Joan Didion

Joan Didion
Didion at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival
Didion at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival
Born (1934-12-05) December 5, 1934 (age 86)
Sacramento, California, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
Literary movementNew Journalism[1]
Notable works
(m. 1964; d. 2003)
ChildrenQuintana Roo Dunne

Joan Didion (/ˈdɪdiən/; born December 5, 1934) is an American writer who launched her career in the 1960s after winning an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine.[2] Her writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of the counterculture of the '60s and the Hollywood lifestyle.[3] Her political writing often concentrated on the subtext of political and social rhetoric. In 1991, she wrote the earliest mainstream media article to suggest the Central Park Five had been wrongfully convicted.[2][4] In 2005, she won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography for The Year of Magical Thinking. She later adapted the book into a play, which premiered on Broadway in 2007. In 2017, Didion was profiled in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne.

Early life and education

Didion was born on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California,[5] to Frank Reese and Eduene (née Jerrett) Didion. Didion recalls writing things down as early as the age of five, though she says she never saw herself as a writer until after her work had been published. She identified as a "shy, bookish child" who pushed herself to overcome social anxiety through acting and public speaking. She read everything she could get her hands on. She spent her adolescence typing out Ernest Hemingway's works to learn more about how sentence structures work.[3][5]

Didion's early education was not traditional. She attended kindergarten and first grade, but because her father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and her family constantly relocated, she did not attend school regularly. In 1943 or early 1944, her family returned to Sacramento, and her father went to Detroit to negotiate defense contracts for World War II. Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir Where I Was From that moving so often made her feel like a perpetual outsider.[5]

In 1956, Didion received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley.[6] During her senior year, she won first place in the "Prix de Paris"[7] essay contest sponsored by Vogue, and was awarded a job as a research assistant at the magazine, having written a story on the San Francisco architect William Wilson Wurster.[8][9]


During her seven years at Vogue, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor.[7] While there, and homesick for California, she wrote her first novel, Run, River, which was published in 1963. Writer and friend John Gregory Dunne helped her edit the book, and the two moved into an apartment together. A year later they married, and Didion returned to California with her new husband. The two wrote many newsstand-magazine assignments. "She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more," Nathan Heller reported in The New Yorker. "Their [Saturday Evening] Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well." [10] In 1968, she published her first work of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California.[11][9] The New York Times referred to it as containing "grace, sophistication, nuance, [and] irony".[12]

Didion's novel Play It as It Lays, set in Hollywood, was published in 1970, and A Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1977. In 1979, she published The White Album, another collection of magazine pieces that previously appeared in Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

Didion's book-length essay Salvador (1983) was written after a two-week trip to El Salvador with her husband. The next year, she published the novel Democracy, the story of a long but unrequited love affair between a wealthy heiress and an older man, a CIA officer, against the background of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Her 1987 nonfiction book Miami looked at the Cuban expatriate community in that city.

In a prescient New York Review of Books piece of 1991, a year after the various trials of the Central Park Five had ended, Didion dissected serious flaws in the prosecution's case, becoming the earliest mainstream writer to view the guilty verdicts as a miscarriage of justice.[13] She suggested the Five were found guilty because of a sociopolitical narrative with racial overtones that clouded the court's judgment.[14][15][16]

In 1992, she published After Henry, a collection of twelve geographical essays and a personal memorial for Henry Robbins, who was Didion's friend and editor from 1966 until his death in 1979. In 1996, she published The Last Thing He Wanted, a romantic thriller. Dunne and Didion worked closely together for most of their careers. Much of their writing is therefore intertwined. They co-wrote a number of screenplays, including a 1972 film adaptation of her novel Play It as It Lays that starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. They also spent eight years adapting the biography of journalist Jessica Savitch into the Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer film Up Close & Personal.

Didion began writing The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative of her response to the death of her husband and the severe illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, on October 4, 2004, and finished the manuscript 88 days later on New Year's Eve.[17] Written at the age of seventy, this was her first nonfiction book that was not a collection of magazine assignments.[10] She went on a book tour following the book's release, doing many readings and promotional interviews, and has said she found the process very therapeutic during her period of mourning.[18]

In 2006, Everyman's Library published We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a compendium of much of Didion's writing, including the full content of her first seven published nonfiction books (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Salvador, Miami, After Henry, Political Fictions, and Where I Was From), with an introduction by her contemporary, the critic John Leonard.

