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Not Fade Away: Joan Didion’s Hollywood Life

A review of the new biography

Tracy Daugherty, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015). 728 pp. $35.00.

Who is Joan Didion anyway? In The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, Tracy Daugherty decided to find the writer in her most public work. “Does the life reveal the art, the art the life?” he asks in the prologue (xxiii). If you find fault with The Last Love Song it will be in this decision — not in Daugherty’s entertaining style, which often reads like the New Journalism that Didion helped to establish; nor in his creative use of California’s history, which has been Didion’s literary touchstone.

While The Last Love Song documents Didion’s professional and personal partnership with her husband John Gregory Dunne in satisfying detail, it offers little about Didion that devoted readers did not already know. However, as Daugherty notes, the clues that Didion has left in her published work contain deflections as well as revelations. In over five decades of interviews, essays, fiction, and nonfiction, she has crafted a public persona “not entirely at odds with the Joan Didion in her writing but not completely consistent with it either.” The repetition of particular stories, told in particular ways “tended to create what we think of as a brand, and it was first promoted by Didion herself” (xxii).

From her first novel, Run River (1963), to the cagey memoir of her daughter Quintana’s death in Blue Nights (2011), Didion’s primary subject has always been herself. Didion’s ancestors had traveled westward with the doomed Donner Party in 1846, turning left instead of right at a crucial moment, and settling near Sacramento while the rest of the group slowly starved to death in the Sierra Nevada snow pack. For Didion, the history of the West — her history — was the history of the nation, and the view from California was core to the politics of her writing. Beginning in childhood, her core identity stemmed from this pioneer heritage: where Didion was from, to paraphrase her 2003 nonfiction collection was the essence of who she was.

What Didion was not, in any way, shape or form, was a feminist, something that makes her a vexed object of curiosity for those of her fans who are.

One of a distinguished subset of post-war female writers — Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Pauline Kael, Diana Trilling, and Janet Malcolm also come to mind — Didion saw herself as exceptional among women. Didion never viewed sex as a barrier to her success as a writer, even though it was. As Daugherty shows, resisting this knowledge took an impressive act of compartmentalization on her part: Didion had gotten her start at Mademoiselle and Vogue, had been refused an assignment to Vietnam because she was a woman, and was the only woman other than Barbara Goldsmith to be included in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology The New Journalism.

It doesn’t seem credible that Didion’s career did not benefit from the publishing industry’s growing interest in feminist writers like Betty Friedan, Gail Sheehy, Barbara Garson, Susan Brownmiller, and Ellen Willis. Yet, Didion not only actively disidentified with feminism in the early 1970s, she also dismissed every issue that defined 1970s feminism: sex as class, abortion, birth control, and sexual violence. Radical feminism’s attack on patriarchal national myths was particularly noxious to a woman who identified so passionately with the male heroism of American Manifest Destiny. “To make that omelet you need not only those broken eggs,” Didion remarked about the desire to rewrite the history of the West with women at its center, “but someone ‘oppressed’ to break them.”

That said, Didion was many things, but oppressed she was not. Educated at Berkeley under the tutelage of public intellectual Mark Schorer, Didion was a raging elitist. A Goldwater Republican, she came to New York in 1956 to work at Vogue, building the literary connections that would promote her work there, and later, in Hollywood. After marrying Dunne in January 1964, both quit their salaried jobs and headed back to California. They were a remarkably self-confident couple: their plan was to support their literary work with television writing, a craft in which neither had any experience and never learned, although they were eventually very much in demand as film writers. Although they had regular gigs at the Saturday Evening Post — and later, Didion did some of her best work for The New York Review of Books — neither one would ever punch a time clock again. Moving to the center of a Hollywood culture industry re-organizing itself around independent star actors, star directors, and star producers, they self-consciously reinvented themselves as star writers.

As they became a coveted journalism and script-writing team, Didion and Dunne also became experts at living in hotels on magazine and Hollywood expense accounts. This had its hazards, particularly after they adopted the whimsically named Quintana Roo in the summer of 1968, alternately uprooting her and leaving her with relatives for weeks at a time. Both Didion and Dunne seemed to view career–life balance primarily as acts of scheduling and translation. Having served the infant Quintana her first caviar in Chicago’s Ambassador hotel, Didion noted that it was “a mixed success since she wanted it at every meal thereafter and did not entirely understand the difference between ‘on expenses’ and ‘not on expenses’” (356). Although living this way meant that money troubles were often just over the horizon, the Didion-Dunnes lived well after 1968, buying and selling comfortable homes in Malibu, Brentwood, and the Upper East Side of New York city.

