Joan Didion’s Magic Trick

What was it that gave her such power?

Illustration of Joan Didion standing on a beach with several large houses on the cliffs behind her
Illustration by Wayde McIntosh

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“Think of this as a travel piece,” she might have written. “Imagine it in Sunset magazine: ‘Five Great California Stops Along the Joan Didion Trail.’ ”

Or think of this as what it really is: a road trip of magical thinking.

I had known that Didion’s Parkinson’s was advancing; seven or eight months earlier, someone had told me that she was vanishing; someone else had told me that for the past two years, she hadn’t been able to speak.

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I didn’t want her to die. My sense of myself is in many ways wrapped up in the 40 essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Democracy.

“Call me the author,” she writes in that novel. “Let the reader be introduced to Joan Didion.”

There are people who admire Joan Didion, and people who enjoy reading Joan Didion, and people who think Joan Didion is overrated. But then there are the rest of us. People who can’t really explain how those first two collections hit us, or why we can never let them go.

I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1975, the year I was 14. I had met Didion that spring, although she wasn’t famous yet, outside of certain small but powerful circles. She’d been a visiting professor in the Berkeley English department, and my father was the department chair. But I didn’t read her until that summer. I was in Ireland, as I always was in the summer, and I was bored out of my mind, as I always was in the summer, and I happened to see a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem in a Dublin living room. I read that book and something changed inside me, and it has stayed that way for the rest of my life.

Over the previous two years people kept contacting me with reports of her decline. I didn’t want to hear reports of her decline. I wanted to hear about the high-ceilinged rooms of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, and about all the people who came to parties at her house on Franklin Avenue. I wanted to go with her to pick out a dress for Linda Kasabian, the Manson girl who drove the getaway car the night of the murders. I wanted to spend my days in the house out in Malibu, where the fever broke.

In 1969, Didion wanted to go to Vietnam, but her editor told her that “the guys are going out,” and she didn’t get to go. When her husband had been at Time and asked to go, he was sent at once, and he later wrote about spending five weeks in the whorehouses of Saigon.

Being denied the trip to Vietnam is the only instance I know of that her work was limited by her gender. She fought against the strictures of the time—and the ridiculous fact of being from California, which in the 1950s was like being from Mars, but with surfboards.

black and white family photo of Joan Didion on a deck at home, smoking and looking at her husband and Quintana Roo
Joan Didion on the deck of her Malibu home in 1976 (John Bryson / Getty)

She fought all of that not by changing herself, or by developing some ball-breaking personality. She did it by staying exactly as she was—unsentimental, strong, deeply feminine, and a bit of a seductress—and writing sentence after sentence that cut the great men of New Journalism off at the knees. Those sentences, those first two collections—who could ever compete with them?

Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album created a new vocabulary of essay writing, one whose influence is on display every day of the week in the tide of personal essays published online by young writers. Those collections changed the way many people thought about nonfiction, and even the way they thought about themselves.

A thousand critics have addressed the worthy task of locating the errors of logic in those essays and calling out the various engines that turn the wheels: narcissism, whiteness, wealth. Frustrated by the entire cult of Didion, they’ve tried to crash it down by making a reasonable case against its foundational texts. God knows, none of that is heavy lifting. Joan Didion: guilty as charged.

But what no one has ever located is what makes so many people feel possessive not just of the stories, but also of their connection to the writer. What is it about these essays that takes so many people hostage?

At a certain point in her decline, I was gingerly asked if I would write an obituary. No, I would not. I was not on that particular train. I was on the train of trying to keep her alive.

I wanted to feel close to her—not to the mega-celebrity, very rich, New York Joan Didion. I wanted to feel close to the girl who came from Nowhere, California (have you ever been to Sacramento?), and blasted herself into the center of everything. I wanted to feel close to the young woman who’d gone to Berkeley, and studied with professors I knew, and relied on them—as I had once relied on them—to show her a path.

The thing to do was get in the car and drive. I would go and find her in the places where she’d lived.

Sacramento

The trip began in my own house in Los Angeles, with me doing something that had never occurred to me before: I Googled the phrase Joan Didion’s house Sacramento. Even as I did, I felt that it was a mistake, that something as solid and irrefutable as a particular house on a particular street might put a rent in what she would have called “the enchantment under which I’ve lived my life.” What if it was the wrong kind of house? Too late: A color photograph was already blooming on the screen.

