Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Center Will Not Hold

A few years back, Everyman's Library came out with a collection of Joan Didion's essays entitled We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live.  Many of her essays were available on the Internet so I took a pass, but after watching the recent Netflix biography by her nephew Griffin Dunne the book is on my Christmas wishlist.

It was touching documentary, as Dunne probed his aunt's private life, which he was privy to.  Joan had a way of finding the essence of a story that few journalists are able to do.  This was true of her early work in California as well as her later work in New York.  She was one of the few journalists to see that the boys accused of killing the Central Park jogger in 1989 were innocent, turning her famous essay into a mediation on race and privilege in New York.  It is one of the themes her nephew explores in the film.

Decades earlier, Didion had captured the pulse of the hippie generation in LA, culminating in the murder of Sharon Tate.  Her White Album focused on Nancy Kasabian, who sold out the Manson clan.  It must have been a very difficult essay to write, as she grew quite intimate with Kasabian, helping her to pick out a dress for her trial, and engaging in domestic banter far removed from the heinous crimes the young woman was involved in.  It is from the opening sentence of this essay that the title of the Everyman's Library collection comes from.

As it turns out, many of her essays are still available on-line, a testament to her lasting power.  Anna Wintour notes in the documentary that Joan not only had the unique ability to find the kernal of a story but was an impeccable craftsperson as well.  Anna learned much of her craft from Joan at Vogue back in the early 60s, one of the few to survive the tough editor.

It was at Vogue that Joan honed her talents, writing essays that went far beyond fashion and cosmetics.  She met John Gregory Dunne in New York.  He wanted a change in 1964 and they came out to the West Coast to begin life anew, at least for him, as she was a California pioneer's daughter from Sacramento.  They made their homestead in Malibu, and also rented a huge house in LA, perfect for Hollywoodesque parties that stretched to the early morning hours.  She became a celebrity herself thanks to the many stories she wrote that pulled the veil off the glamorous life, culminating in perhaps her most famous collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

Over the years, her personal bibliography grew to include novels, movie scripts and even a theater adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Vanessa Redgrave, who similarly had to deal with grief in the loss of her daughter Natasha.  Joan and Vanessa grew quite close, as seen in the documentary.

It's a poignant biography of Joan, showing how time has softened the edges but you can still feel the toughness inside her at 82.


  1. Although I've enjoyed reading some of her writing, Didion is often extremely wordy. The "Jogger" essay is an obvious case in point.

  2. Yea, she does cover a lot of ground in that essay, but it was interesting to read she was one of the few journalists at the time to doubt the accusations. What surprised me is that the woman never said anything. I assume she would have known if she was attacked by one or more assailants.