Writer Joan Didion, columnist of contemporary American society, dies at 87

Musician Wynton Marsalis (left) applauds as author Joan Didion (right) receives an honorary doctorate of letters at the 358th Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts on June 4, 2009. (Reuters / Brian Snyder / File Photo)

Author Jeanne Didion, whose essays, memoirs, novels and screenplays recounted contemporary American society, as well as her grief over the deaths of her husband and daughter, died at the age of 87.

The cause of death was Parkinson’s disease, editor Knopf said in a statement on Thursday.

Didion first appeared as a substantive writer in the late 1960s as the first practitioner of the “new journalism”, which allowed writers to adopt a more personalized narrative perspective.

His 1968 collection of essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” a title borrowed from poet William Butler Yeats, explored the culture of his native California. The title essay offered an unsympathetic take on emerging hippie culture in San Francisco, and a New York Times reviewer called the book “some of the best magazine articles published by anyone in this country in recent years.”

Didion had an air of laid back glamor and cool writer and in her heyday was often photographed with oversized sunglasses or casually lounging with a cigarette in her hand. She was 80 in 2015 when French fashion house Celine used her as a model in an advertising campaign for her sunglasses.

The tragedy inadvertently led to a career resurgence in the 2000s as Didion wrote about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in “The Year of Magical Thinking” and of her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne in “Blue Nights”.

DidionS’s works were insightful, confessional, and tinged with boredom and skepticism. The Los Angeles Times hailed her as an “unprecedented stylist” with “piercing insight and exquisite mastery of language.”

British writer Martin Amis spoke about Didion as a “poet of the great Californian void” and was particularly incisive in her writings on the state. His 1970 novel “Play It as It Lays” showed Los Angeles, through the eyes of a troubled, glamorous and tasteless actor while the 2003 collection of essays “Where I Was From” focused on the culture of the city. ‘State, as well as on itself. and the long history of his family there.

“I write entirely to know what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” Didion said in a speech at his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, in 1975.

From California to New York

His life and career were captured in the 2017 documentary “Jeanne Didion: The Center Will Not Hold ”by his nephew, actor-filmmaker Griffin Dunne. New Yorker magazine called the film, which borrowed its title from another work by Yeats, “an intimate, loving and partial portrait.”

Didion ended up in New York City winning a college essay competition that offered an internship at Vogue magazine in the late 1950s. She met Dunne there two years later.

Didion and Dunne, married nearly 40 years, split their lives between Southern California and New York City and have managed to become prominent figures in literary circles and in Hollywood. The parties at their Malibu beach house, where Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter before “Star Wars” glory, drew crowds that included singer Janis Joplin, filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese and the actor Warren Beatty, who would have been infatuated with Didion.

Dunne was demonstrative and talkative while Didion might appear introverted. Their marriage was difficult at times, and Dunne moved to Las Vegas for a while. In an essay of “The White Album”, Didion wrote that they had already taken a vacation to Hawaii “instead of filing for divorce”.

Through it all, they edited each other’s work and collaborated on screenplays for the 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born,” “The Panic in Needle Park,” the 1971 film that gave Al Pacino his first. lead role, as well as film adaptations of “Play It as It Lays” and Dunne’s novel “True Confessions”.

The couple moved to New York in 1988 and after Dunne suffered a heart attack at the dinner table in 2003, Didion wrote about the heartache that followed in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

“Mourning turns out to be a place none of us know about until we reach it,” she wrote.

Twenty months after Dunne’s death, Didion returned to the place of grief when Quintana Roo died of acute pancreatitis after a series of health problems, which she chronicled in “Blue Nights”.

The diminutive Didion dropped to 75 pounds (34 kg) after the deaths, but began to get by working on a one-woman stage version of “Magical Thinking” which debuted on Broadway in 2007 with Vanessa Redgrave in the role Principal and David Hare as Director.

Didion, whose other books included the novel “A Book of Common Prayer” and the non-fiction books “Miami” and “Salvador” were awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2013 by President Barack Obama. —Written by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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