The leg­endary Amer­i­can writer, one of the only women to make it in the world of ‘New Jour­nal­ism’, is the sub­ject of a new Net­flix doc­u­men­tary. SIOBHÁN BRETT re­flects on Did­ion’s stel­lar ca­reer which spanned po­lit­i­cal scan­dals and her own med­i­ta­tions on gr

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

In 2014, I con­trib­uted to a fundraiser for a doc­u­men­tary about the life of Amer­i­can writer Joan Did­ion. For $50 I re­ceived, as a “re­ward”, a PDF of Did­ion’s favourite recipes (gumbo, corn souf­flé, etc). A to­tal of 3,565 peo­ple chipped in $221,135 in the space of a month.

The big­ger the do­na­tion, the big­ger the re­ward. Some peo­ple gave sums that en­ti­tled them to lim­ited edi­tion T-shirts (also for $50), oth­ers to signed copies of Did­ion’s Proust Ques­tion­naire for Van­ity Fair ($100).

If you parted with $350 — and 18 peo­ple did — Did­ion’s fam­ily un­der­took to read her a two-page let­ter from you. Two back­ers re­ceived old pairs of her sun­glasses ($2,500). “Your op­por­tu­nity to see the world as Joan,” the web­site sug­gested.

Three years on, Joan Did­ion: The Cen­ter Will Not Hold is about to be re­leased on Net­flix. Did­ion is one of the world’s most cel­e­brated liv­ing writ­ers of jour­nal­ism, nov­els and screen­plays. In re­cent years, as demon­strated by the Kick­starter cam­paign, Did­ion adu­la­tion has crossed into pop cul­ture.

So much so, that in 2015 New York Magazine pub­lished gal­leries ded­i­cated only to Did­ion’s hair clips. That same year, she briefly be­came the face of French fash­ion house Cé­line and her “what-to-pack” for last-minute as­sign­ments (spar­tan — but for in­sis­tence on bour­bon, cig­a­rettes and a robe) has reached some­thing ap­proach­ing cult sta­tus on­line. Now pho­to­graphs of a young Did­ion lean­ing on her Corvette in a bias-cut dress flood blogs.

I at­tended a press screen­ing of the doc­u­men­tary in Man­hat­tan last month. As the film opens, Did­ion, now 82, is pic­tured bal­anc­ing on a couch in her apart­ment, the barest skim of lip­stick vis­i­ble over her teeth. She is bird-sized, al­most im­pos­si­bly light, with sinewy arms and hands. Through­out, she wears an ar­ray of fine knits and tor­toise­shell glasses. The face of a watch ob­scures her fore­arm.

Ini­tially, the doc­u­men­tary was called We Tell Our­selves Sto­ries in Or­der to Live. The line, taken from the ti­tle es­say of Did­ion’s Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem, con­tin­ues: “See enough and write it down, I tell my­self. And then some morn­ing when the world seems strained of won­der, some day when I am only go­ing through the mo­tions of do­ing what I am sup­posed to do, which is write, on that bank­rupt morn­ing I will sim­ply open my note­book and there it will all be.”

To cam­era, Did­ion tells of writ­ing early sto­ries in a ‘Big Five’ tablets, the Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent of an Ais­ling copy­book. While she was still a teenager, her mother told her about a writ­ing con­test for stu­dents, run by Vogue, called Prix de Paris — the “prix” was a $1,000 in prize money or a week in Paris, plus con­sid­er­a­tion for en­try-level open­ings at Condé Nast ti­tles.

“You can win this,” her mother told her.

“And in my se­nior year,” Did­ion tells us, in char­ac­ter­is­tic dead­pan, “I did win it.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Berke­ley with a de­gree in English, she em­barked on her “New York years”. Did­ion was just 21. Ably and stylishly ac­cept­ing as­sign­ments flung her way at fash­ion magazine Vogue, she quickly as­cended the ranks.

It was in New York she met her hus­band, John Gre­gory Dunne, the grand­son of an Ir­ish im­mi­grant — “lace-cur­tain Ir­ish”, per the doc­u­men­tary — and a fel­low writer.

But those New York years ended in a strange fug for Did­ion who, by 28, had grown very tired of and dis­il­lu­sioned with the city. The arc of her re­la­tion­ship with it is set out in the high­est pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion in her es­say ‘Good­bye to All That’. “Ev­ery­thing that was said to me, I seemed to have heard be­fore,” she wrote.

So Did­ion quit New York. She and Dunne moved first to Por­tuguese Bend in Cal­i­for­nia in 1964, then to Hol­ly­wood, be­fore fi­nally settling in an idyl­lic coastal house with a lot of acreage in Mal­ibu.

Her first novel, Run River, was re­leased the year be­fore this fi­nal move to some­what mixed re­views.

Es­cap­ing New York: Did­ion at home in Mal­ibu in 1972.

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