A sad day here just before Christmas. Joan Didion is dead. Please let me tell you about Joan Didion and what a great friend she was to my wife and me.
I had been a giant super fan of Joan and her brilliant husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a super great writer, for a couple of years before I moved to L.A. in June of 1976. Through a friend, I got to have lunch with her and John almost immediately after I arrived here.
She had already achieved fame and acclaim as a novelist and essayist with her first book about life in Sacramento, Run, River, and her spectacular essays about the wicked ’60s culture in a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and her first big selling novel, the short and powerful Play It As It Lays.
She and John Dunne had also written a hard-edged, sad movie, The Panic in Needle Park about drug addicts at 72nd and Broadway in New York City.
As far as I could tell, she was a genius seer of what was real and dangerous in the supposedly happy “summer of love” decade. God bless her. She saw the truth, told the truth, and told it poetically. She even told the truth about “CalTrans,” the part of our government here that routinely does traffic stopping construction on the busiest parts of the freeway at rush hour — namely that it doesn’t really give a damn about the motorists.
She and John and my wife and I routinely had lunch at The Palm, then a red hot Hollywood spot. She smoked Pall-Malls heavily, in those days, fully allowed at restaurants. Then after much pleading by many of us who loved her, she stopped smoking. My wife and I still have her last pack of cigarettes in a lucite box on our fireplace mantel in our home in Malibu.
That home overlooks the exact spot on Zuma Beach where Joan and John lived. Their home was burned down in a fire many years ago. They moved to New York about thirty years ago, and I am sad to say that my wife and I were in much less touch with her than we had been. She had been a conservative politically, as I was and am. She changed very much politically after about 1990. I never questioned that: she called them as she saw them.
She was an incredibly brave woman. Her stunningly brilliant husband John died suddenly of a heart attack while they were having dinner at home. That was in 2003. A year and a half later, her beautiful daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, died of septicemia at a New York Hospital.
Joan kept on writing, using her genius to skewer her opponents and to take on unpopular crusades, such as her struggle to free one of the Manson murder cult’s killers from prison. As far as I know, it never worked and she certainly made no friends over it. But she was not a politician. She called them as she saw them. She even had the guts to write a Broadway play about her devastating losses, basically a one woman show starred in by a much hated English actress named Vanessa Redgrave. She wrote to save her life.
She worked, but she never recovered from her losses — and who possibly could? She knew what grief meant and she and John wrote me a deeply moving letter about my father’s passing in 1999. I saved it, of course, and I still am moved to tears when I read it.
Joan Didion. Superstar talent. Hero of mourning and loss. Friend to a newcomer writer wandering around Hollywood in 1976. Gone. Tragedy.
She was a genius, a hero, and a friend. Taken away from the world she knew so well by a germ or a virus that did not even know her name. But the world knew her name and Alex and I knew her name and we miss her terribly.
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