Joan Didion Terrifies Me

Joan Didion (1934-2021)

I am alternately in love with and terrified by Joan Didion. Behind that seeming fragility is a mountain of strength and eyes that cut through the obscuring fog. On one hand, the young Joan Didion was beautiful; but her marriage to John Gregory Dunne was a stormy one, and her relationship with him and her adopted daughter Quintana Roo was interrupted by their early deaths. I keep thinking of her heroine Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays:

She took his hand and held it. “Why are you here?”

“Because you and I, we know something. Because we’ve been out there where nothing is. Because I wanted—you know why.”

Joan was never a safe, sensible woman. She saw clearly to the heart of things, yet dulled herself with large amounts of alcohol and was rarely photographed without a cigarette in her hands. The daughter of a rancher, she was raised in Sacramento, a fifth-generation Californian, whose ancestors just escaped being part of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-1847. There is in her eyes both wildness and clarity. She, too, has been out there where nothing is.

Though in one sense she terrifies me, I love her work. When she died last December, I felt that California had lost its muse.

Across Twenty Years of L.A. Life

Charles Manson Under Arrest

I am currently reading Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion entitled The Last Love Song. Halfway through the book, I feel as if I had relived the 1960s and the 1970s. I had never realized what a key literary figure that Joan Didion (as well as her friend Eve Babitz) were in my life. While Eve represented to me the world of L.A. celebrities, Joan’s wide screen writings took in the whole local and even international picture.

If one lives in the West L.A. area over a number of years, one finds oneself on the fringes of history. On June 5, 2004, for instance, Martine and I were turned away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley because the ex-president had just died. The funeral home that handled his body was within walking distance of my apartment, at 26th Street and Arizona in Santa Monica.

The scene of the crime when O. J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman was only five blocks north of me on Bundy Drive. (It building got so many visitors that they demolished the building.)

On June 25, 2009, I had difficulty getting home from work because thousands of people had showed up at the UCLA Hospital when they heard that Michael Jackson had died.

One of our clients at the accounting firm where I worked was the actor Richard Anderson, who lived at 10130 Cielo Drive, right next door to the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends were slaughtered by the Manson Family.

Joan Didion

While I never met Joan Didion, I always felt a curious parallelism between her works and my life. Not because I was a successful writer or filmmaker, but because she tracked life in Southern California the way I did. For the most part, what interested her interested me. I suspect that if I had met her, she and I would not have seen eye to eye: I am not interested in the kind of active social life she lived, or in heavy drinking, or raising a child (at which she self-admittedly failed).

The fact remains that, in following her works, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, I feel as if I am reliving my life during the formative years of my early adulthood. So much so that it is almost eerie at times.

Down Two Muses

Christmas 2021 was going to see Los Angeles minus two of her muses. We just lost Joan Didion (above) to Parkinson’s disease; and six days ago, we lost Eve Babitz (photo below) to Huntington’s disease. Didion and Babitz were, to my mind, the leading writers about life in Southern California over the last half century or so.

I remember when I was first introduced to Didion by my friend Stephanie Hanna, who recommended back around 1970 that I read her great collection of essays entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Since then, I have read at least eight other volumes of her fiction and nonfiction.

Eve Babitz was a more recent discovery, thanks mainly to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), which brought out most of her work in the last few years. I consider Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company to be among the best works written about life in Southern California.

Joan Didion died in her 80s, and Eve Babitz at the age of 78. That makes me feel vulnerable, as I am a male who is about to reach his 77th year next month. In many ways, my acceptance of women as a source of outstanding literature about the local scene is due to these two powerful figures.

Now, as I look around me, who is there to take their places? No one that I can recognize at this point. I am just going to have to start looking….