In 2007, Didion began working on a one-woman stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. Produced by Scott Rudin, the Broadway play featured Vanessa Redgrave. Although she was hesitant to write for the theater, she has since found the genre, which was new to her, quite exciting.[18]

Didion has written early drafts of the screenplay for an HBO biopic directed by Robert Benton on The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. It remains untitled. Sources say it may trace the paper's dogged reportage on the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.[19] As of 2009, Didion was no longer working on the project.[20]

In 2011, Knopf published Blue Nights, a memoir about aging.[21] The book focuses on Didion's daughter, who died just before The Year of Magical Thinking was published. It addresses their relationship with "stunning frankness."[22] More generally, the book deals with the anxieties Didion experienced about adopting and raising a child, and about the aging process.[23][24]

In 2021, her essays were collected to "Let Me Tell You What I Mean."[25]

A photo of Didion shot by Juergen Teller was used as part of the Spring/Summer 2015 campaign of the luxury French brand Céline.[26]

Writing style

New Journalism

New Journalism seeks to communicate facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques. This style is also described as creative nonfiction, intimate journalism, or literary nonfiction. It is a popular moment in the long history of literary journalism in America. Tom Wolfe, who along with E.W. Johnson edited the anthology The New Journalism (1973) and wrote a manifesto for the style that popularized the term, said "it is possible to write journalism that would ... read like a novel."[27] New Journalist writers tend to transcend "just the facts" and focus on dialogue, and the scenarios the author may have experienced. It gives the author more creative freedom, helping to represent the truth and reality through the author's eyes. Exhibiting subjectivity is a major theme in New Journalism, where the author's voice is critical to the opinions the reader forms.[28]

Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies much of what New Journalism represents as it explores the cultural values and experiences of American life in the 1960s. She includes her personal feelings and memories in this first-person narrative, describing the chaos of individuals and the way in which they perceive the world. Rejecting conventional journalism, she created a subjective approach to essays, a style that was her own.

Writing style and themes

Didion views the structure of the sentence as essential to what she is conveying in her work. In the New York Times article "Why I Write" (1976),[29] Didion remarks, "To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed... The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind...The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what's going on in the picture."[29]

Didion is heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose writing taught her the importance of how sentences work in a text. Other influences include writer Henry James, who wrote "perfect, indirect, complicated sentences", and George Eliot.[30]

Because she believes it is the media that tells us how to live, Didion has become an observer of journalists themselves.[28] She believes the difference between the process of fiction and nonfiction is the element of discovery that takes place in nonfiction, which happens not during the writing, but the research.[30]

Rituals are a part of Didion's creative process. At the end of the day, she must take a break from writing to remove herself from the "pages".[30] She feels closeness to her work; without a necessary break, she cannot make proper adjustments. She spends a great deal of time cutting out and editing her prose before concluding her evening. She begins the next day looking over the previous evening's work, making further changes. As the process culminates, she feels it is necessary to sleep in the same room as her book. She says, "That's one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn't leave you when you're right next to it."[30]

In a notorious 1980 essay, "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect", Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called Didion a "neurasthenic Cher" whose style was "a bag of tricks" and whose "subject is always herself".[31] The criticism from Harrison "still gets her (Didion's) hackles up, decades later", New York Magazine reported in 2011.[32]

Awards and honors

In 1981, Didion was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[33]

In 1996, she was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal.[34]

In 2002, she's received the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.[35][36]

Didion has been widely recognized for The Year of Magical Thinking, which received the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005 and the Prix Medicis Essais in 2007.[37] Documenting the grief she experienced after the sudden death of her husband, the book was called a "masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism."[18]

In 2006, she received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.[38][39]

In 2007, Didion received the National Book Foundation's annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. From the citation: "An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, her distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists."[40] That year, Didion also won the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writers Guild of America.[41]

In 2009, Didion was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard University.[42] Yale University conferred another honorary Doctor of Letters upon her in 2011.[43] On July 3, 2013, the White House announced her as one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Barack Obama.[44]

Personal life

While in New York and working at Vogue, Didion met John Gregory Dunne, her future husband, who was writing for Time magazine. He was the younger brother of the author, businessman and television mystery show host Dominick Dunne. The couple married in 1964 and moved to Los Angeles, intending to stay only temporarily, but California ultimately became their home for the next 20 years. Their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne was adopted in 1966.[45]

In the title essay of The White Album, Didion documents a nervous breakdown she experienced in the summer of 1968. After undergoing psychiatric evaluation, she was diagnosed as having had an attack of vertigo and nausea. She was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.[46]

In her essay "In Bed", Didion explained that she suffered from chronic migraine.