2000 22nd Street is a 5,000-square-foot home in a prosperous neighborhood with a wraparound porch and two staircases. The Didions had moved there when Joan was in 11th grade. It was a beautiful house. But it was the wrong kind of house.

photograph of large 2-story house with porch and enormous old trees on a corner lot
Didion’s family moved to the house on 22nd Street in Sacramento when she was in 11th grade. (Carlos Chavarría for The Atlantic)

The Joan Didion of my imagination didn’t come from a wealthy family. How did I miss the fact that what her family loved to talk about most was property—specifically, “land, price per acre and C-2 zoning and assessments and freeway access”? Why didn’t I understand the implications of her coming across an aerial photograph of some land her father had once thought of turning into a shopping mall, or of the remark “Later I drive with my father to a ranch he has in the foothills” to talk with “the man who runs his cattle”?

Perhaps because they came after this beautiful line:

When we talk about sale-leasebacks and right-of-way condemnations we are talking in code about things we like best, the yellow fields and the cottonwoods and the rivers rising and falling and the mountain roads closing when the heavy snow comes in.

On my first morning in Sacramento, there was a cold, spitting rain, and my husband drove me to the grand house on 22nd Street, where people are always dropping by asking to look at “Joan Didion’s home.” It was the largest house on the block, and it was on a corner lot. (“No magical thinking required,” the headline on Realtor.com had said when it was listed for sale in 2018.)

I stood in the rain looking up at the house, and I realized that something was wrong. She had described going home to her parents’ house to finish each of her first four novels, working in her old bedroom, which was painted carnation pink and where vines covered the window. But it was hard to imagine vines growing over the upstairs windows of this house; they would have had to climb up two very tall stories and occlude the light in the downstairs rooms as well.

Later, I spoke with one of Didion’s relatives, who explained that the family left the house on 22nd Street not long after Joan graduated from high school. The house where she finished her novels, and where she brought her daughter for her first birthday, was in the similarly expensive area of Arden Oaks, but it has been so thoroughly renovated as to be almost unrecognizable to the family members who knew it. In fact, the Didions had owned a series of Sacramento houses. But myths take hold in a powerful and permanent way, and the big house on 22nd Street is the one readers want to see.

The neighborhood was very pretty, and the gardens were well tended. But Joan Didion wasn’t there.

In some ways, Sacramento seemed to me like a Joan Didion theme park. In less time than it takes to walk from Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to the Pirates of the Caribbean, you could get from the Didions’ house on 22nd Street to a house they had lived in earlier, on U Street.

We drove around looking at places that I had read about almost all my life. Nothing seemed real, and there was almost no sign that Joan Didion had grown up there. If I lived in Sacramento, I would rename the capitol building for her. I would turn a park into the Joan Didion Garden, with wide pathways covered in pea gravel, as in the Tuileries.

I never imagined that I would see the two governor’s mansions she describes in “Many Mansions.” The essay contrasts the old governor’s mansion—a “large white Victorian gothic”—with the new, 12,000-square-foot one that was to be the Reagans’ home, but that was left unfinished after his second term. During this period she loathed the Reagans, but not for political reasons. She hated their taste.

The size of the house was an affront to Didion, as was the fact that it had “no clear view of the river.” But above all, she hated the features built into the mansion, things representative of the new, easy “California living” she abhorred. The house had a wet bar in the formal living room, a “refreshment center” in the “recreation room,” only enough bookcases “for a set of the World Book and some Books of the Month,” and one of those kitchens that seems designed exclusively for microwaving and trash compacting.

She didn’t just hate the house; she feared it: “I have seldom seen a house so evocative of the unspeakable,” she wrote. (This is why some people hate Joan Didion, and I get it. I get it.)

Then there’s the old mansion, which she used to visit “once in a while” during the term of Governor Earl Warren, because she was friends with his daughter Nina. “The old Governor’s Mansion was at that time my favorite house in the world,” she wrote, “and probably still is.”

In the essay, she describes taking a public tour of the old mansion, which was filled with the ghosts of her own past and also the crude realities of the present. The tourists complained about “all those stairs” and “all that wasted space,” and apparently they could not imagine why a bathroom might be big enough to have a chair (“to read a story to a child in the bathtub,” of course) or why the kitchen would have a table with a marble top (to roll out pastry).

It is one of those essays where Didion instructs you on the right kind of taste to have, and I desperately wanted to agree. But in my teenage heart of hearts, I had to admit that I wanted the house with the rec room. I kept this thought to myself.

When my husband and I arrived at the old governor’s mansion, I started laughing. Nobody would want to live there, and certainly nobody in the boundless Googie, car-culture future of 1960s California. (It looked like the Psycho house, but with a fresh coat of paint.) That said, we drove over to the house that was originally built for the Reagans and that the state had since sold, and it was a grim site: It looked like the world’s largest Taco Bell.

