On December 5, 1934, Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, CA. She grew up to become one of the most important and eloquent novelists, essayists and journalists in modern America. Coming of age during the turbulent 1960s, Didion insightfully explored the themes of disorder and moral decay with her beautiful prose writing style. Turning 83 today, she continues to be an influential voice in analyzing and making sense of the American zeitgeist and human nature.
At a young age, Didion enjoyed writing. As she once explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956, Didion moved to New York City and started her writing career at Vogue magazine. While she moved up the ranks from copywriter to editor, she published her first novel in 1963, “Run River,” that traced the disintegration of a California family. Also while in New York City, Didion met and married writer John Gregory Dunne, and then they moved back to her home state of California in 1964. In her 1967 landmark essay, Didion eloquently explores why she chose to leave New York City: “It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.”
While living in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s, Didion and her husband were often at the center of the counterculture movement. As a journalist, she wrote a profile on the rock band, The Doors, and even partied with Janis Joplin. By the late 1960s, with the publication of a magazine article about the San Francisco hippie culture, Didion emerged as a seminal voice for her generation. Her novel, “Play As It Lays” (1970), and her second collection of essays, “The White Album” (1979), are both considered must-reads for better understanding the turbulent after effects of the post-World War II era. Didion also took on political writing in works that included “Salvador” (1983) as well as her collection of essays, “Political Fictions” (2001), about American politics from the Reagan Era to the Clinton impeachment. Aside from her fiction and nonfiction books and essays, Didion also wrote screenplays with her husband, including “Panic in Needle Park” (1971), “A Star Is Born” (1976) and “Up Close and Personal” (1996).
In 2003, Dunne died of a severe heart attack while their adopted daughter, Quintana, lay unconscious at the hospital. She wrote “A Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) in less than three months as a narrative to help her process the death of her husband and her daughter’s illness. In what has been described as one of the most poignant and insightful portrayals of marriage and loss, she delves into the personal details of her decades-long marriage, while also grappling with the unexpected phenomenon that many experience during tragedy: “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
The bestselling memoir won a National Book Award and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She adapted the book for a Scott Rudin-produced play starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007. In “Blue Nights” (2011), Didion returns to the theme of loss in her evocative memoir about the death of her daughter and the aging process.
Just in time for her birthday, a new intimate documentary about Didion’s life was recently released on Netflix. Directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” includes interviews with the iconic writer and journalist as well as her fans and famous friends. There are still very few writers who can masterfully capture and analyze the American psyche like the legendary Didion. Happy 83rd Birthday!