(NEW YORK) — 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. At 87, she was the last of her kind.
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 astute observers. Her best-selling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honors 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 even 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 for her distrust of official stories.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album” and other books became essential collections of literary journalism, with notable writings including her takedown of Hollywood politics in “Good Citizens” and a prophetic 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).
Didion wasn’t afraid to share her 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. The National Book Award was awarded to it, which she then adapted for Broadway. It starred Vanessa Redgrave.
Dunne died from a heart attack in 2003 after he collapsed at the table with their daughter Quintana R. Dunne Michael. It was an instant bestseller and became a standard for memoirs. This is the type of book people will instinctively seek after losing a beloved 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 was 39 when she died 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 drive through it.” It was the setting for her best known novel, the despairing “Play It As It Lays,” and for many of her essays.
“California belongs to Joan Didion,” wrote The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. “Not the California where everyone wears aviator sunglasses, owns a Jacuzzi and buys his clothes on Rodeo Drive. California, in the West. The old West where Manifest Destiny was an almost palpable notion that was somehow tied to the land and the climate and one’s own family.”
Didion’s subjects also included earthquakes, movie stars and Cuban exiles, but common themes emerged: the need to impose order where order doesn’t exist, the gap between accepted wisdom and real life, 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.
“We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five,” she wrote. “We live entirely, 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.”
She was a lifelong explorer, writing about a trip to war torn El Salvador in the nonfiction “Salvador,” and completing “A Book of Common 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 Hold” was released. The Library of America started compiling her works in bound volumes in 2019.
Didion was proud to be an outsider. She felt more at home with the gas station attendants then with famous people. Her husband Dominick Dunne was an author and journalist. She had a good position in high society. Their California experiences included socializing with Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, and young Harrison Ford who worked on the house as a carpenter. They later lived in a spacious 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 “Play It As It Lays” and his “True Confessions.”
Didion, who was born in Sacramento in 1934, California, and descends from pioneers who traveled with the Donner Party’s notorious Donner Party, has always been fascinated by books. Her mother encouraged her to write as a means of filling her time. She especially loved Ernest Hemingway’s prose, which had terse rhythms that matched her own. Although she was shy, ambitious and prone to isolation, her ambitions were tempered by her determination to communicate herself via writing and speaking in public. In 1956, she graduated at the University of California at Berkeley. She moved to New York in order to take up a position at Vogue.
Conservative in her early years, voting for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and contributing essays to William F. Buckley’s National Review, Didion became more liberal later on, attacking the role of religion in politics and the establishment’s “increasingly histrionic insistence” that President Clinton be removed from office for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. She was especially scathing about the quality of political reporting, mocking the “inside baseball” journalism of presidential campaigns and dismissing Bob Woodward’s best-selling books as vapid and voyeuristic, “political pornography.”
Didion, who had first met Dunne at a dinner party in 1964, married Dunne. Quintana Roo was their baby girl two years later. Authors are known for being a combustible couple, regardless of whether it is the drinking brawl of Lillian Hellman or Dashiell Hammett, or the infidelity of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Didion claims that Dunne and her grew and persevered despite all their conflicts.
“Whatever troubles we had were not derived from being writers,” she told the AP. “What was good for one was good for the other.”
Hillel Italie (Associated Press) contributed to this article.