Joan Didion is more than just a great writer; she’s an icon. Since Slouching Towards Bethlehem came out in 1968, Didion has gained a steady cult following, which was only intensified by the publication of her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. Young aspiring writers idealize her no-bullshit approach to personal trauma and American culture. She has been called the California writer and "the ultimate literary celebrity." Writers and readers alike have ogled over photographs of a young Didion smoking in front of a corvette, and posted her packing list (which includes bourbon and tampons) to Tumblr. In 2015, when she was named the face of the Céline sunglasses campaign, fan girls jumped for joy.
But Didion has remained elusive. Now 80 years old, she has become even more private, retreating into her Manhattan apartment. Novelist Tracy Daugherty always wanted to write the authorized biography of Didion. But after years of attempts to get her blessing, she chose not to cooperate. Daugherty went ahead anyway, and wrote The Last Love Song.
Daugherty had to fill in the gaps with lots of cultural context (Didion being raised in a conservative household, then thrown into the tumultuous '60s as a young woman) and the hazy memories of her close friends. Although the biography is unauthorized, Daugherty has managed to reveal some previously unknown, fascinating facts about the mysterious, eternally cool writer. I promise they will make you love her even more.
Her Obsession With The Donner Party
As a child, Didion was obsessed with the Donner Party — a group of American settlers who were caught in a snowstorm in the winter of 1846, and eventually had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Daughtery writes that Didion’s early style was influenced by a letter from Virginia Reed, a Donner Party survivor. “I have not wrote you half the trouble we’ve had, but I’ve wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is.” She set a framed picture of Donner Pass on her dresser, and it would remain on her writing desk into adulthood.
She Originally Wanted To Be An Actress
“I originally wanted to be an actress,” Didion said. “I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse [as writing]. It’s make-believe ... The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone.”
She Followed In Sylvia Plath’s Footsteps
In 1953, Sylvia Plath was chosen to be a managing guest editor at Mademoiselle, an experience she fictionalized in her novel The Bell Jar. While in New York, she stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. Just two years later, Didion would also stay in the Barbizon for her own stint as Mademoiselle’s guest fiction editor.
Her Hilarious Application To Vogue
When Didion applied to Vogue in 1965, the “profile sheet” asked “What languages do you speak?” Didion responded with “Middle English.”
Her Wedding Was A Reference To The Movie Vertigo
Didion purchased her dress for her wedding to John Gregory Dunne in 1964 at Ransohoff’s, a department store in San Francisco which plays an important part in Alfred Hitchock’s film Vertigo. Didion and Dunne were married at the mission church at San Juan Bautista, also a major location from the film. “Hardly a coincidence,” Daughtery writes. “Didion turned her wedding into an elaborate movie reference.”
She Suffered from Anxiety
“Three or four days a month, migraines sidelined her,” Daughtery writes. “She’d spend a day in bed, leaving Quintana in the care of her teenage nanny. She took Dexedrine and drank gin and hot water to dull the pain." Though by the '70s, Didion was considered one of the most successful American prose stylists, she still doubted herself and her abilities. "The headaches were related to her writing and her sense of herself as writer," Daugherty explains.
She Had Premonitions About Quintana’s Wellbeing
In California, Didion found herself worrying more and more about her daughter, Quintana, whom she and Dunne adopted in 1966. “The jitters were setting in,” she said. “One night, a baby-sitter Didion had hired told her that death floated in Quintana’s aura,” Daughtery writes. Quintana would die in 2005, just two years after Dunne, from “acute pancreatitis” after a lengthy illness. Many have speculated that her death was related to years of alcoholism.
She Is An Excellent Cook
Didion is “the best cook, ever,” according to her friend Eve Babitz. “She cooked nonstop. She made stuff like Beef Wellington — for a sit down dinner for thirty-five people — with a side dish, Cobb salad or something, for those who didn’t eat meat.” Babitz remembers Didion as “the only sensible person in the world in those days,” in the '60s, when everyone was on drugs. “She could make dinner for forty people with one hand tied around her back while everybody else was passed out on the floor.”
Nancy Reagan Had Some Choice Words For Didion
Didion wrote a profile of Nancy Reagan when she was still a governor’s wife in 1968 for The Saturday Evening Post. “She was appalled to find Didion’s piece ‘dripping with sarcasm’,” Daugherty writes. “Mrs. Reagan never recovered from the insult ... in a television movie made by CBS in 2003 about the Reagans, Nancy, lounging in a bubble bath, complained about being interviewed by Joan Didion, whom she called a ‘hack’ and a ‘bitch.'”
She And Dunne Came Close To Divorce In 1969
Though Didion and Dunne are often seen as the literary "it" couple, they had their fair share of marital troubles. “Contributing to their difficulties at this time were the stresses of writing, money, lots of drinking, Dunne’s quickness to anger, and Didion’s ‘theatrical temperament,’” Daughtery writes. Didion told a friend, “anyway, John and I stayed together ...” though there were rumors of infidelity on his part. “If you can make the promise over again,” she later said, “then the marriage should survive. I don’t really think infidelity is that important.”
By 1975, She Had Fan(girls)
Writer Caitlin Flanagan said that her father, a professor at Berkeley, remarked one night, “there is something weird going on with Joan Didion and women. It was becoming clear she didn’t have just readers; she had fans — not the way writers have fans, but the way musicians and actors have fans — and that almost all of them were female.”
The Yellow Roses
When The Year of Magical Thinking appeared on Broadway at the Booth Theater as a one-woman play starring Vanessa Redgrave, Didion was frequently backstage. One night, someone handed Redgrave a bouquet of yellow roses, which she left on the stage. Someone asked Didion if she’d like to take them home. “I did not want the yellow roses touched. I wanted the yellow roses right there, when Vanessa had left them, with John and Quintana on the stage of the Booth, lying there on stage all night, lit only by the ghost light.”
She Still Believes In love
After The Year of Magical Thinking was published, an interviewer asked if Didion “could imagine falling in love again,” Daughtery writes. She said, “I wouldn’t get married again, I don’t think. But fall in love? Absolutely.”