Joan Didion (/ˈdɪdiən/; December 5, 1934 – December 23, 2021) was an American writer. Along with Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese, she is considered one of the pioneers of New Journalism. Didion's career began in the 1950s after she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine.[2] Her writing during the 1960s through the late 1970s engaged audiences in the realities of the counterculture of the 1960s and the Hollywood lifestyle. Didion's political writing in the 1980s and 1990s 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.[2] In 2005, Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir of the year following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. She later adapted the book into a play, which premiered on Broadway in 2007. In 2013, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.[3] Didion was profiled in the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, in 2017.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion at the Brooklyn Book Festival (cropped).jpg
Born(1934-12-05)December 5, 1934
Sacramento, California, U.S.
DiedDecember 23, 2021(2021-12-23) (aged 87)
New York City, U.S.
  • Novelist
  • journalist
  • memoirist
  • essayist
EducationUniversity of California, Berkeley (BA)
  • Memoir
  • drama
Literary movementNew Journalism[1]
Notable works
(m. 1964; died 2003)


Early life and educationEdit

Joan Didion in Los Angeles on August 2, 1970.

Didion was born on December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California,[4][5] to Frank Reese and Eduene (née Jerrett) Didion.[4] She had one brother five years her junior, James Jerrett Didion, who was a real estate executive.[6] Didion recalled writing things down as early as the age of five,[4] though she said that 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, and was also an avid reader. She spent her adolescence typing out Ernest Hemingway's works to learn more about how sentence structures worked.[5]

Didion's early education was nontraditional. She attended kindergarten and first grade, but because her father was a finance officer in the Army Air Corps and the family constantly relocated, she did not attend school regularly.[7] 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.[5]

Didion received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956.[8] During her senior year, she won first place in the "Prix de Paris"[9] 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 Wurster.[10][11]


During her seven years at Vogue, from 1956 to 1964, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor.[9][11] Mademoiselle published Didion's article "Berkeley’s Giant: The University of California" in January 1960.[12] While at Vogue, and homesick for California, she wrote her first novel, Run, River (1963), about a Sacramento family as it comes apart.[4] Writer and friend John Gregory Dunne helped her edit the book.[7]

Dunne was writing for Time magazine and was the younger brother of the author, businessman, and television mystery show host Dominick Dunne.[7] Didion and Dunne moved to Los Angeles in 1964, intending to stay only temporarily, but California remained their home for the following 20 years. They adopted a daughter, whom they named Quintana Roo Dunne, in March 1966.[4][13] The couple wrote many newsstand-magazine assignments. "She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more", Nathan Heller reported in The New Yorker. "Their [Saturday Evening] Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well".[14]

Didion lived in Los Feliz from 1963 to 1971; after living in Malibu for eight years, she and Dunne lived in Brentwood Park, a quiet, affluent, residential neighborhood of Los Angeles.[15][10]

Slouching Towards BethlehemEdit

Didion published her first nonfiction book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces about her experiences in California, in 1968.[16][10] Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been described as an example of New Journalism, using novel-like writing to cover the non-fiction realities of hippie counterculture.[17] She wrote from her own personal perspective; adding her own feelings and memories to situations, inventing details and quotes to make the stories more vivid, and using many metaphors in order for the reader to get a better understanding of the disorder present in the subjects of her essays, whether they be politicians, artists, or American society itself.[18] The New York Times referred to it as containing "grace, sophistication, nuance, [and] irony".[19]


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 previously appeared in Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.[10] In the title essay of The White Album, Didion documents a nervous breakdown she experienced in the summer of 1968. After undergoing psychiatric evaluation, she was diagnosed as having had an attack of vertigo and nausea. After periods of partial blindness in 1972, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis which remained in remission throughout her life.[11][20] In her essay "In Bed", Didion explains that she experienced chronic migraines.[21]

Dunne and Didion worked closely together for most of their careers. Much of their writing is therefore intertwined. They co-wrote a number of screenplays, including a 1972 film adaptation of her novel Play It as It Lays that starred Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld and the screenplay for the 1976 film of A Star is Born.[22] They also spent several years adapting the biography of journalist Jessica Savitch into the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer film Up Close & Personal.[7][22]

1980s and 1990sEdit

Didion's book-length essay Salvador (1983) was written after a two-week trip to El Salvador with her husband. The next year, she published the novel Democracy, 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 different communities in that city.[7] In 1988, Didion moved from California to New York City.[11]

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.[23] She suggested the defendants were found guilty because of a sociopolitical narrative with racial overtones that clouded the court's judgment.[24][25][26]

In 1992, Didion published After Henry, a collection of twelve geographical essays and a personal memorial for Henry Robbins, who was Didion's friend and editor until his death in 1979.[27] She published The Last Thing He Wanted, a romantic thriller, in 1996.[28]