The funny thing about all of this is that at the time Didion wrote that essay, Jerry Brown was the governor of California, and he had no intention of living in any kind of mansion. Instead he rented an apartment and slept on a mattress on the floor, sometimes with his girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt. And—like every California woman with a pulse—Didion adored him.

This is Joan Didion’s magic trick: She gets us on the side of “the past” and then reveals that she’s fully a creature of the present. The Reagans’ trash compactor is unspeakable, but Jerry Brown’s mattress is irresistible.

Before we left Sacramento we made a final stop, at C. K. McClatchy Senior High School, Didion’s alma mater. There was one thing I wanted to see: a bronze plaque set into cement at the top of a flight of stairs. I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been jackhammered out, but there it was.

This building is dedicated
to truth liberty toleration
by the native sons of the
golden west.

September 19, 1937

These plaques were once all over the state at different civic institutions, and especially in schools. The Native Sons of the Golden West is a still-extant fraternal organization founded to honor the pioneers and prospectors who arrived in California in the middle of the 19th century. The group’s president proclaimed in 1920 that “California was given by God to a white people.” The organization has since modernized, but you cannot look at the pioneers’ achievements without taking into account the genocide of California’s actual Native peoples. “Clearing the land” was always a settler’s first mission, and it didn’t refer to cutting down trees.

People from the East often say that Joan Didion explained California to them. Essays have described her as the state’s prophet, its bard, its chronicler. But Didion was a chronicler of white California. Her essays are preoccupied with the social distinctions among three waves of white immigration: the pioneers who arrived in the second half of the 19th century; the Okies, who came in the 1930s; and the engineers and businessmen of the postwar aerospace years, who blighted the state with their fast food and their tract housing and their cultural blank slate.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, there’s an essay called “Notes From a Native Daughter”—which is how Joan Didion saw herself. It’s generally assumed that she began to grapple with her simplistic view of California history only much later in life, in Where I Was From. But in this first collection, she’s beginning to wonder how much of her sense of California is shaped by history or legend—by stories, not necessarily accurate, that are passed down through the generations.

sepia-toned family photo of man in military uniform and woman with curled hair standing behind a young girl in dress and young boy in cuffed jeans, all squinting in bright sunlight
Didion in 1943 with her parents and younger brother, James (Courtesy of the estate of Joan Didion)

“I remember running a boxer dog of my brother’s over the same flat fields that our great-great-grandfather had found virgin and had planted,” she writes. And she describes swimming in the same rivers her family had swum in for generations: “The Sacramento, so rich with silt that we could barely see our hands a few inches beneath the surface; the American, running clean and fast with melted Sierra snow until July, when it would slow down.”

She’s writing about a feeling of deep rootedness not just to the land but to the generations of her own family who lived on it. But she already knows that it won’t last. “All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears,” she writes.

When my husband and I had arrived in town, we’d stopped for a cup of coffee at the McDonald’s at Old Auburn Road and Sunrise Boulevard. You could see how flat the terrain was and how obviously it had once been ranchland. Who had sold that beautiful land to the McDonald’s Corporation? The Didions. Then we went to a clutch of small, unlovely tract houses, and found the street sign I was looking for: Didion Court. The tract houses were there because, according to the author Michelle Chihara, Joan and her family had once again sold a parcel of land.

What happened to the yellow fields and the cottonwoods and the rivers rising and falling? None of my business, I guess.

Sacramento was a bust. I had the feeling that I could stay on the road forever and not understand Joan Didion. But as soon as we got on the freeway, it stopped raining, and after a while there were actual patches of sunshine and dry cement.

In Berkeley, things would begin to look familiar.

Berkeley

I was sitting on the floor of the “television room” in the Tri Delta sorority house on Warring Street in Berkeley. I hadn’t been in a sorority house in 40 years, but it all came back to me: the sleepy, underwater feel of the house at midday; the muffled sounds of a meal being prepared in the kitchen; the constant effort to keep a mild depression from growing; and the endless interest in candies and snacks.

The house was large and attractive, dove gray and—like all sorority houses—fortified. A gate, a locked door, a security camera, and a housemother, busy on the phone. The chapter’s president, Grace Naylor, gave me a tour and we chatted with a few girls sitting in the TV room. There was a wide staircase with a landing, perfect for making a dramatic entrance in a new dress or storming upstairs in a fit of anger. The rooms on one side looked out onto pretty Warring Street; the ones on the other side were filled with the view burned into the retinas of everyone who has ever lived in Berkeley: the beautiful campus and campanile, the flatlands, and beyond them the Golden Gate and the bay, the alluring city on the other side.

