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Joan Didion, ‘New Journalist’ Who Explored Culture and Chaos, Dies at 87


Joan Didion, whose mordant dispatches on California tradition and the chaos of the Sixties established her as a number one exponent of the New Journalism, and whose novels “Play It as It Lays” and “The Book of Common Prayer” proclaimed the arrival of a tricky, terse, distinctive voice in American fiction, died on Thursday at her house in Manhattan. She was 87.

The trigger was Parkinson’s illness, in response to an electronic mail despatched by Paul Bogaards, an govt at Knopf, Ms. Didion’s writer.

Ms. Didion got here to prominence with a collection of incisive, looking function articles in Life journal and The Saturday Evening Post that explored the fraying edges of postwar American life. California, her native state, supplied her along with her richest materials. In sharp, understanding vignettes, she captured its harshness and sweetness, its position as a magnet for stressed settlers, its golden promise and quickly vanishing previous, and its energy as a cultural laboratory.

“We believed in fresh starts,” she wrote in “Where I Was From” (2003), a psychic portrait of the state. “We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode.”

In two early groundbreaking essay collections, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979) she turned her cool, apprehensive gaze on the hippies of Haight-Ashbury, on eccentrics and searchers like Bishop James Pike and Howard Hughes, on the movie business within the post-studio period, and on the death-tinged music of the Doors.

Ms. Didion’s reporting mirrored Norman Mailer’s prescription for “enormously personalized journalism in which the character of the narrator was one of the elements in the way the reader would finally assess the experience.”

Her attraction to bother spots, disintegrating personalities and incipient chaos got here naturally. In the title essay from “The White Album,” she included her personal psychiatric analysis after arriving on the outpatient clinic of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica complaining of vertigo and nausea.

It learn, partially: “In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them inevitably to conflict and failure.” This description, which Ms. Didion didn’t contest, might describe the archetypal heroine of her novels.

“Her talent was for writing about the mood of the culture,” the author Katie Roiphe mentioned in an interview. “She managed to channel the spirit of the 1960s and ’70s through her own highly idiosyncratic and personal — that is, seemingly personal — writing. She was perfectly matched to the times, with her slightly paranoid, slightly hysterical, high-strung sensibility. It was a perfect conjunction of the writer with the moment.”

Ms. Didion later turned to political reporting, submitting lengthy essays for The New York Review of Books on the civil conflict in El Salvador and Cuban émigré tradition in Miami; they had been revealed in e book type as “Salvador” and “Miami.”

“She was fearless, original and a marvelous observer,” Robert B. Silvers, who was the editor of The New York Review of Books, which started publishing Ms. Didion’s work within the early Seventies, mentioned in an interview for this obituary in 2009. “She was very skeptical of the conventional view and brilliant at finding the person or situation that was telling about the broader picture. She was a great reporter.”

Joan Didion was born on Dec. 5, 1934, in Sacramento to Frank and Eduene (Jerrett) Didion. She was a fifth-generation Californian descended from settlers who left the ill-fated Donner occasion in 1846 and took the safer route. Her father was a finance officer with the Army, her mom a homemaker, and through World War II the household moved from one posting to the subsequent earlier than returning to Sacramento after the conflict.

As a teen, Ms. Didion typed out chapters from Hemingway novels to see how they labored. She was deeply influenced by Hemingway’s dealing with of dialogue and silence. Joseph Conrad was one other formative affect.

In her junior yr on the University of California, Berkeley, the place she earned a bachelor’s diploma in English in 1956, Ms. Didion submitted an early draft of a brief story to Mademoiselle and gained a spot as visitor fiction editor for the journal. The following yr she gained an essay contest sponsored by Vogue. Turning down a visit to Paris, the highest prize, she went straight to work on the journal, the place her prose underwent a rigorous if idiosyncratic education as she superior from writing promotional copy to turning into an affiliate options editor. “In an eight-line caption everything had to work, every word, every comma,” she later mentioned.

By the early Sixties Ms. Didion was writing for Vogue, Mademoiselle and National Review, typically on subjects like “Jealousy: Is It a Curable Illness?” At the identical time, she revealed a well-received first novel, “Run, River” (1963), in regards to the unraveling of a Sacramento household. Although not as lean as her subsequent fiction, it launched the preoccupations that ruled her later novels — violence, dread, the sickening sense that the world was spinning uncontrolled — and acquainted readers with “the Didion woman,” described by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times Magazine because the forlorn resident of “a clearly personal wasteland, wandering along highways or through countries in an effort to blot out the pain of consciousness.”

