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
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.