Naylor told me that until she’d gotten my email, no one had known that Joan Didion had lived in the house, although several members were fans of her writing. How could they possibly not know that, I wondered, and then was faced with the obvious answer: Didion had lived there 70 years ago.

When we sat down in the television room, I suddenly realized that I didn’t have a single question I could ask. What is it like to live in a sorority house that you recently discovered Joan Didion once lived in? I was at a loss. But Naylor was the chapter president of a top-tier sorority, and she certainly knew how to organize a house visit.

“All our old scrapbooks are in here,” she said, gesturing toward some cupboards, and I glanced at them, suddenly on high alert. Would I like to look through them to see if we could find one from Didion’s years in the house?

I thought two things simultaneously: Eureka! (which is the California state motto) and This is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me.

The scrapbooks were piled in the cupboards and weren’t necessarily in the best condition—what were the chances of finding one from 70 years ago? They were at once just some old scrapbooks of minor sociological interest, and also a slice of Didion’s life that the other vultures hadn’t yet picked over. Regarding Joan Didion, Tri Delt, I was vulture No. 1.

We started shuffling through the crumbling scrapbooks, and then suddenly the 1954 volume appeared. Because Joan Didion is cool, and because UC Berkeley is cool, many people assume she was in some way part of the revolution. But she arrived at Berkeley a decade too early.

The 1954 scrapbook was a testament to the Tri Delt house being the next right place for a rich girl from Sacramento who had gone to ballet class and Sunday school. It contained a photograph of the winners of a father/daughter look-alike contest, and a press clipping describing “one of the Gayest Parties for the young set,” which had taken place “in the Pebble Beach home of Dr. and Mrs. A. Carol McKenny.” It also contained so many engagement announcements that marriage seemed to be not just one tacit aim of ballet class, Sunday school, and Tri Delt but the entire point.

Toward the end of the scrapbook and with the vague suggestion that even our tiny, troubled Joan Didion had something of her own to look forward to: a Daily Cal clipping announcing that two Berkeley undergrads were headed to New York to take part in the Mademoiselle magazine program. Didion’s selection for the program revealed, if nothing else, that the people who chose the winners had an uncanny ability to spot early talent, all the way from Sylvia Plath in the ’50s to Mona Simpson in the late ’70s. The famous era was the 1950s. Girls from around the country were brought to the city of dreams, housed in the Barbizon Hotel, taught about layouts and martinis, and—should the worst happen—given the names of certain Park Avenue doctors.

Didion’s editorship took place between her junior and senior years of college; when she returned to Berkeley, she moved out of the Tri Delt house and into an apartment. I didn’t have much hope for the little brown-shingled apartment building she had lived in after the Tri Delt house. The house on 22nd Street in Sacramento had been interesting, but cold. The sorority house had presented me with a historically accurate picture, but a remote one.

Yet I pulled open the wooden gate of 2520 Ridge Road and stepped into a little garden that was shaded and filled with dark-green plants—and just like that, her living ghost rushed past me. She lingered for a few moments, and then she left, stepping into the vivid past, wearing her dirty raincoat and heading to the seminar that most freighted and engaged her: the writing class of the great Mark Schorer, whom I knew very well when I was growing up. He was a very kind person and also a peerless literary critic, and he found in Didion’s early work evidence not just of a great writer. “One thinks of the great performers—in ballet, opera, circuses,” he said. “Miss Didion, it seems to me, is blessed with everything.”

And then Berkeley was over, and she headed back to New York because she had won the really big prize in the world of women’s magazines: the Prix de Paris at Vogue, which led to a job at the magazine. This was a marker of being the right kind of young woman—of having the right family, or the right schools, or the right wardrobe—in New York in the glamorous 1950s.

It had begun.

Joan Didion’s greatest essay is “Goodbye to All That.” It’s about the excitement and intoxication of being young in New York, from the moment she got off the plane “and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact it never was.”

She had “come out of the West and reached the mirage,” and the epigraph to the essay is part of an old nursery rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten—
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.

For years it was known as the greatest leaving–New York essay of all time. It’s about the revolving door, the way you can arrive there young, innocent, and new, but the very process of adapting to the city will coarsen and age you.

In 1996, a writer for New York magazine revealed something that had been carefully protected from the press, and that gives the essay a completely different meaning: What’s tearing her apart is a love affair that has ended. With that reading, you understand the essay’s insistently romantic tones: She can no longer bear to look at blue-and-white-striped sheets, to smell certain perfumes or Henri Bendel jasmine soap. “I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other,” she wrote.

Soon after coming to the city, she had fallen for a figure on the New York literary scene, Noel Parmentel, a southerner who attended several parties a night, where he was famous for getting drunk, insulting hostesses and guests, and letting loose with ethnic slurs. The heart wants what it wants.

