The Autumn of Joan Didion

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

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is composed of 20 essays written between 1961 and 1967, some of them extremely brief and all of them written against deadline and for money. Although the book is often characterized—because of its title essay and arresting preface on the subject—as being about the social upheavals of the ’60s, the collection is surpassingly eclectic. It includes an essay on a famous murder, a movie-star profile, several travel pieces, a meditation on the wedding industry, and a description of the emotional complexities that attend a grown woman’s visit to her parents’ home. In another writer’s hands, it would have been a dog’s breakfast of occasional pieces, and its lack of focus is in part attributable to the fact that collecting some of her journalism in a book was not Didion’s idea at all: she was, in her deepest sense of herself, a novelist. The essays were a means to that end.

Like many people in a wide variety of callings, she did not realize that it was the thing she did repeatedly, and always at the cost of what seemed to her the more important and more exalted work, that would come to define her. Someone suggested a collection, Didion tossed off the preface in a night, and that was that. Although she had a growing reputation as a fiction writer, she had not developed a steadily growing number of readers of her nonfiction, because she tended to publish in places that did not have a significant overlap of subscribers: the average reader of Vogue—a home for her work because she had been in the magazine’s employ for her first seven years out of college—was not also a reader of The Saturday Evening Post, where she liked to publish because, as she explained in the book’s preface, The Post “is extremely receptive to what the writer wants to do, pays enough for him to be able to do it right, and is meticulous about not changing copy.” The New York Times Book Review hailed Slouching Towards Bethlehem as “a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country,” and the book was everywhere well received, but it was no rocket ship in the beginning, finding its audience in gradually enlarging waves, woman by woman, and slowly building to a phenomenon not often seen in the book business: becoming something far too widely read to be called a cult book, but engendering a cult’s kind of fierce and jealously protective loyalty. Encountering someone who loves it as much as you do is a bedeviling experience: you have met both a landsman and a rival; each of us believes that our relationship with the book is unique.

What a disaster it would have been if young Joan Didion had worked not at Vogue but at a literary magazine, or at The New Yorker or Harper’s or this magazine. Her years at Vogue—beginning with her year as a Prix de Paris winner, most of which she spent sitting in a room alone reading the bound back issues, a matchless education—were an apprenticeship that has informed all of her work. There can’t be a novelist who writes with more authority about clothes. If you are going to pay serious attention to women—to their sense of themselves, their position (social, political, economic), their assumptions about the face they are presenting to their world, it helps a good deal if you know exactly what they are wearing. Joan Didion always knows which woman is wearing a Liberty shift and which one a crepe-de-chine wrapper, who’s in a Peck & Peck silk shirtdress with a fallen hem and who’s in a navy-blue dress with Irish lace at the collar and cuffs. She learned from the magazine about houses and decorating, two subjects that are of immeasurable usefulness to anyone who is going to write about what Tom Wolfe calls status culture. Her years spent writing captions for interior-decorating photographs (“All through the house, colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence. Here, a Frank Stella, an Art Nouveau stained-glass panel, a Roy Lichtenstein. Not shown: A table covered with a brilliant oilcloth, a Mexican find at fifteen cents a yard.”) allowed her later to remark of a 1968 Beverly Hills political gathering: “The music was not 1968 rock but the kind of jazz people used to have on their record players when everyone who believed in the Family of Man bought Scandinavian stainless steel flatware and voted for Adlai Stevenson,” and to describe 1920s Glendale as “antimacassars among the orange groves, a middle-class prelude to Forest Lawn.”

This attention—serious, thoughtful, and audaciously self-assured—to clothes and houses and flatware (the Family of Man stainless so different from the movie-industry vermeil) accounts in large measure for the rapt interest women have always paid her work. Slouching Towards Bethlehem may be the book that taught us all that “writers are always selling somebody out,” but it is also a very short book with four different sets of curtains in it: the frayed silk ones of the old Newport cottages, the pale appliquéd muslin ones of the Hotel Playa de Cortés in Guaymas, the paper flowered ones in the fortune-teller’s booths on Hotel Street in Honolulu, and the yellow-silk ones she hung in her New York apartment, forgetting to weight them properly, so “all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in the afternoon thunderstorms.”

The collection is named for the piece about life in the Haight, but the book is anchored—in sentiment, concern, and tone—by the final essay, “Goodbye to All That.” It’s about the exquisite sadness of the end of a love affair, the growing disenchantment with living in New York, and most of all what it’s like for a woman to lose her youth:

There was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl that used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that … 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.

She had stepped into the revolving door of the Seagram Building and stepped out “a good deal older, and on a different street.” She began to cry a lot, and the smell of certain perfumes overwhelmed her with emotion, and “it was very bad when I was twenty-eight.”

