Need something to watch or read or discuss with your book club? May we humbly suggest Joan Didion, the novelist, essayist, screenwriter and memoirist whose 40-plus years of publishing have yielded nothing less than a National Book Award, a National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal—not to mention legions of rabid fans (ourselves included). Here’s a quick reminder why she rules.
She’s a new Netflix star.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is a must-see for Californians and the people who love them, with the story of this imaginative Sacramento girl who, thanks to her talent and hard work, became the toast of Hollywood and New York.
She’s the ur-queen of the memoir craze.
Long before reality TV, the 1970s were christened “the Me Decade” by Didion’s contemporary in magazine writing, Tom Wolfe. When Didion published an essay about being in Hawaii with her husband and daughter “in lieu of filing for divorce,” it was as shocking and relatable then as now.
She knows how to explain California to us.
Sure, she lives in New York now (her late husband wanted to move there). But this longtime Angeleno spent so many years here writing about what it’s really like to live in California, profiling the freeways, the Hoover Dam, the long stretches of valley farms and the crazy-making Santa Ana winds. The collection We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is a great place to start.
She has the best packing list.
As a traveling reporter in the ’70s, she taped up her go-to packing list: "Two skirts, two jerseys or leotards, one pullover sweater, two pair shoes, stockings, bra, nightgown, robe, slippers, cigarettes, bourbon. Bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste. Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin. prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil." To which we say, ah yes, bourbon is the original melatonin.
She’s a style legend.
Becoming a fashion model for one of the coolest labels ever—when you're also 80 and busy winning awards and publishing best sellers—is the definition of #goals.
She was the center of groovy Hollywood.
Her Malibu house overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway acted as an unofficial salon for parties in which movie stars dropped by. Longtime friend Sara Davidson’s memoir details how Warren Beatty, then Hollywood’s sexiest star, tried to seduce Didion—only to have the writer coolly rebuff him.
She has an orchid named after her.
Forty years ago in The White Album, Didion immortalized Malibu’s Zuma Canyon Orchids as an ideal place to spend contemplative afternoons, and owner Armado Vazquez’s story as a Mexican émigré made good as a botanist (this nursery’s efforts are why you see those giant white moth orchids everywhere). Vazquez named a special not-for-sale hybrid after Didion, which you can see if you stop by the nursery.
Her movies are riveting.
Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote and script-doctored numerous screenplays. Check out gritty The Panic in Needle Park on Netflix for a tragic tale (and Al Pacino’s first starring role).
She’s survived the haters.
Over the years, leading lights such as writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison and film critic Pauline Kael took potshots at Didion, who coolly ignored the criticism as the cost of doing business.
She’s had one hell of a second act.
After the author’s husband died of a massive heart attack and her only daughter died 18 months later, Didion’s friends and family worried she wouldn’t be able to survive the devastating losses. Instead, she sat down and wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about her initial year of grieving her husband, which won a National Book Award and was turned into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
She’s written a novel for every stage in your life.
For youthful longing, there’s Democracy. For 30-something angst, there’s Play It As It Lays. For mid-career powerhouse player time, there’s The Last Thing He Wanted. They’re all powerful and poignant in their own way.