In 2014, Parmentel agreed to be interviewed about the relationship by Tracy Daugherty, who wrote the indispensable biography of Didion, The Last Love Song. “She was better than all of them,” Parmentel said of the Vogue editors. “Far above those people in every way.” A lot of her colleagues at Vogue were jealous of her, he said: “This little nobody from Sacramento shows up in her little dresses and outshines them all. She’s smarter. Mannered. Better-bred.”

He helped her sell her first novel, which was in part dedicated to him, and which has an epigraph from the Robert Lowell poem “Man and Wife.” He would call her service and leave long messages; he would insult her, forget about her, reappear—but he wouldn’t marry her.

“This is the guy you ought to marry,” he famously told her about his mentee John Gregory Dunne. And—after visiting Dunne’s family home and noting the orderliness of its routines and the impeccable way that his mother kept house—she did.

The marriage “was a very good thing to do but badly timed,” Didion wrote. She was emotionally devastated, she didn’t know what to do with herself, and one night she and John ended up getting ferociously drunk at a party. They went to a diner for breakfast, and she cried. Later that day, he called her from his office at Time and asked her, “Do you mind if I quit?” She said no, and soon they were in California for a six-month trial that lasted 24 years.

image of a contact sheet of black and white photos of Didion with a Corvette, with two photos outlined in red grease pencil
Didion in Los Angeles in 1968 (Julian Wasser)

Franklin Avenue

How many miles to Babylon? One and a half, as it turned out, but I didn’t know it yet.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 with a new job, a first husband, my Joan Didion books, and the gray-and-pink jersey dress I’d worn to my rehearsal dinner. Every day I drove through Hollywood on my way to the Valley, and I’d cross Franklin and think to myself, That must be the same Franklin Avenue that Joan Didion lived on.

I never went looking for the house, because Didion had explained in The White Album that it had been slated for demolition: “The owners were only waiting for a zoning change to tear the house down and build a high-rise apartment building.”

Once, it had been the most happening place in a certain world, the absolute crossroads of thrilling, louche Hollywood and the crackling world of ideas that were pouring in from the East.

Franklin Avenue Joan Didion is the one we all fell in love with. In that house she became the woman who walked barefoot on hardwood floors and onto airplanes, and went to the supermarket wearing a bikini. She’s the reason so many readers misunderstood the obvious fact of her conservatism—because she was cool. (How conservative? Throughout the ’60s she was famous for telling Hollywood friends that if she could she would vote for Barry Goldwater over and over again.)

She’s the one who paid the babysitter who told her she had death in her aura, then opened the French doors and went to sleep in the dark of a “senseless-killing neighborhood.” This is the Joan Didion who invented Los Angeles in the ’60s as an expression of paranoia, danger, drugs, and the movie business. The Joan Didion who took amphetamines to work and bourbon to relax, the tiny girl who was entirely in command of the helpless ardor she inspired.

The parties. How to account for what a huge hit the couple were almost as soon as they got to Hollywood? And also, how to account for Joan Didion, one of the century’s greatest prose stylists, doing all of that cooking, while being pestered by Nora Ephron for her Mexican-chicken recipe, keeping in mind the eccentric drinks orders of various rock-and-roll people (brandy and Benedictine for Janis Joplin), and clearing the drug takers from the landing outside her daughter’s bedroom?

Those parties were something to see. But in 1979, Didion published The White Album and revealed that this period had been the hardest time in her life. In the opening pages of that collection, she reproduces part of her psychiatrist’s report, which caused a sensation; it was an advertisement for whichever idea you had of Joan Didion, either that she was bravely exposing what others might work hard to conceal, or that she was an exhibitionist.

In the report, she is said to have an “increasing inability of the ego to mediate the world of reality and to cope with normal stress,” and a “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure.” She is, the report reveals, being pushed “further into a dependent, passive withdrawal.”

Didion writes that things she had been taught all her life no longer seemed to apply, that the script for how she had been raised to lead her life was never meant to be improvised on. “It was hard to even get my attention,” she says; her mind was on other things.

It was also in this place—and in this heavy weather—that she raised her only child, Quintana, from infancy through age 5. The couple had adopted the little girl a few days after her birth at Saint John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, and she appears throughout these essays as a dream, a perfect child, almost as an abstraction. Her name alone—Quintana Roo, the name of a Mexican state—seemed to me, at 14, the perfect name for a baby: unique, mysterious, feminine. The kind of name a girl would give to a doll.

What really happened during those years? There is no reason, now, not to ask.