Critics of Joan Didion—and they are legion—fall into several camps, the largest and best-organized of which maintains that she’s a downer. “Can nothing be done to cheer this woman up?” asked Darcy O’Brien in the lede to his exasperated New York magazine review of The White Album. Or, as Sandra Hawk of Fort Worth, Texas, wrote to the editors of Life magazine in the January 23, 1970, issue: “Your new writer, Joan Didion, is not exactly ‘Little Mary Sunshine,’ is she?” Guilty as charged. What Didion wrote about were the exquisitely tender and often deeply melancholy feelings that are such a large part of the inner lives of women and especially of very young women—and girls—who are leaving behind the uncomplicated, romance-drenched state of youth and coming to terms with what comes next. Didion’s sensibility is like that of the young Joan Baez, whom she encountered in 1965: “Above all, she is the girl who ‘feels’ things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young.” She herself had once been the girl with “skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation … full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again.”

Didion is the writer who expressed most eloquently the eternal-girl impulse, the one that follows us into adulthood: the desire to retreat to our room, to close the door, to spend some time alone with our thoughts and our feelings. She understood that the old governor’s mansion in Sacramento was superior to the Reagans’ giant tract house because it had big, airy bedrooms, “and one can imagine reading in one of them, or writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner.” She loved Alcatraz Island not only for the flowers and the view, but because she is a person who likes a moat. Like Baez, when the world was too much with her she wanted to be able to retreat to someplace beautiful and “lock the gate.” When we learned that each time she finished a novel she had done so back in her old bedroom at her parents’ house—the one she had painted carnation pink during her first year at college, and that had green vines growing up over all the windows, so that the light was filtered—we all imagined writing novels and finishing them in just that way. That’s who we all wanted to be—someone’s star student and someone else’s star daughter, the ingenue who didn’t have to carry the picture but without whom it would be flat and lusterless. We were the ones who wanted to provide—or be—“colour, verve, improvised treasures in happy but anomalous coexistence.”

Even marriage—that girl-buster, that instant ager—was, in her description, a state of extended girlhood. When she had been too long a difficult and troubled wife, she was rewarded not with a stern lecture and a visit to the marriage counselor, but with a trip to Honolulu, where the baby got a new frangipani lei and where everyone was kind. When it had rained so long in Los Angeles that she no longer felt like getting dressed in the morning, she was rewarded with a trip to Guaymas, Sonora, where it was sunny and where she spent a lot of time lying in hammocks and where, she reports, “my husband caught eight sharks, and I read an oceanography textbook, and we did not talk much.” Isn’t this every woman’s dream of marriage—where our sulks will be rewarded with trips to better climates, where our husbands will catch sharks and leave us alone to read books about deep water until it’s time for drinks?

Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore. Where was the Didion who was a Goldwater girl and a Nixon voter, the Republican at Berkeley, the woman who didn’t care at all about the prevailing literary and political fashions, who went to the supermarket in an old bikini and boarded first-class compartments of international flights in bare feet, and who therefore—because she thought about things always on her own terms—could see things in front of us that we’d been missing all along? How could someone that original turn into another tired espouser of the most doctrinaire New York Review of Books political opinions? How could the woman who crafted sentences so original they made us fall in love with her have turned out decades of prose about which Katie Roiphe can rightly say, “Her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés because we know them so well”? It’s because she got old.

Blue nights, which has about it the feel of a valedictory, a sign-off, is about getting old. It’s about the physical indignities that go along with aging, which—in Didion’s case—include being unable to wear her favorite red suede sandals with the four-inch heels, contracting shingles, spending too many hours in the waiting rooms of too many specialists, having friends recommend that she have someone come to live with her.

The book has a second subject: the death of her only child, Quintana, at age 39. That this event should coexist with—should be described in the same tone as—the bummer about the red suede sandals, that this event should not even get top billing in the title, hints at the fact that Joan Didion may have been quite right when she suggested to Lynn Nesbit that they send the advance back to Sonny Mehta and shelve the project. The thing isn’t quite cooked.

Quintana’s parents wrote her into existence in myriad places, and always managed to present themselves as the parents of the century, but off the page she was a deeply troubled person, whose demons ranged from a chronic overuse of alcohol to a variety of mental illnesses, including manic depression. In other words, she should have fit right in, but she didn’t fit right in, because the Didion-Dunnes had one of those insular, deeply interdependent, and mutually reinforcing marriages that children have an impossible time breaking into.

