Joan Didion

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. Didion's writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of the counterculture of the 1960s and the Hollywood lifestyle.[2] 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. 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.

Joan Didion
Didion at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival
Didion at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival
Born (1934-12-05) December 5, 1934 (age 85)
Sacramento, California, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of California, Berkeley
Literary movementNew Journalism[1]
Notable works
(m. 1964; d. 2003)
ChildrenQuintana Roo Dunne

Early life and educationEdit

Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California,[3] 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.[2][3]

Didion's early education did not follow the traditional format. Didion attended kindergarten and first grade, but because her father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II and her family was constantly relocated, she did not attend school on a regular basis. 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.[3]

In 1956, Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.[4] During her senior year, she won first place in the "Prix de Paris"[5] 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.[6][7]


During her seven years at Vogue, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor.[5] 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. In 1968, she published her first work of nonfiction, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California.[8][7] The New York Times referred to it as containing "grace, sophistication, nuance, [and] irony".[9]

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 had 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-long trip to El Salvador with her husband. The following year, she published the novel Democracy, which narrates 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.[10] She suggested the obtaining of convictions against the Five had resulted from a sociopolitical narrative with racial overtones that had clouded the judgement of the court.[11][12][13]

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. The two co-wrote a number of screenplays, including that for a 1972 film adaptation of her novel Play It as It Lays that starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. The couple also spent eight years adapting the biography of journalist Jessica Savitch into the 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.[14] 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.[15]

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, she 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 at first hesitant about writing for the theater, she has since found the genre, which was new to her, to be quite exciting.[15]

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.[16] As of 2009, Didion was no longer working on the project.[17]

In 2011, Knopf published Blue Nights, a memoir about aging.[18] 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."[19] More generally, the book deals with the anxieties Didion experienced about adopting and raising a child, and about the aging process.[20][21]

A photo of Didion shot by Juergen Teller was used as part of the Spring/Summer 2015 campaign of the luxury French brand Céline.[22]

Writing styleEdit

New JournalismEdit

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, pointed to the idea that "it is possible to write journalism that would ... read like a novel."[23] New Journalist writers tend to turn away from "just the facts" and focus more upon the dialogue of the situation and the scenarios that the author may have experienced. The style gives the author more creative freedom. This can help to represent the truth and reality through the author's eyes. Exhibiting subjectivity is a major theme in New Journalism. Here, the author's voice is critical to a reader forming opinions and thoughts concerning the work.[24]

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. Didion 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. Here Didion rejects conventional journalism, and instead prefers to create a subjective approach to essays, a style that is her own.

Writing style and themesEdit

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),[25] 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."[25]

Didion is heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose writing taught Didion the importance of the way sentences work within a text. Other influences include writer Henry James, who wrote "perfect, indirect, complicated sentences", and George Eliot.[26]

Because of her belief that it is the media that tells us how to live, Joan Didion has become an observer of journalists themselves.[24] She believes that the difference between the process of fiction and nonfiction is the element of discovery that takes place in nonfiction. This happens not during the writing, but during the research.[26]

There are rituals that are a part of Didion's creative thought process. At the end of the day, Didion must take a break from writing to remove herself from the "pages".[26] She feels closeness to her work; without a necessary break, she cannot make proper adjustments. Didion spends a great deal of time cutting out and editing her prose before concluding her evening. The next day, Didion begins by looking over her work from the previous evening, making further adjustments as she sees fit. As this process culminates, Didion feels that it is necessary to sleep in the same room as her book. In Didion's own words, "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."[26]

In a notorious essay published in 1980 called "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".[27] The criticism from Harrison "still gets her (Didion's) hackles up, decades later", New York Magazine reported in 2011.[28]

Awards and honorsEdit

In 1981, Didion was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.[29]

In 1996, Didion was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal.[30]

In 2002, Didion received the St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates.[31][32]

Didion has received a great deal of recognition for The Year of Magical Thinking, which was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005.[33] Documenting the grief she experienced following the sudden death of her husband, the book has been said to be a "masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism."[15]

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."[34] That same year, Didion also won the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writers Guild of America.[35]

In 2009, Didion was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Harvard University.[36] Yale University conferred another honorary Doctor of Letters degree upon her in 2011.[37] On July 3, 2013, the White House announced Didion as one of the recipients of the National Medal of Arts, to be presented by President Barack Obama.[38]

Personal lifeEdit

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 with intentions of staying only temporarily, but California ultimately became their home for the next twenty years. Their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne was adopted in 1966.[39]

In the title essay of The White Album, Didion documents a nervous breakdown she experienced in the summer of 1968. After undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, she was diagnosed as having had an attack of vertigo and nausea. She was also diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.[40]