“We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Everyone who loves Joan Didion remembers that sentence—the shock of it, the need to race back up to the top of the essay to see if you’d missed something. “I had better tell you where I am, and why,” that essay, “In the Islands,” begins. She’s at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in a high-ceilinged room, the trade winds making the long, translucent curtains billow. She’s with her husband and 3-year-old Quintana, “blond and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei.”

But Didion hasn’t gone to Honolulu merely for the flowers or the trade winds. She is there “trying to put my life back together.”

When I first read The White Album, I was in my bedroom in my parents’ house and it was the deep middle of the night, and there it was, this flaming arrow. What could I do? Reach for my cellphone and type Did Joan Didion get divorced? There were no cellphones then. Reading, in those days, was just you and the writer, and all she had to reel you in with was a line of words. When I fell in love with Joan Didion, it was just the two of us and all of those electric sentences, and that was enough.

Everyone remembers that line about divorce, but no one seems to remember a different and perhaps more consequential line that appears later. She reports that during that week in Honolulu, husband and wife were considerate of each other, and no mention was made of “kicked-down doors, hospitalized psychotics, any chronic anxieties or packed suitcases.”

Kicked-down doors?

We all know about the famous and in many ways marvelous (in the sense of the miraculous, the supernatural) marriage of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. We know about it from The Year of Magical Thinking and from countless interviews and profiles and perhaps from personal experience. We know that their lives and writing careers were so deeply intertwined that they were rarely apart. They kept to a daily schedule that was like a dream writing life, each writing in the morning, then breaking for lunch; each returning to work until the early evening, when they had drinks and dinner together. If Joan went to get her teeth cleaned, John read the newspapers in the waiting room.

TK
Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and Quintana Roo Dunne at their Franklin Avenue home in 1968 (Julian Wasser)

Dunne was fantastic company; he loved gossip and he always had A-plus intel. Calvin Trillin wrote a novel, Floater, in which a character is based on Dunne. When they both worked at Time, Dunne was forever coming into Trillin’s office, dramatically holding up his hand, and saying, “This you will not believe.” The Didion-Dunnes’ marriage was one long conversation between two writers completely in sync about their beliefs on writing and always interested in what the other had to say.

But Dunne also had a legendary and vicious temper, and he was an incredibly mean drunk. Even his pals reported as much, because it would be impossible to assess the man without admitting to these central facts of his nature. They had read about the kicked-down doors, and many who were close to the couple had witnessed more examples of his rage.

Susanna Moore, who was the couple’s close friend and lived with them for a while on Franklin Avenue, writes in her memoir, Miss Aluminum, that there was “love between them, and respect.” But she adds that Joan “was also afraid of him, given the violence of his temper.”

Moore recounts a time when she was out to dinner with the couple, and she mentioned a bit of gossip she’d heard: There was talk in town that Jann Wenner was gay. Dunne exploded in rage, and took after her in such a manner that he had to excuse himself from the table. As he walked away, Moore started to get out of her chair. “Joan grabbed my arm and begged me to stay, making me promise that I would not leave her alone with him.”

There weren’t words in those days for how a man’s rage could shape the life of a woman who lived with him, but we have one now: abuse.

Didion never spoke openly about Dunne’s rage until near the end of her life. In 2017 her nephew, Griffin Dunne, made a documentary about his aunt, The Center Will Not Hold, which is full of photographs and family memories. As far as I know, the interviews she gave him are, poignantly, her last statements to the public.

At one point, she’s talking about marrying Dunne and the idea of falling in love, and she almost flinches. “I don’t know what falling in love means. It’s not part of my world.”

Later, she adds: “He had a temper. A horrible temper.”

What would set him off? Griffin asks.

“Everything would set him off.”

Someone recently told me that the house on Franklin was, in fact, still there—and when I thought about it, I remembered that at the very end of the street, the apartments give way to rambling 1920s houses. That’s where she lived.

I drove west on Franklin until I got to Camino Palmero, where the zoning changes. I parked down the street from the house, realizing I’d been walking right past it for 30 years. With each step closer, I felt more emotional. And there it was, in better shape than when Didion had lived in it, the cracked front path now covered in smooth pavement, the house freshly painted white, the lawn in perfect condition. It’s a healing center now, for a new-age spiritual group.

I stood looking at it as though I had found the way to Manderley, as though it were possible to take something out of the dream of reading and into the bricks and mortar of the other thing. Life. The tall French doors looked into the living room where there had been so many parties, the doors Joan had opened before going to sleep.

The house on Franklin was the only one that brought tears to my eyes. But of course they were tears for myself, not her. When she was in New York, there was a song on all the jukeboxes: “But where is the schoolgirl who used to be me?”