In 1964, she married John Gregory Dunne, a author at Time with whom she had been buddies for a number of years. They moved to California and began writing screenplays. They additionally adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, taking her title from the Mexican state, which they’d chanced upon whereas a map.

In time they turned a bicoastal glamour couple, with one foot in Hollywood and the opposite in Manhattan’s literary salons. Mr. Dunne died of a coronary heart assault at 71 in 2003. Two years later, Quintana Roo Dunne died of pancreatitis and septic shock at 39. Ms. Didion wrote about her husband’s loss of life and her daughter’s sickness in “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), which gained the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction and was tailored for the Broadway stage in 2007 in a one-woman manufacturing starring Vanessa Redgrave. Ms. Didion took up the topic of her daughter’s loss of life in her 2011 memoir, “Blue Nights.”

Ms. Didion constructed a tripartite profession dedicated to reporting, screenwriting and fiction. Reporting, she as soon as mentioned, compelled her into different folks’s lives and allowed her to gather the knowledge and impressions that fed her fiction. “Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me,” she instructed The Paris Review in 2006. Screenwriting, against this, provided a diversion, like working a crossword puzzle. She was unusually profitable in any respect three.

In 1970, she and her husband, after optioning a narrative about drug addicts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, wrote the screenplay for “Panic in Needle Park,” a movie that gave Al Pacino his first starring position. Their second screenplay was an adaptation of Ms. Didion’s second novel, “Play It as It Lays” (1970), the elliptical story of a younger actress who compulsively drives the California freeways to overlook her failed marriage, an abortion and her daughter’s psychological sickness. The movie model, launched in 1972, starred Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins.

With their third screenplay, Ms. Didion and her husband struck gold. With James Taylor and Carly Simon in thoughts for the lead roles, they rewrote “A Star Is Born” to deliver it into the rock ’n’ roll period. With Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson starring, the movie turned a giant box-office success and paid its screenwriters handsomely.

The couple later collaborated on “True Confessions,” the movie model of Mr. Dunne’s 1977 novel, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall, and “Up Close and Personal” (1996), a television-news drama with Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In her third novel, “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977), Ms. Didion positioned her heroine, the dreamy, broken Charlotte Douglas, in a fictional Central American nation torn by revolutionary politics. This broader canvas prefigured a collection of lengthy, probing articles on political topics, typically written for The New York Review of Books. A visit to El Salvador, then within the throes of a civil conflict, yielded the fabric for the extremely impressionistic “Salvador” (1983), a journey into darkness suggestive of V.S. Naipaul.

The intricacies of Cuban-American politics had been the topic of “Miami” (1987), one other prolonged foray into private journalism, which some critics started to seek out wearying. Everywhere Ms. Didion went, it appeared, she discovered the an identical set of circumstances: looming chaos, an environment saturated with dread and absurdities described by unwitting members in clichéd language indicated by citation marks.

“She always seems to be writing on the brink of a catastrophe so awful that her only available response is to withdraw into a kind of autism,” Adam Kirsch wrote in The New York Sun in 2006. (“I have a theatrical temperament,” Ms. Didion as soon as instructed an interviewer.)

In 2015, St. Martin’s Press revealed “The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion,” by Tracy Daugherty. Two years later, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” a documentary movie produced and directed by Griffin Dunne, the son of her brother-in-law, the journalist Dominick Dunne was proven on Netflix.

She left no rapid survivors.

In her later years, Ms. Didion deserted conventional reporting and wrote a type of cultural criticism that targeted on how the press and tv interpreted sure occasions, together with presidential elections and the beating and rape of a jogger in Central Park in 1989.

Several of those essays had been included within the collections “After Henry” (1992) and “Political Fictions” (2001), which targeted on the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton. In 2006, Everyman editions revealed “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction.” In “South and West: From a Notebook,” revealed in 2017, Ms. Didion reached again to the Seventies and retrieved her impressions of the Deep South, the place she and her husband had traveled on project for Life journal, and additional reflections on California.

The voice remained the identical: robust, understanding, at occasions cynical. Despite her deceptively frail look, she maintained the stance of a frontierswoman formed by the intense circumstances of her native state. She put it succinctly in “Where I Was From”:

“You were meant, if you were a Californian, to know how to lash together a corral with bark, you were meant to show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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