In her essay "In Bed", Didion explained that she suffers 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 Ave from 1963 to 1971,[41] one block north of Hollywood Boulevard.[42]

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 while at the dinner table. Didion put off his funeral arrangements for approximately three months until Quintana was well enough to attend the service. Visiting Los Angeles after her father's funeral, Quintana fell at the airport, hit her head on the pavement and suffered a massive hematoma. She required six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center.[14] After making progress 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.[15] 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.[14] Didion's nephew Griffin Dunne directed a documentary about her, titled Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold; it was released by Netflix on October 27, 2017.[43] In the documentary, with the assistance of her nephew and friends who have seen Didion's professional life prosper, Didion further discusses her writing career and personal life. The deaths of her husband and her daughter are also further explored, adding context to Didion's books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.[44]




  • 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





  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
  3. ^ a b c "Joan Didion Biography and Interview". American Academy of Achievement.
  4. ^ Als, Hilton (Spring 2006). "Joan Didion, The Art of Nonfiction No. 1". The Paris Review. Retrieved September 14, 2017.
  5. ^ a b "Joan Didion – California Museum". Retrieved 2017-06-16.
  6. ^ "About Joan Didion". Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  7. ^ a b Kakutani, Michiko (1979-06-10). "Joan Didion: Staking Out California". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-06-16.
  8. ^ "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.
  9. ^ Wakefield, Dan (June 21, 1968). "Places, People and Personalities". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-01-11.
  10. ^ "New York: Sentimental Journeys". New York Review of Books.
  11. ^ Cristina Costantini (December 21, 2012). "Film Gives Voice to Men Falsely Convicted in Central Park Jogger Case". ABC News.
  12. ^ Gene Seymour (April 17, 2013). "'Koch', 'The Central Park Five' and the End of Doubt". The Nation.
  13. ^ Cathy Young (June 24, 2019). "The Problem With "When They See Us"". The Bulwark.
  14. ^ a b c Jonathan Van Meter. "When Everything Changes". New York Magazine.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Michael Fleming (November 14, 2008). "HBO sets Katharine Graham biopic"
  17. ^ " "Biopic Abandoned"". Archived from the original on 2012-07-12.
  18. ^ "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)
  19. ^ "Blue Nights by Joan Didion". Doubleday. Retrieved 2016-11-30.
  20. ^ "Details Emerge About "Blue Nights"". March 7, 2012. Archived from the original on March 7, 2012.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  21. ^ John Banville (November 3, 2011). "Joan Didion Mourns Her Daughter". The New York Times.
  22. ^ Stebner, Beth (January 7, 2015). "Joan Didion stars in Céline Spring/Summer 2015 campaign". NY Daily News.
  23. ^ 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
  24. ^ a b Sandra Braman. "Joan Didion".
  25. ^ a b Joan Didion (December 5, 1976). "Why I Write". The New York Times. p. 270.
  26. ^ a b c d "The Art of Fiction No. 71: Joan Didion". The Paris Review, No. 74 (Fall-Winter 1978).
  27. ^ 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).
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ "American Academy of Arts and Letters Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters.
  30. ^ "MacDowell Medal winners 1960–2011". The Telegraph. 13 April 2011.
  31. ^ "Saint Louis Literary Award". Saint Louis University.
  32. ^ Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Saint Louis University Library Associates Announce Winner of 2002 Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  33. ^ "National Book Awards – 2005". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-12.
    (With acceptance speech by Didion.)
  34. ^ "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.)
  35. ^ The New York Times: "A Medal for Joan Didion", September 11, 2007.
  36. ^ "Ten honorary degrees awarded at Commencement". Harvard Gazette. 2009-06-04.
  37. ^ " "Didion Receives Honorary Degree from Yale"". Archived from the original on 2011-06-23.
  38. ^ Daunt, Tina (2013-07-03). "George Lucas, Joan Didion to Receive White House Honors". The Hollywood Reporter.
  39. ^ Louis Menand (August 24, 2015). "Out of Bethlehem: The radicalization of Joan Didion". The New Yorker.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^
  42. ^ Michiko Kakutani (June 10, 1979). "Joan Didion: Staking Out California". The New York Times.
  43. ^ "Review: A 'Joan Didion' Portrait, From an Intimate Source". The New York Times. October 24, 2017.
  44. ^
  45. ^ "The Panic in Needle Park".
  46. ^ "Play It as It Lays".
  47. ^ "A Star is Born".
  48. ^ "True Confessions".
  49. ^ "Up Close & Personal".
  50. ^ 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

External linksEdit

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