How Joan Didion the Writer Became Joan Didion the Legend

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne at work in Trancas, California, in 1972.BY HENRY CLARKE/THE CONDÉ NAST ARCHIVE.

Here is a brief excerpt from a classic article written by for Vanity Fair. As you may already know, Joan Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. After graduation, Didion moved to New York and began working for Vogue, which led to her career as a journalist and writer. Didion published her first novel, Run River, in 1963. Didion’s other novels include A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). Didion said of her writing: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” She died in December 2021.

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Joan Didion arrived in Los Angeles in 1964 on the way to becoming one of the most important writers of her generation, a cultural icon who changed L.A.’s perception of itself. Lili Anolik mines the author’s early years to examine Didion before all that.
In a 1969 column for Life, her first for the magazine, Joan Didion let drop that she and husband, John Gregory Dunne, were at the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Honolulu “in lieu of filing for divorce,” surely the most famous subordinate clause in the history of New Journalism, an insubordinate clause if ever there was one. The poise of it, the violence, the cool-bitch chic—a writer who could be the heroine of a Godard movie!—takes the breath away, even after all these years. Didion goes on: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting.” I suppose I’m operating under a similar set of impulses—a mixture of candor, self-justification and self-dramatization, the dread of being misapprehended coupled with the certainty that misapprehension is inevitable (Didion’s style is catching, but not so much as her habit of thought)—when I tell you I’m scared of her.

Before I get into why, I need to clarify something I said. Or, rather, something I didn’t say and won’t say, but which I’m anxious you’re going to think I said: that Didion isn’t a brilliant writer. She is a brilliant writer—sentence for sentence, among the best this country’s ever produced. And I’m not disputing her status as cultural icon either. As large as she looms now, she’ll loom larger as time passes—I’d bet money on it. In fact, I don’t want to diminish or assault her in any way. What I do want to do is get her right. And over the past 11 years, since 2005, when she published the first of her two loss memoirs, one about Dunne, the other about Quintana, her daughter, she’s been gotten wrong. And not just wrong, egregiously wrong, wrong to the point of blasphemy. I’m talking about the canonization of Didion, Didion as St. Joan, Didion as Our Mother of Sorrows. Didion is not, let me repeat, not a holy figure, nor is she a maternal one. She’s cool-eyed and cold-blooded, and that coolness and coldness—chilling, of course, but also bracing—is the source of her fascination as much as her artistry is; the source of her glamour too, and her seductiveness, because she is seductive, deeply. What she is is a femme fatale, and irresistible. She’s our kiss of death, yet we open our mouths, kiss back.

The subject of this piece, though, is not just a who, Didion, but a what, Hollywood. So to bring them together, which is where they belong, a natural pairing, this: I think that Didion, along with Andy Warhol, her spiritual twin as well as her artistic, created L.A.—that is, modern L.A., contemporary L.A., the L.A. that is synonymous with Hollywood. And I think that Didion alone was the vehicle—or possibly the agent—of L.A.’s destruction. I think that for the city of Los Angeles, Didion is the Ángel de la Muerte.

There. I said it. Now you know why I’m scared. Who wants to get on the Ángel de la Muerte’s bad side? Not that I believe I’m going to. Because I have one last thing to add, and I don’t care how weird and screw-loose it sounds: I think she wanted me to say it.

An Ingénue, Disingenuous

The Joan Didion who moved from New York to L.A. in June of 1964 was no more Joan Didion than Norma Jeane Baker was Marilyn Monroe, or Marion Morrison was John Wayne, or, for that matter, Andrew Warhola was Andy Warhol. She was a native daughter, but only sort of. The California she grew up in—the Sacramento Valley—was closer in spirit to the Old West than to the sun-kissed, pleasure-mad movie colony. Just shy of 30, she’d recently married Dunne. Both had been working as journalists, she for Vogue, he for Time. Her first book, a novel, the traditional if not quite conventional Run River, had been published the year before. Critics hadn’t taken much notice; neither had readers. Hurt, likely a little angry too, she was ready for a new scene. Dunne was equally itchy to blow town. Plus, he had a brother in the industry, Dominick—Nick.

In his memoir Popism, Warhol wrote, “The Hollywood we were driving to that fall of ‘63 was in limbo. The Old Hollywood was finished and the New Hollywood hadn’t started yet.” Old Hollywood, of course, didn’t know it was finished. Was carrying on like it was show business as usual. And it still hadn’t wised up the following spring when the Didion-Dunnes arrived.

Nick, young though he was, was Old Hollywood. Professionally he hadn’t made it: a second-rate producer in a second-rate medium, TV. But socially he’d hit the heights. He and wife Lenny threw lavish, stylish parties, and lots of them. A month before the Didion-Dunnes showed, they’d thrown their most lavish and stylish, a black-and-white ball inspired by the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. (That the ball—a ball!—wasn’t in color is a detail almost too on the nose. Soon the whole town would turn psychedelic, and such evenings would seem so old-fashioned as to have been in black and white even if they weren’t.) Among the splendidly monochromatic: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, David Selznick and Jennifer Jones, Billy Wilder, Loretta Young, Natalie Wood. Also present, Truman Capote, who, in a gesture either of rip-off or homage, would stage his own black-and-white ball in New York. Nick’s invitation would get lost in the mail.

In later years, Didion and Dunne would play a double game with Hollywood: they were participants who were also onlookers; supported by the industry but not owned by it; in the thick of it and above the fray. They seemed much less ambivalent in their early years. In their early years, they wanted in. A line invoked by both so often you know they must have believed it gospel is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: “We don’t go for strangers in Hollywood.” How lucky for them then that they were the brother and sister-in-law of Nick, and thus part of the Hollywood family, if poor relations. And, as poor relations, they were given castoffs: clothes, Natalie Wood’s (for Didion); houses, too. They rented Sara Mankiewicz’s, fully furnished, though Mankiewicz did pack up the Oscar won by her late husband, Herman, for writing Citizen Kane.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Lily Anolik Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a writer at large for Air Mail. Her work has also appeared in Harper’s, Esquire, and The Paris Review, among other publications. Her latest book, the Los Angeles Times bestseller, Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A., was published by Scribner in 2019. Her latest podcast, Once Upon a Time… at Bennington College, dropped in 2021.

To learn more about Joan Didion‘s life and work, please click here.

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