Joan Didion with her daughter and Abigail McCarthy, Washington, D.C., 1977 (Teresa Zabala/The New York Times/Redux)
In the spring of 2006, shortly after the publication of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Slate assembled a panel of three young critics—Meghan O’Rourke, Katie Roiphe, and Stephen Metcalf—to discuss the book in an event broadcast online from the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York. The two women were staunch Didion fans and admirers of the new book, which they thought portrayed a mesmerizing marriage that had come to a heartbreaking end. Stephen Metcalf, however, considered the book at best an artistic failure, and at worst an example of unintentional high comedy; he described its principals as having “a perfectly complementary narcissistic personality disorder that was shared beautifully between two people.”
The discussion, then, was a protracted game of Canadian doubles, although Metcalf easily got the better of his competitors, who crumbled under the nonstop assault of his blistering and often unbearably astute insights into the book (“There are some books that shouldn’t be written out of habit—the habit of writing. This was a book produced by habit,” he said).
Shaken, Roiphe defended the canon with the weirdest praise ever (admitting of her heroine that “her words are clichés—her sentences and her rhythms and her tics are clichés because we know them so well”). O’Rourke started talking gibberish, praising the book for something she called the “second iteration of the gestural,” and the entire Didion soufflé—which had been slowly collapsing for three long decades—was reduced, on the one hand, to a withering account of its biggest inadequacies, and on the other, to a collection of dubious compliments. But Roiphe tried a new tactic, and—for a brief, exciting moment—the women rallied. She challenged Metcalf to admit that there were certain Didion details so imperishable that any literary mistake she might commit was as nothing when held up against them. For example, Roiphe said, there was “the smell of jasmine—”
“—and the list she put on her suitcase before she left!,” O’Rourke interrupted happily.
Metcalf, confused both by the sudden ardor and by the two examples themselves (where had they come from?), tried to get the discussion back to the failures of The Year of Magical Thinking, but the women doubled down on their strategy, hitting him hard with Honolulu and leis, and with the ravishing sangfroid of checking into the Royal Hawaiian Hotel “in lieu of getting a divorce.”
Metcalf was thrown off his game for two reasons: First, no matter how frantically he paged through his viciously well-read copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, he would not find the jasmine or the packing list. Nor would he have found them in Where I Was From or Political Fictions or After Henry or Miami or Salvador. To find the details that these women loved so well that they remembered them verbatim, he would have had to pass over most of Joan Didion’s extensive nonfiction body of work and go back to the beginning, to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968, and to The White Album, in 1979. If you love Joan Didion so much that she fundamentally changed the way you think—and there are many who feel this way—the books that did this to you are those two and no others.
The second reason Metcalf was left flat by this line of reasoning is that he isn’t a woman, and to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female.
I once watched a hysterically sycophantic male academic ask Didion about her description of what she wore in Haight-Ashbury so that she could pass with both the straights and the freaks. “I’m not good with clothes,” he admitted, “so I don’t remember what it was.”
Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick.
Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures. Thompson’s work was illustrated by Ralph Steadman’s grotesque ink blots, and early Didion by the ravishing photographs of the mysterious girl-woman: sitting barelegged on a stone balustrade; posing behind the wheel of her yellow Corvette; wearing an elegant silk gown and staring off into space, all alone in a chic living room.
Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. “I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,” a distinctly non-adolescent female voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.
“A writer is coming to dinner next week,” my father says. “I think you will like her.”
I’m 14 years old and watching TV. “Uh-huh.”
Writers are always coming to dinner. I have no interest in them.
Before the dinner party, I swan around the kitchen while my mother cooks. It’s the beginning of the gourmet revolution. “Daddy thinks you’ll like this writer. She’s young. You should talk to her.”
“She has a daughter, too.”
I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall. My father has never set foot in the mall, and he thinks my attraction to it, and to all that it stands for, is either the kind of charming foible that younger daughters are encouraged to nurture, or else evidence of some serious deficit of intellect and taste that is going to add up to something bad in me. He seems always to be in the midst of making this decision; the result will be very important. I want to be admired by him, but even more I want to see That Darn Cat! in matinee revival at the Sunvalley Mall.
Joan Didion, the writer I was supposed to like, had arrived at Berkeley, her alma mater, to serve as a Regents’ Lecturer, which was a special month-long teaching appointment for people who worked in a field outside academia. As an undergraduate, she had been the star student of Mark Schorer—this was the way she was often referred to during that period in Berkeley: not as a writer but as “Mark’s student”—and he had helped put the appointment into motion, although her C.V., at that point, was slight: two novels and a slender collection of essays. My father was then the chairman of the Berkeley English Department, and so it was my parents’ job to host the welcome dinner.
Business as usual—until she arrived. The immediate impression she gave, patently obvious even to a 14-year-old, was one of a person in misery. I’d once seen a Korean graduate student show up for a faculty dinner party and just about implode from anxiety, but he was a Noël Coward of cocktail-party self-confidence compared with Joan Didion. In the first place—what was she wearing? A Chanel suit, my mother (at once impressed and amused) informed me the next day. It was so clearly the wrong thing to wear to a faculty dinner party in the early 1970s—where were the leotard and the skirt?—so clearly an indication that she was trying to put her best, most grown-up foot forward in the face of all these scary former professors, that it doubled the sense of her being catastrophically unsure of herself.
“She never took her purse off her lap!” my mother said afterward of that night, gobsmacked. “She took it to the dinner table!”
If you had told my mother that Didion regularly served elaborately cooked meals to 60 people at a time, on Spode china in a rambling—and very Berkeley—house in the seedy part of Hollywood, and had interviewed Jim Morrison and entertained Janis Joplin, she would have been shocked. Didion seemed like a young woman who had never been to a dinner party without her parents. She seemed like someone who owned one good thing to wear, and would bravely wear it whenever an engagement even hinted at formality.
I can tell you this for certain: anything you have ever read by Didion about the shyness that plagued her in her youth, and about her inarticulateness in those days, in the face of even the most banal questions, was not a writer’s exaggeration of a minor character trait for literary effect. The contemporary diagnosis for the young woman at our dinner table would be profound—crippling—social-anxiety disorder.
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.
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.
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