Gone, gone, gone.

Malibu

When Joan Didion was living in Malibu, she learned that in one of the canyons there was a nursery that grew only orchids, and she began to visit it. Even as a child she had loved greenhouses; once she was informed that the purchase of a five-cent pansy did not entitle her to “spend the day.”

The orchid nursery was owned by the Hollywood producer Arthur Freed and his brother Hugo, but it was in the care of Amado Vazquez, a gentle and courtly person, transmitting, “in his every movement, a kind of ‘different’ propriety, a correctness, a cultural reserve.” She spent hours in those greenhouses filled with “the most aqueous filtered light, the softest tropical air, the most silent clouds of flowers.” Vazquez seemed to assume she had her own reasons for being there, and he would speak only to offer her “a nut he had just cracked, or a flower cut from a plant he was pruning.”

This was before orchids were widely cloned, imported by the millions, and sold in Walmart and Trader Joe’s. This was when orchids were rare, expensive, often propagated by hand. And, as Didion eventually realized, Vazquez was “one of a handful of truly great orchid breeders in the world.”

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Quintana Roo, having tea with her stuffed animals on the terrace of her family’s home in Malibu in 1972 (Henry Clarke / Condé Nast / Shutterstock)

Didion learned how to read the labels of the hybrids he was growing, two orchids cross-pollinated and resulting—with luck, and after four years—in a new variety: Amabilis x Rimestadiana = Elisabethae. Eventually, she learned that the orchids there were worth “ten thousand to more than three-quarters of a million dollars,” and occasionally she would watch “serious men in dark suits” come to talk with Hugo, their voices hushed, “as if they had come to inspect medieval enamels, or uncut diamonds.”

The passage about the nursery comprises some of the final pages of The White Album, and I have thought about it so many times. From the tumult of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and the near divorce to the danger of living in the “senseless-killing neighborhood” in a rented house slated for destruction—after all of that, she wants us to know, she had gotten to safety.

After seven years in Malibu, and very much against her own desires, she and Dunne moved to Brentwood—carefully groomed, hugely expensive, and with easy access to the best private schools—which was the beginning of the end of my great interest in her.

But in Malibu there was the house, and the crashing ocean, and Quintana was a little girl in elementary school, whose troubles had yet to emerge. Of all the things receding from Didion, Quintana was always the most urgent. Didion wrote two novels—A Book of Common Prayer and Democracy—about a daughter leaving her mother.

A few months after Didion and her family moved away, the notorious Agoura-Malibu firestorm roared through the canyons. Birds exploded in midair; more than 200 houses were destroyed; people waited on the beach to be rescued, because nowhere else was safe.

Shortly before the fire, Amado Vazquez had saved enough money to buy out the Freed brothers, and now the greenhouses were destroyed. He and Didion stood in the ruins, almost in tears. Years of his work destroyed, a fortune in stud plants.

One winter day, my husband and I made good time up the Pacific Coast Highway to Joan’s house. It had 132 private stairs down to the beach, and a long driveway. From the street, all you could see was the house number, 33428, on a simple, weathered sign. It wasn’t the kind of sign you associate with Malibu; it was the kind you associate with Stinson Beach or any of the other Northern California beaches where underplaying your hand is the thing to do, and putting your house number on a piece of driftwood nailed to the fence is the right way to do it. The setting was perfect. But the old house that she loved so much was gone, replaced with the modern one that’s there now.

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Top: Joan Didion’s Malibu living room in 1972. Bottom: Didion with her family in Malibu in 1976. (Henry Clarke / Condé Nast / Shutterstock; John Bryson / Getty)

The Didion-Dunnes would sometimes drive over the Ventura County line to eat fried fish. We did the same, eating in the huge open-air dining room at Neptune’s Net—established in 1956—and feeling very cheerful. That’s the thing about marriage: You can go for two whole weeks thinking, That’s it, we’ve gotten to the very bottom of things to talk about, but then you go for a drive on a sunny day and there you are, same as you ever were.

I hadn’t looked up the house on Franklin Avenue, because I thought it had been destroyed, and I had never looked up Vazquez’s nursery, because how could he have ever rebuilt it? But a few days before heading up the coast, I looked up the name—Zuma Orchids—and found it, about a mile up Zuma Canyon from the beach.

When I was young, I was so troubled for so long. My mind would rage beyond my control, and many times I would think of those trembling clouds of blossoms and that soft tropical air and wish I could go there, and now here I was, driving down a canyon road, all but deserted—and there it was.

