In the space of just over one week the world lost important cultural and literary figures Eve Babitz, bell hooks and Joan Didion.
Writer and essayist Didion died aged 87 on December 23, and while she wrote a handful of novels including the devastating Play It As It Lays, it is her incisive essays and nonfiction which blended reportage with personal narrative for which she is best known and widely celebrated. A central figure in the New Journalism movement Didion’s 1968 debut essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem took the pulse of the countercultural milieu of 1960s America, in particular, California.
Didion captured the chaos and anxieties of modern American politics and its social and cultural landscape, but with her calm, diagnostic style and clipped, orderly prose, she was always in control. She began her career aged 21 writing style pieces for Vogue after winning the magazine’s Prix de Paris writing competition where the winner was awarded a placement at the magazine.
Whether covering the Patty Hearst trial, the Black Panthers, the civil war in El Salvador, or the LSD-drenched darkness of Haight-Ashbury’s rinsed out hippie dream, Didion’s elegant concision transcended mere reportage. Her journalism, informed by a love of literature, in particular the precision of Ernest Hemingway, is steeped in literary depth and finesse, giving her writing an edge and making her one of the most singular prose stylists.
She once said in an interview that writing without detail has nothing. And her writing is studded with detail so forensic it places the reader squarely in whatever world about which she is writing, the details painting an evocative scene. Along with incidental details of meals (the perfect beurre blanc a friend makes one night to serve with fish, or the homemade fried chicken complete with miniature salt and pepper shakers she would pack for her daughter Quintana Roo’s school lunch - these details give a sharp insight) Didion’s writing is also full of exquisite sartorial detail of what people (including herself) are wearing. The pair of instantly recognisable red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes worn by Quintana on her wedding day, a collection of pristine pastel linen dresses, or a blue-and-cream tweed Chanel suit lined in “cyclamen-pink silk,” for example.
Modestly, Didion noted in Slouching Towards Bethlehem that her only advantage as a reporter was that she was physically small, with such an unobtrusive temperament “that people tend to forget my presence runs counter to their best interests”. Because she was seen as small and frail, Didion found that people would often loosen up around her and say things to her that they would come to regret when they saw them in print later. “That is one last thing to remember. Writers are always selling somebody out,” she wrote.
Her iconic personal style with a signature look of flats, pencil skirts and long flowing jersey knit dresses were accessorised by either oversized sunglasses or an aloof gaze, a lit cigarette and a lowball of bourbon, her beloved bright yellow Corvette Stingray, and in later years, a sleek silvery bob. Didion exemplified chic minimalism, effortless cool and glossy glamour shot through with a frosty and detached mystique.
Famous is her carefully considered packing list which she taped to her wardrobe door to allow for efficient packing whenever sent on assignment: two skirts, one sweater, a mohair throw, a leotard and stockings, and the essential typewriter, cigarettes and bourbon.
In 2015, at the age of 80, Didion became the face of French fashion house Céline, but this wasn’t the first time she had modelled. In 1989 Annie Leibovitz photographed Didion and Quintana wearing matching black turtlenecks for Gap’s ‘Individuals of Style’ ad campaign. The black and white image is striking.
Didion has said she wrote to find out what she thought about the world around her. The much quoted opening line to her piercing essay ‘The White Album’ says it all: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”