Joan Didion, author and journalist, dead at 87

Joan Didion, the revered author and essayist whose precise social and personal commentary in such classics as The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of turbulent times, has died. She was 87.

Didion’s publisher Penguin Random House announced the author’s death on Thursday. She died from complications from Parkinson’s disease, the company said.

“Didion was one of the country’s most trenchant writers and perceptive observers. Her bestselling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honours and are considered modern classics,” Penguin Random House said in a statement.

Along with Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron and Gay Talese, Didion reigned in the pantheon of “New Journalists” who emerged in the 1960s and wedded literary style to nonfiction reporting. Tiny and frail already as a young woman, with large, sad eyes often hidden behind sun glasses and a soft, deliberate style of speaking, she was a novelist, playwright and essayist who once observed that: “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”

Or, as she more famously put it: “Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Didion received a National Humanities Medal in 2012, when she was praised for devoting “her life to noticing things other people strive not to see.” For decades, she had engaged in the cool and ruthless dissection of politics and culture, from hippies to presidential campaigns to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, and became known for her distrust of official stories.

Slouching Towards BethlehemThe White Album and other books became basic collections of literary journalism, with notable writings including her takedown of Hollywood politics in Good Citizens and a predictive dissent against the consensus that in 1989 five young Black and Latino men had raped a white jogger in Central Park (the men’s convictions were later overturned and they were freed from prison).

The author on her own struggles 

Didion was equally unsparing about her own struggles. She was diagnosed in her 30s with multiple sclerosis, and around the same time suffered a breakdown and checked into a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, California, that diagnosed her worldview as “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive.”

In her 70s, she reported on personal tragedy in the heartbreaking 2005 work, The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative formed out of the chaos of grief that followed the death of her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne. It won a National Book Award, and she alternation it as a one-woman Broadway play that starred Vanessa Redgrave.

Didion, left, and actress Vanessa Redgrave take the stage during curtain call for the opening night of ‘The Year Of Magical Thinking’ in 2007 in New York City. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Dunne had collapsed in 2003 at their table and died of a heart attack already as their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, was gravely ill in hospital. The memoir was a bestseller and a near-moment standard, the kind of work people would instinctively reach for after losing a loved one.

Didion said she thought of the work as a testament of a specific time; tragically, Magical Thinking became dated shortly after it was published. Quintana Roo died during the summer of 2005 at age 39 of acute pancreatitis. Didion wrote of her daughter’s death in the 2011 publication Blue Nights.

“We have kind of evolved into a society where grieving is totally hidden. It doesn’t take place in our family. It takes place not at all,” she told The Associated Press in 2005.

Didion spent her later years in New York, but she was most strongly identified with her native state of California, “a hologram that dematerializes as I excursion by it.” It was the setting for her best-known novel, the despairing Play It As It Lays, and for many of her essays.

Didion’s subjects also included earthquakes, movie stars and Cuban exiles, but shared themes emerged: the need to impose order where order doesn’t exist, the gap between accepted wisdom and real life, and the way people deceive themselves — and others — into believing the world can be explained in a straight, narrative line.

Much of her nonfiction was collected in the 2006 book We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, named after the opening sentence of her famous title essay from The White Album, a testament to one woman’s search for the truth behind the truth.

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“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” she wrote. “We live thoroughly, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Prided herself on being an outsider

She was a lifelong explorer, writing about a trip to war-torn El Salvador in the nonfiction Salvador, and completing A Book of shared Prayer after a disastrous trip to a film festival in Colombia in the early 1970s. South and West: From a Notebook, observations made while driving around the American South, came out in 2017, the same year nephew Griffin Dunne’s documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not keep up was released. In 2019, the Library of America began compiling her work in bound volumes.

Didion seen on the cover of her biography, The Last Love Song, by Tracy Daugherty. (St. Martin’s Press)

Didion prided herself on being an outsider, more comfortable with gas stop attendants than with celebrities. But she and her husband, whose brother was the author-journalist Dominick Dunne, were well placed in high society.

In California, they socialized with Warren Beatty and Steven Spielberg among others and a young Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter on their house. They later lived in a expansive apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, knew all the right people and had a successful side career as screenwriters, collaborating on The Panic in Needle Park, a remake of A Star Is Born, and adaptations of Didion’s Play It As It Lays and John Gregory Dunne’s True Confessions.

Born in 1934 in Sacramento, California, and descended from pioneers who had travelled with the notorious Donner Party, Didion was fascinated by books from an early age. She was promoted to write by her mother, as a way of filling time, and was especially impressed by the prose of Ernest Hemingway, whose terse rhythms expected her own.

She was both shy and ambitious, inclined to solitude, but also determined to express herself by writing and public speaking. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956 and moved to New York for a job at Vogue after winning a writing contest sponsored by the magazine.

Didion married Dunne, whom she had met at a dinner party, in 1964. Two years later, they adopted a baby girl, Quintana Roo.

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