I almost wanted to turn around. I realized—perhaps the lesson of the whole excursion—that I didn’t want these places to be real, because they lived so vividly in my mind. But I stepped through the greenhouse door and landed in Oz: more color and beauty than I could take in. An extremely kind man—Oliverio Alvarado—chatted with us. He had worked with Vazquez, who had died about a decade ago, and he welcomed us to look at the flowers. There were some of the common moth orchids, but there were other orchids, some so delicate and unusual that they lifted the flowers entirely out of the realm of Walmart and Trader Joe’s and once again elevated them to something precious and rare.

My husband picked out a few plants, and I worried that they would cost $10,000, but they didn’t. They were beautiful orchids, not stud plants. At one point Alvarado asked us how we had heard of the nursery—he must have seen something of the reverence I had for the plants, my sense of wonder.

I said that I had read about the nursery in a book by Joan Didion.

“Oh yes,” he said, brightening. “Amado made a hybrid for her.”

For a moment everyone was alive—Amado and also Joan and John and Quintana. But they’re all gone, of course. The difficult husband she adored, the difficult daughter she shaped her life around, and then Joan herself.

When I looked for the Joan Didion orchid, I couldn’t find it. But then I realized that I’d been looking for the wrong name.

Phal. James McPherson x Phal. Stuartiana = Phalaenopsis Quintana Roo Dunne

“When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours,” Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.”

The only John Wayne movie I’ve ever seen all the way through is The Searchers. But when Didion walked through the front door of my parents’ house when I was 14 years old, that’s what she did for me. She was a hot stock rising and I was a young girl falling, and she broke my fall.

She was in Berkeley as a Regents’ Lecturer, and because my father was then the chair of the English department, he was sort of serving as her host. She came to our house for dinner, and she hardly said a word. But a week or so later, when my father said, “There’s something weird going on with Joan Didion and women,” that got my attention. Apparently, her office hours—usually the most monastic of an academic’s life—were being mobbed. Not just by students; by women from the Bay Area who had heard she was there and just wanted to see her. All of these women felt that Slouching Towards Bethlehem had changed them.

It wasn’t a book that was supposed to change anyone. Not only because that was by no means Joan Didion’s intent, but also because—look at the subjects. How can an essay about Alcatraz (as an attractive, mostly deserted place, not as a statement on either incarceration or the land theft perpetrated against California’s Indian tribes); an essay about a baby’s first birthday party; a forensic investigation of the marital tensions that led Lucille Miller to kill her husband—how can all of those add up to something life-changing?

Because in 1968, here was a book that said that even a troubled woman, or a heartbroken woman, or a frightened woman could be a very powerful person. In “Why I Write”—which was, in fact, the Regents’ Lecture—she famously described writing as an act of aggression, in which a writer takes control of a reader and imposes her own opinions, beliefs, and attitudes on that reader. A woman could be a hostage-taker, and what she held you hostage to were both shocking public events and some of the most interior and delicate thoughts a woman can have. This woman with the vanda orchid in her hair and her frequent states of incapacitation could put almost anyone under her power.

I had no power growing up, but I did have books and ideas, and I could be funny. I know I could have ended up being a magazine writer without ever having that chance experience. But what Joan Didion taught me was that it didn’t matter that I had such a messy, unenviable life—I could sit down, all alone, and write enough drafts to figure out what I thought about something and then punch it out into the culture.

Two years after her lecture, Mark Schorer died, and the year after that, my parents sold the house we lived in on Bret Harte Road. For reasons I don’t know, the current owner has allowed the house to return to nature. My mother’s flower beds are gone, and the lemon and lime trees, and the two glazed ceramic pots on either side of the front door that were always filled with flowers. Over the years, it’s been returning to the ground at the same rate I seem to be. When I was in Berkeley this fall, I only slowed down when I drove past it, because everyone was inside—Mark and my parents and so many of the professors who were in many ways my own professors. The only people who weren’t in there were my sister and me. The Flanagan girls—somehow the point of the whole thing.

I didn’t cry the day in December I learned Joan Didion had died, because I’d been told by so many people that it was going to happen soon. But I realized that in some part of my mind, I thought she’d pull it off, that she’d show illness and death a thing or two.

A couple of months later, during one of my endless Google searches, I came across one of those companies that track down addresses and phone numbers and public records. “We found Joan Didion!” it said, and offered to provide access to her cellphone number, address, email, and even “more!”

And for some reason, that was when I finally cut my losses.

I hadn’t gone looking for the actual Joan Didion or your Joan Didion or even “the reader’s” Joan Didion. I went looking for the Joan Didion who was partly a historical figure, and partly a great writer, and partly a fiction of my own design. And she lives right where she always has.

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten—
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again.

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “Chasing Joan Didion.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.