In 1979, Didion was living in Brentwood Park, California, a quiet, residential neighborhood of Los Angeles. Before her move to Brentwood she lived in the Hollywood/Los Feliz area, on Franklin Avenue, from 1963 to 1971,[47] one block north of Hollywood Boulevard.[48]

Two tragedies struck Didion in the space of fewer than two years. On December 30, 2003, while their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne lay comatose in the ICU with septic shock resulting from pneumonia, her husband suffered a fatal heart attack at the dinner table. Didion delayed his funeral arrangements for approximately three months until Quintana was well enough to attend. Visiting Los Angeles after her father's funeral, Quintana fell at the airport, hit her head on the pavement and suffered a massive hematoma, requiring six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center.[17] After progressing toward recovery in 2004, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, during Didion's New York promotion for The Year of Magical Thinking. She was 39.[18] Didion later wrote about Quintana's death in the 2011 book Blue Nights.

As of 2005, Didion was living in an apartment on East 71st Street in New York City.[17] Her nephew Griffin Dunne directed a documentary about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold; it was released by Netflix on October 27, 2017.[49] In it, with the assistance of her nephew and friends who have seen her career progress, she further discusses her writing and personal life. The deaths of her husband and her daughter are also further explored, adding context to her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.[50]




  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
  • The White Album (1979)
  • Salvador (1983)
  • Miami (1987)
  • After Henry (1992)
  • Political Fictions (2001)
  • Where I Was From (2003)
  • Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (2003; preface by Frank Rich)
  • Vintage Didion (2004; selected excerpts of previous works)
  • The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
  • We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (2006; includes her first seven volumes of nonfiction)
  • Blue Nights (2011) ISBN 9780307267672
  • South and West: From a Notebook (2017) ISBN 9781524732790
  • Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021)





