The Slouching Towards Bethlehem author, whose incisive style influenced generations of writers and artists, passed away due to Parkinson’s disease
Joan Didion, the seminal author, journalist, and chronicler of contemporary American culture, has passed away at her home in Manhattan, New York. She was 87 and died as a result of Parkinson’s disease, as announced by Paul Bogaards, an executive at Didion’s publisher Knopf.
In her life and career, Didion achieved a level of fame that few writers can match, crafting a cool, distinctive voice among the male-dominated New Journalism movement. Blending the deeply personal with precise political writing, she documented everything from the false promise of California counterculture in the 1960s, to the death of her husband and collaborator John Gregory Dunne in 2003.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion famously wrote in the 1979 essay collection The White Album. However, it was decades before that her writing career first took off, after she won a Vogue writing contest, leading to a seven-year run at the magazine’s offices in New York.
Between New York and Los Angeles, Didion mingled with the likes of Sylvia Plath, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski, Janis Joplin, and Tom Wolfe. In 1966, she moved with Dunne to LA, following the publication of her debut novel, Run, River, three years earlier. Her first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published in 1968.
Several more novels followed, from the Hollywood novel Play It as It Lays (which she adapted into a screenplay with Dunne), to 1996’s The Last Thing He Wanted. Didion wrote several screenplays alongside Dunne, also including the 1976 film A Star is Born.
However, Didion’s incisive non-fiction remained her primary focus and best-known work. After The White Album came 1983’s Salvador, about American involvement in El Salvador, which she observed while travelling in 1982. Other political writings include dispatches from presidential campaigns, ruminations on the performative nature of US politics (see: Political Fictions), and the imperialistic response to 9/11.
When Dunne died from a heart attack in 2003, Didion also wrote the moving meditation on grief The Year of Magical Thinking, which went on to win her a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. The 2005 death of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, prompted another intimate memoir, 2011’s Blue Nights, which sees her reflect on ageing and parenthood.
“It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.” - Joan Didion pic.twitter.com/yDo8wyGd5L— Ava DuVernay (@ava) December 23, 2021
Didion’s longstanding impact (and effortless cool) has been made clear in recent years, which have seen her celebrated as the face of Céline, as well as a recipient of a National Medal for Arts and Humanities. “I’m surprised she hasn’t already gotten this award,” said Barack Obama, presenting her with the medal in 2012. In 2017, the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold also helped shed light on the seminal writer’s life.
In the wake of her death, tributes to Joan Didion have poured in from writers and other artists who have been touched by her unimaginable influence. “RIP Joan,” writes Phoebe Bridgers on Twitter, sharing a quote from Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
“There’s always a book of joan essays in my backpack,” musician Maggie Rogers adds. “She reminds me how to see. how to be with the world. how to feel it. how to know it bc i feel it. may the writer gods greet you as you take your great place in the sky.”
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, meanwhile, has shared a quote from Didion’s 1978 interview with the Paris Review, on writing as a “hostile act”. “It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture…” Didion says in the interview. “Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare… The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”
RIP Joan.— traitor joe (@phoebe_bridgers) December 23, 2021
Play It As It Lays is one of my favorite novels.— roxane gay (@rgay) December 23, 2021