As Daugherty sees it, the marriage suffered not just from “the stresses of writing, money, lots of drinking,” but also from the disillusionment born of realizing that an egalitarian partnership is perhaps more oxymoron than attainable goal.
Though neither could imagine not being married to a writer, though they counted on each other for editorial and professional support, an edginess grew between them—not competition so much as sadness that things could not always be equal.
The marriage eventually found, if not true equality, at least its equilibrium, largely thanks, Daugherty suggests, to Dunne’s having greater standing in Hollywood when the couple’s screenwriting collaboration took off in the early 1970s.
Subsequent decades saw Didion’s fiction and nonfiction veer toward the political. She covered the American military presence in El Salvador, wrote about Cuban exiles in Miami, and published the Vietnam War–era novel Democracy. Her 17,000-word essay, published in The New York Review of Books in 1991, about the five teenagers falsely convicted in the Central Park–jogger trial represented one of the first divergences from the generally accepted theories about the case.
By then, the couple was back living in New York, where, in 2003, Dunne collapsed from a fatal heart attack in the couple’s Upper East Side apartment. Less than two years later, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis at age 39 after a series of hospitalizations and just before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s chronicle of the aftermath of Dunne’s death and her best-selling book to date. In Blue Nights, published six years later, Didion sets out to write Quintana’s elegy, but understandably and perhaps inevitably, can scarcely bring herself to the task.
Fortunately, Daugherty picks up the slack, showing impressive restraint while also doing his due diligence and asking many questions that, in Blue Nights and elsewhere, Didion leaves largely untouched. Was Quintana’s prodigious drinking (a trait she shared with her parents but may have been physically less well constituted to handle) a cause of her illness? Who exactly was Gerry Michael, the widower in his 50s whom she married in 2003, five months before she fell ill? To what degree might Quintana’s psychiatric struggles—which in Blue Nights Didion confines to phrases like suicidal despair and a flummoxing array of diagnoses (manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder)—have been connected to a childhood spent at Hollywood parties and in far-flung hotel rooms? To what degree might they have been inherited from the chaotic biological family with whom she reluctantly reconnected in 1998?
Daugherty gets only so far. “Acute pancreatitis,” he allows, is “an inflammation and infection of the pancreas usually caused in young people by prolonged drug or alcohol abuse.” Quintana met Michael, a former rock drummer, at the Mayfair, a Manhattan bar that she frequented and he tended. Daugherty cites a childhood friend of Quintana’s who “believed Quintana’s depressions and drinking were ‘probably intertwined’ with her final illnesses.” As for Quintana’s birth family, whom Didion excoriates in Blue Nights, Daugherty writes that he “felt obligated” to try to locate them “to see if their story illuminated anything about Didion.” That he could find “no legal path around” sealed adoption records in California Family Law was “bad news for my book,” he writes, “but soothing to me as a citizen.”