  1. ^ Menand, Louis (2015-08-17). "The Radicalization of Joan Didion". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2017-10-31. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is a classic of what was later named the New Journalism.
  2. ^ a b "From The Archive: Joan Didion On Hollywood, Her Personal Style & The Central Park 5". British Vogue. Retrieved 2021-02-19.
  3. ^ a b "About". Joan Didion.
  4. ^ "About". Joan Didion.
  5. ^ a b c "Joan Didion Biography and Interview". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  6. ^ Als, Hilton (Spring 2006). "Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1". The Paris Review. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  7. ^ a b "Joan Didion – California Museum". www.californiamuseum.org. Retrieved 2017-06-16.
  8. ^ "About Joan Didion". TheJoanDidion.com. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  9. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (1979-06-10). "Joan Didion: Staking Out California". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-06-16.
  10. ^ a b Heller, Nathan (Jan 25, 2021). "What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion". The New Yorker.
  11. ^ "Joan Didion (1934-)" in Jean C. Stine and Daniel G. Marowski (eds.) Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 32. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 142-150. Accessed April 10, 2009.
  12. ^ Wakefield, Dan (June 21, 1968). "Places, People and Personalities". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-11.
  13. ^ "New York: Sentimental Journeys". New York Review of Books.
  14. ^ Cristina Costantini (December 21, 2012). "Film Gives Voice to Men Falsely Convicted in Central Park Jogger Case". ABC News.
  15. ^ Gene Seymour (April 17, 2013). "'Koch', 'The Central Park Five' and the End of Doubt". The Nation.
  16. ^ Cathy Young (June 24, 2019). "The Problem With "When They See Us"". The Bulwark.
  17. ^ a b c Jonathan Van Meter. "When Everything Changes". New York Magazine.
  18. ^ a b c d "Seeing Things Straight: Gibson Fay-Leblanc interviews Joan Didion Archived 2006-06-01 at the Wayback Machine". Guernica, April 15, 2006.
  19. ^ Michael Fleming (November 14, 2008). "HBO sets Katharine Graham biopic"
  20. ^ "Joan-Didion.info "Biopic Abandoned"". Archived from the original on 2012-07-12.
  21. ^ "Didion to release new book in 2011". March 7, 2012. Archived from the original on March 7, 2012.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  22. ^ "Blue Nights by Joan Didion". Doubleday. Retrieved 2016-11-30.
  23. ^ "Details Emerge About "Blue Nights"". March 7, 2012. Archived from the original on March 7, 2012.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  24. ^ John Banville (November 3, 2011). "Joan Didion Mourns Her Daughter". The New York Times.
  25. ^ "Joan Didion's 'Let Me Tell You What I Mean' Offers Plenty Of 'Journalistic Gold'". NPR.org. Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  26. ^ Stebner, Beth (January 7, 2015). "Joan Didion stars in Céline Spring/Summer 2015 campaign". NY Daily News.
  27. ^ A Masterpiece of Literary Journalism: Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem – Feb. 2006, Volume 3, No. 2 (Serial No. 26), Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN 1539-8072, USA
  28. ^ a b Sandra Braman. "Joan Didion".
  29. ^ a b Joan Didion (December 5, 1976). "Why I Write". The New York Times. p. 270.
  30. ^ a b c d "The Art of Fiction No. 71: Joan Didion". The Paris Review, No. 74 (Fall-Winter 1978).
  31. ^ Harrison, Barbara Grizzutti (1980) "Joan Didion: Only Disconnect" in Off Center: Essays. New York: The Dial Press. The essay can be read online at "Joan Didion: Disconnect." (Retrieved 10-16-2014).
  32. ^ Kachka, Boris (October 16, 2011) "'I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.'" New York Magazine. Retrieved 10-16-2014.
  33. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters.
  34. ^ "MacDowell Medal winners 1960–2011". The Telegraph. 13 April 2011.
  35. ^ "Saint Louis Literary Award". Saint Louis University. Archived from the original on 2016-08-23. Retrieved 2016-07-25.
  36. ^ Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Saint Louis University Library Associates Announce Winner of 2002 Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  37. ^ "National Book Awards – 2005". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
    (With acceptance speech by Didion.)
  38. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  39. ^ "Joan Didion Biography Photo". 2006. American Academy of Achievement Awards Council member Justice Anthony M. Kennedy presents the Golden Plate Award to author Joan Didion at the 2006 International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles, California.
  40. ^ "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
    (With citation, introduction by Michael Cunningham, acceptance speech by Didion, and biographical blurb.)
  41. ^ The New York Times: "A Medal for Joan Didion", September 11, 2007.
  42. ^ "Ten honorary degrees awarded at Commencement". Harvard Gazette. 2009-06-04.
  43. ^ "Joan-Didion.info "Didion Receives Honorary Degree from Yale"". Archived from the original on 2011-06-23.
  44. ^ Daunt, Tina (2013-07-03). "George Lucas, Joan Didion to Receive White House Honors". The Hollywood Reporter.
  45. ^ Louis Menand (August 24, 2015). "Out of Bethlehem: The radicalization of Joan Didion". The New Yorker.
  46. ^ Anthea Gerrie (September 21, 2007). "Interview: A stage version of Joan Didion's painfully honest account of her husband's death comes to London". The Independent. London.
  47. ^ "Remembering a Malibu long gone". Malibu Times.
  48. ^ Michiko Kakutani (June 10, 1979). "Joan Didion: Staking Out California". The New York Times.
  49. ^ "Review: A 'Joan Didion' Portrait, From an Intimate Source". The New York Times. October 24, 2017.
  50. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (October 25, 2017). "Joan Didion is more interesting than the new Netflix documentary about her". Vox.
  51. ^ "The Panic in Needle Park".
  52. ^ "Play It as It Lays".
  53. ^ "A Star is Born".
  54. ^ "True Confessions".
  55. ^ "Up Close & Personal".
  56. ^ Sarah Bennett (August 11, 2012). "Joan Didion and Todd Field Are Co-writing a Screenplay". New York Magazine. Archived from the original on December 22, 2016. Retrieved 2016-12-16.

Further reading

  • Daugherty, Tracy. The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015.
  • Davidson, Sara. Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss, and Friendship with Joan Didion, ISBN 978-1-61452-016-0

External links

External media
audio icon 2005 audio interview of Joan Didion by Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio – RealAudio
audio icon Didion and Vanessa Redgrave on NPR's Morning Edition
audio icon Didion on NPR's Fresh Air discusses The Year of Magical Thinking
audio icon Podcast #46: Joan Didion on Writing and Revising, NYPL, Tracy O'Neill, January 29, 2015
video icon In Depth interview with Didion, May 7, 2000

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