It might be easy to lose sight of the fact that Didion cared passionately about writing, and as she matured, about telling political stories. She worked hard on her craft, something that Daugherty is able to describe in detail from studying her archived manuscripts. Having served her early apprenticeship writing photograph captions for Vogue, Didion was an excellent editor of her own prose. “We wrote long and published short, and by doing that Joan learned to write,” her editor Allene Talmey recalled. Didion developed a spare, distinctive style, overcoming a disappointing first novel to write a series of essays about the California counter-culture for the Saturday Evening Post that, collected, became her breakthrough book Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968).

It was a book that read the Zeitgeist perfectly and without resorting to made-up words, noises, and the other devices for which writers like Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer were made famous at around the same time.

When Didion wrote these essays, she and Dunne were living in a Hollywood milieu that included the Mamas and the Papas, associates of the Manson family, and a range of star Hollywood players (including John’s brother, the bisexual producer and director Dominick Dunne) who were circling the drainpipe of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. “I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months,” Didion wrote in the first paragraph of the introduction, and because she “had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.”

Some women accomplished this reckoning by embracing feminism; Didion, as we know, did not. It is an odd twist, then, that without seeming to be aware of it, Didion became a woman’s writer, and many of the women seeking her out were feminists. In 1975, when she was in residence at Berkeley, female fans elbowed each other out of the way to get to her. Journalist Caitlin Flanagan, who viewed this scene from the vantage point of a faculty brat (her father was chair of the English Department), recalled that women of all ages suffered a collective crush on a woman who was unusually shy, and skulked around campus behind dark glasses and the same shapeless, bulky coat she had worn as an undergraduate. Flanagan reported that female fans were “thronging to her office hours, hanging around the door of her classroom, arranging their schedules so that they could bump into her, as she walked from the faculty club to Wheeler Hall.”

In life, Didion never let motherhood interrupt her work, yet in a sense, Quintana’s life bookends her career. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is dedicated to her infant daughter, and it was Quintana’s death in 2005 at the age of 39, less than two years after Dunne had suffered a catastrophic and fatal coronary, that may have ended her career. Part of what may have affected Didion disproportionately during these catastrophes was a loss of control over her family’s image in the new social media environment. As Daugherty characterizes this experience following Quintana’s ’s 2003 hospitalization: “Vile rumors concerning Quintana’s drinking went viral, mostly from people who knew nothing at all about Quintana and whose purpose seemed to be to condemn Didion for obscuring her daughter’s behavior” (543).

Though cruel, the rumors were mostly true. Quintana’s body had given out in a way that, with few exceptions, rarely occurs among the young except when accompanied by long-term substance abuse. This may have eluded Didion in the moments of medical crisis, but it is unlikely that Didion’s keen mind failed to grasp these facts by the time she wrote not one, but two, books about it. It ran in the family. Although most friends of the family refused to be interviewed for The Last Love Song, those who did suggest that the Didion-Dunnes were hard drinkers and liberal users of prescribed medication, that Quintana’s drinking and drug use began early, and that numerous family members had sought professional help for their addictions. Ten separate index entries in The Last Love Song document “alcohol/drug use by” Quintana, and Daugherty cites other sources including a blog post I wrote, that describe a debilitating fall in the Los Angeles airport, one that hastened Quintana’s decline, as alcohol-related.

Over the years, Didion’s audience had come to expect unblinking truth from her: in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights we saw evasions and concealment. And yet, The Last Love Song helps toreveal an ocean of retrospective, uncharacteristic, and perhaps unnecessary self-doubt as Didion sorts her small family’s history in these slim volumes. Did she take Quintana’s emotional illness seriously enough? Did she and Dunne neglect Quintana to build their careers? Could Didion have done something to save Quintana? Could Didion have loved Quintana more? By telling the bigger story of how the Didion-Dunnes and their circle lived — brilliantly, alcoholically, ambitiously, and constantly moving from place to place to take the next big job — The Last Love Song reveals Didion’s evasiveness about Quintana as a final act of love and protection at yet another moment when “the world as I had understood it no longer existed.”

In the final years she has been left to live out alone Didion is grappling with some paradoxes of marriage and motherhood with which feminism might have helped her. You can be just as accomplished as you want if you are a woman, and you can win all the prizes, but in the end, the only thing the critics will have to say about you is: you were a bad mother. Great scriptwriters that they were, I wish Dunne and Didion had been able to write a better end to their own life together. But this is how celebrities go out in America: in flames, not in a slow, dignified fade to black. Remember that macabre final shot in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, when Norma goes to the camera one too many times? We leave Didion at the end of The Last Love Song rattling around a big apartment alone. She is frail, subject to falls, increasingly disconnected and alone, sorting through souvenirs of her brilliant life with Dunne and Quintana.

We leave Didion knowing, after all, what it means to be the last one left alive at the Donner Pass as the snow piles higher.

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