Joan Didion, groundbreaking journalist, memoirist, novelist, and screenwriter, dies at 87
Joan Didion, the groundbreaking journalist, memoirist, novelist, and screenwriter, died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan. She was 87.
Her death was confirmed by the New York Times, which reported that according to Paul Bogaards, an executive at Didion's publisher Knopf, the author died from Parkinson's disease.
Knopf also put out a statement on Instagram, sharing a popular quote from the author's well-known Year of Magical Thinking that read, "We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all."
Following news of her death, the literary world reacted to the passing of a cultural titan.
"I've loved feared the day Didion died...we are in for some truly terrible person essays," tweeted author Rumaan Alam.
"YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING was the first book I can recall picking up to read with the intention of trying to understand grief," tweeted How We Fight For Our Lives author Saeed Jones. "It was so foreign to me then; it felt like Joan Didion (also foreign to me then) was explaining that my life bordered a country I hadn't realized existed."
Born in 1934, it's hard to pinpoint which genre most defined Didion – or which genre Didion did most to define — but she made her earliest mark as a young reporter. She graduated from Berkeley in 1956, where she won an essay contest that secured her a job at Vogue. There, in her twenties, she edited features while writing long-form columns, such as "On Self-Respect," which has since been widely quoted. In 1968, she published perhaps her most cited book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of magazine pieces. Slouching Toward Bethlehem explored Didion's home state of California and became a touchstone of New Journalism, an emerging form that combined reporting, narrative voice, and literary devices.
Didion published her first novel, Run, River, in 1963, to lukewarm reviews, but she won later acclaim with novels A Book of Common Prayer and Play It as It Lays, which she herself adapted into a screenplay. As with her journalism, Didion's fiction was notable for its spare, muscular prose — Didion pointed to Ernest Hemingway as inspiration – and a stark sense of dread that permeated her work.
During her Vogue years, Didion met Time writer John Gregory Dunne. They married in 1965. Together, they became a true literary power couple, keeping homes in Manhattan and Hollywood. They collaborated on screenplays The Panic in Needle Park, A Star Is Born, True Confessions, and Up Close & Personal.
After nearly 40 years of marriage, Dunne died of cardiac arrest on Dec. 30, 2003. Just five days earlier, their only daughter, Quintana Roo, had fallen into a coma after complications of pneumonia. Didion chronicled her grief in the wake of Dunne's death and her experiences caring for Quintana in her 2005 memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award For Nonfiction and was adapted by Didion into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Quintana regained consciousness weeks after her father's death but battled other health problems until her death on Aug. 26, 2005, shortly before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking. Instead of changing the manuscript to include the tragic developments, Didion reflected on aging, loss, and her complicated relationship with her daughter in her 2011 memoir, Blue Nights.
Didion's most recent works include South and West: From a Notebook, which was published in 2017, and a collection of essays titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean, which was published earlier this year. The author was also the subject of a recent Netflix documentary titled Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.
Didion wrote in all different genres, formats, and about myriad topics because to her it was like breathing. Her most repeated quote — which hangs over many aspiring writers' desks — came from her 1976 New York Times essay "Why I Write": "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."
Additional reporting by Stephen Lee.