Didion reports that the central demon of Quintana’s life was a fear of abandonment. “How,” she writes plaintively, “could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?” A cursory reading of the Didion-Dunne canon provides a partial answer. In The White Album, Didion saw fit to quote liberally from her own psychiatric evaluation (as an outpatient she was treated over a lengthy period). The diagnosis included that she had emotionally “alienated herself almost entirely from the world of other human beings.” In thrall to “an underlying psychotic process,” her contact with reality was “obviously and seriously impaired.” This period lasted from 1966 to 1971, a fact that takes on a different complexion when you realize that Quintana was born and adopted in 1966.

Both of Quintana’s parents worked constantly, left her alone with a variety of sitters—two teenage boys who happened to live next door, a woman who “saw death” in Joan Didion’s aura, whatever hotel sitter was on duty—and they left her alone in Los Angeles many, many times when they were working. The Christmas Quintana was 3, Didion planned to make crèches and pomegranate jelly with her, but then got a picture in New York and decided she’d rather do that, leaving her child home. (She was there because the movie was “precisely what I want to be doing,” Didion wrote defiantly, although she admitted that it was difficult for her to look into the windows of FAO Schwarz.) She balanced ill health and short deadlines by drinking gin and hot water to blunt the pain and taking Dexedrine to blunt the gin, which makes for some ravishing reading, but is hardly a prescription for attentive parenting. Where was Quintana when Didion was living at the Faculty Club, or finishing her novels at her parents’ house, or bunking down in the Haight? Not with her mother.

John Gregory Dunne was a brilliant writer and a bully, a prince and an angry guy, a besotted father and a bad drunk who could throw Quintana’s essays out the car window on the way to school if he found out she hadn’t had one of her parents “proof” them. He was the kind of man who kicked down doors during marital quarrels and could have a bad fight with his wife and then blame it on his very young daughter; at one point he left the two of them and moved into a bachelor pad in Vegas for a year and a half. (“How could she have ever imagined that we could abandon her?”) He wrote that one of his last acts before leaving them was visiting a doctor to have his sperm examined, to learn “if there was any medical reason why I had been unable to conceive a child.” He didn’t want to conceive a child, of course—his adopted one, he wrote, was fantastic. Thanks, Dad.

In Blue Nights, Didion reports that at the age of 5, Quintana called a mental hospital and asked what to do if she was going crazy. At “five or six” she called Twentieth Century Fox to find out how to become a movie star. These strange events (which are easy to imagine a child reporting to her parents, much more difficult to imagine her actually doing) are, suggests Didion, evidence of Quintana’s “depths and shallows, quicksilver changes.” Or perhaps they are evidence of a child desperate to get her parents’ attention and keenly aware that crazy people and movie stars were the only ones who reliably commanded it. Ordinary little girls didn’t have much luck.

Enough of all that! It was a Hollywood childhood of the ’60s/’70s variety, and it was the usual mess. The survivors are all over Los Angeles; I run into them all the time, and there’s hardly a one of them who didn’t get badly into drugs or cults or booze or some damn thing. Let us close the curtains—frayed silk or appliquéd muslin or paper flowered or un-weighted yellow, take your pick—on that sorry scene. I never wanted to tell you about all of that.

I just wanted to tell you about the young woman who came to dinner at my house so long ago. Almost everyone else from that dinner party is dead—my parents are dead, and Mark Schorer is dead. Jim Hart, her other great champion in the department, is dead. Who can blame those two old teachers for wanting to bring their bright-eyed girl back to Berkeley, who can blame them for wanting to keep her forever in Wheeler Hall with the transom windows and the parquet floors and the Beaux Arts balconies and the perfect bay views? They had a fondness for her that was the old man’s fondness for a very young woman he has helped along the way, something far past lust, something that was instead the deepest kind of affection. Who can blame them for not wanting to let her go, once they finally had her back?

But she belonged to all of us, to her girl readers, and we wanted her back in the airport, with the rental car turned in, and the mohair throw over her lap, and the portable typewriter propped up on the chair so she could type the day’s notes. We wanted her on the floor of the studio watching the Doors wait around for Jim Morrison to show up, and we wanted her on the set of John Wayne’s latest picture. We wanted her to stay on the road forever.

In Where I Was From, Didion describes flying across the country—already an old woman—to attend to the death of her mother, age 90. “Who will look out for me now?” she asks the reader. “Who will remember me as I was?”

I don’t know the answer to the first question, although some very famous names come to mind. But I know for certain the answer to the second: All of us. Always.

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land.
Jump to comments
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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Wild Vacation in the Pacific Northwest

A not-so-ordinary road trip, featuring extra-tall art bikes, skateboards, and hand-painted vans


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In