded with the Ph.D. in English that was surely her right calling.

And it looked at first like the old campus was indeed working its charms. She took to wearing a dirty raincoat, spent too much time alone at the Faculty Club, smoked too many cigarettes, kept an undergraduate’s anxious tally of minor expenditures—

$1.15, papers, etc.
$2.85, taco plate
$ .50, tips
$ .15, coffee

But however strong the tidal pull of Berkeley might have been on Didion, the power brokers of the English Department began to experience a much stronger countervailing force: the huge, mesmerizing power she held over a vast reading audience. They hadn’t simply underestimated it; they had been almost entirely unaware of it. They began to realize that the tiny, inarticulate young woman was not simply Mark’s student—not by a long shot.

“There’s something weird going on with Joan Didion and women,” my father remarked one night over dinner. Apparently, vast numbers of women—students, staff members, faculty, Berkeley people—were thronging to her office hours, hanging around the door of her classroom, arranging their schedules so that they could bump into her, or at least catch a glimpse of her, as she walked from the Faculty Club to Wheeler Hall. It was becoming clear that she didn’t have just readers; she had fans—not the way writers have fans, but the way musicians and actors have fans—and that almost all of them were female.

Things got stranger when her husband showed up. “He’s a Svengali,” my father said; “she does whatever he says, and she doesn’t say a word.” John Gregory Dunne’s visit was also the seed of another Didion legend. My father had taken both of them, along with his secretary—a young woman named Heidi, beloved by my family —to look at the room Heidi had booked for Didion’s Regents’ lecture, the high point of her appointment. Looking out at the lecture hall, Heidi asked Didion if it was to her liking. Didion said nothing, just looked up at her husband. He remarked coldly, “It’s too small,” and Joan nodded fiercely, as though this were obvious.

Never antagonize a secretary. Heidi marched back to her desk and scheduled Didion’s talk in the biggest hall she could book. Let her see how she liked lecturing to a half-filled room!

It was a madhouse. There were tearful women who were turned away at the door, others grateful to stand in the back or to sit on the floor, a huge, rapt crowd of the type that doesn’t feature in even the wildest dreams of most writers. I didn’t go that night, when she presented the now famous “Why I Write.” But when I heard about it and about the frenzy of Didion-mania it produced—there was a sense that something was happening that spring in Berkeley, something important and memorable that you didn’t want to miss out on—I determined to go to the English Department’s commencement, for which she was delivering the address.

I remember sitting in the second row, listening to my father introduce her and then—despite my eagerness to hear what she had to say—only half listening to her speech. I was still too young to be able to follow a complex piece of oratory, although I remember that she talked about her own graduation from the eighth grade, and how she had worn a certain necklace to that event, and how she remembered the cool of the crystals on her neck. It was precisely the kind of image for which she was becoming famous, though I didn’t yet know it, but 35 years later, I remember the way she held her hand to her neck, remembering where the crystal had been.

While she was talking, someone came to the foot of the stage and passed a note to my father, who was sitting behind the podium with a couple of other professors. I watched him open it, and then look over at Didion. He started to stand up, then didn’t. She kept reading, oblivious to the little drama. I assumed the note said that she was running long, but this seemed a very rude thing to demonstrate.

She finished her talk, and my father raced to the microphone and said something about the beautiful day, and about Berkeley being a place not bound by tradition, and so why not scrap the plan described on the program—the students were supposed to process up the aisle to receive their diplomas—and all go out to the front of the building and do it there instead?

“Also,” he said, “please do it using all available exits.”

Bomb scare. That was Berkeley in the ’70s: lots of scare, not many bombs.

And that was the last I saw of Joan Didion for many years, standing beside my father in the bright sunshine of the south portico of Wheeler Hall, the two of them doling out, respectively, diplomas and handshakes. All of these events—the dinner party and the fan stories and the commencement address with the bomb scare—would have faded in my memory, just Berkeley stories (there was always something happening in Berkeley, always something you didn’t want to miss) and nothing to dwell on, except for something that took place a few weeks after she left town that made me think back on all the things that had happened, all the details, and see them for what they really were: a youthful encounter with greatness.

I was sitting in the living room of some friends of my parents, during our annual summer in Dublin, and I noticed on the coffee table a book with a bright orange-and-yellow cover. I craned my neck around to read the title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion. I asked if I could borrow it. I began reading it right there on the couch, and took it away with me, and never gave it back. It changed my life.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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