The Year of Magical ThinkingEdit

In 2003, Didion's daughter Quintana Roo Dunne developed pneumonia that progressed to septic shock, and was comatose in an intensive-care unit when Didion's husband suddenly died of a heart attack on December 30.[7] Didion delayed his funeral arrangements for approximately three months until Quintana was well enough to attend.[7]

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, on October 4, 2004, and finished the manuscript 88 days later on New Year's Eve.[29] Written at the age of 70, this was her first nonfiction book that was not a collection of magazine assignments.[14] She said that she found the subsequent book-tour process very therapeutic during her period of mourning.[30] Documenting the grief she experienced after the sudden death of her husband, the book was called a "masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism" and won several awards.[30]

Visiting Los Angeles after her father's funeral, Quintana fell at the airport, hit her head on the pavement and required brain surgery for hematoma.[29] After progressing toward recovery in 2004, she died of acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, aged 39, during Didion's New York promotion for The Year of Magical Thinking.[30] Didion wrote about Quintana's death in the 2011 book Blue Nights.[4]


Didion was living in an apartment on East 71st Street in New York City in 2005.[29] Everyman's Library published We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, a 2006 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.[31]

Didion began working with English playwright and director Sir David Hare on a one-woman stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking in 2007. Produced by Scott Rudin, the Broadway play featured Vanessa Redgrave. Although she was hesitant to write for the theater, eventually she found the genre, which was new to her, quite exciting.[30]

Didion wrote early drafts of the screenplay for an HBO biopic directed by Robert Benton on The Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. It was untitled. Sources say it may trace the paper's reporting on the Watergate scandal which led to President Richard Nixon's resignation.[32]

Later worksEdit

Knopf published Blue Nights, a memoir about aging, in 2011, which also focused on Didion's relationship with her late daughter.[33] More generally, the book deals with the anxieties Didion experienced about adopting and raising a child, as well as the aging process.[34]

A photo of Didion shot by Juergen Teller was used as part of the spring/summer 2015 campaign of the luxury French brand Céline, while previously the clothing company GAP had featured her in a 1989 campaign.[11][35] Didion's nephew Griffin Dunne directed a 2017 Netflix documentary about her, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.[36] Didion discusses her writing and personal life, including the deaths of her husband and daughter, adding context to her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.[37]

Didion published Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of 12 essays she wrote between 1968 and 2000, in 2021.[38]

Personal lifeEdit

For several years in her twenties, Didion was in a relationship with Noel E. Parmentel, Jr., a political pundit and figure on the New York literary/cultural scene.[39] Breaking a long-held silence on Didion, whose work he championed and found publishers for, Parmentel was interviewed for a 1996 article in New York magazine.[40] According to Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, Dunne and Didion met through Parmentel. Didion and Dunne were friends for six years before embarking on a romantic relationship. They had a celebration lunch after Dunne read the galleys for her first novel, Run River: "Her other was out of town. It happened."[41] Didion and Dunne subsequently married in January 1964. Parmentel was angered in the 1970s by what he felt was a thinly veiled portrait of him in Didion's novel A Book of Common Prayer.[42] Didion and Dunne remained husband and wife until Dunne's untimely demise of a heart attack in 2003.

A Republican for most of her life, Didion drifted towards the Democrats in her final years "without ever quite endorsing their core beliefs."[43]


Didion died from complications of Parkinson's disease at home in Manhattan on December 23, 2021, at age 87.[4]

Writing style and themesEdit

Didion viewed the structure of the sentence as essential to her work. In the New York Times article "Why I Write" (1976),[44] Didion remarked, "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."[44]

Didion was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway, whose writing taught her the importance of how sentences work in a text. Her other influences included Henry James, who wrote "perfect, indirect, complicated sentences", and George Eliot.[45]

Didion was also an observer of journalists,[46] believing the difference between the process of fiction and nonfiction is the element of discovery that takes place in nonfiction, which happens not during the writing, but the research.[45]

Rituals were a part of Didion's creative process. At the end of the day, she would take a break from writing to remove herself from the "pages",[45] saying that without the distance, she could not make proper edits. She would then end the day by cutting out and editing prose, and reviewing the work the following day. She would sleep in the same room as her book, saying: "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."[45]

In a notorious 1980 essay, "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."[47] In 2011, New York magazine reported that the criticism "still gets her (Didion's) hackles up, decades later."[48]

Awards and honorsEdit

Published worksEdit



  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)[62]
  • The White Album (1979)[62]
  • Salvador (1983)[62]
  • Miami (1987)[62]
  • After Henry (1992)[62]
  • Political Fictions (2001)[62]
  • Where I Was From (2003)[62]
  • Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (2003; preface by Frank Rich)[62]
  • Vintage Didion (2004; selected excerpts of previous works)[63]
  • The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)[62]
  • We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (2006; includes her first seven volumes of nonfiction)[62]
  • Blue Nights (2011) ISBN 9780307267672[62]
  • South and West: From a Notebook (2017) ISBN 9781524732790[62]
  • Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021)[64]

Screenplays and playsEdit


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Further readingEdit

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