uncovering joan didion's secrets

In a poignant new biography.

by Austen Leah Rosenfeld
30 July 2015, 2:30pm

photography Julian Wasser

"She's a perfect advertisement for herself," Norman Mailer once said about Joan Didion upon seeing her at a party. The comment demonstrated a side of Didion that is now more apparent than ever. While she is one of American literature's great stylists and chroniclers of 20th century culture, Didion has also constructed (unconsciously or not) a particular brand over the years--70s California whimsy combined with New York intellect--that's made her one of the trendiest writers living today.

Didion recently starred in Céline's Spring 2015 ad campaign. "I hadn't a clue," she told the New York Times about the fact that the photos went viral on the internet. In addition, the writer's nephew launched a Kickstarter last year to fund an upcoming documentary (donate and you could receive a pair of sunglasses from her personal collection).

Suffice it to say, Didion fever is at a high. Which makes Tracy Daugherty's biography of Didion, The Last Love Song, out August 25th from St. Martin's Press, well-timed. The book traces her life from her youth in Sacramento to her days at Vogue to her nights mingling among Hollywood elite. The book took five years to write but, according to Daugherty, was forty years in the making. 

What was your relationship to Didion's work initially? Did things change as you started researching the biography?
I think I was in college back in the late 70s when I first read her. New journalism hadn't hit big yet--people weren't thinking about it as much those days, so coming across her work was a real revelation, that nonfiction could be just as literary and could be seen as art. The White Album was the first piece I read and I was amazed at how she could stick herself in the story in a personal way and get away with that. The fragmented style, the rhythm, the timing were all important to me as a young writer. When I started the biography I didn't change my mind about her. I continued to have even more respect for her and how intrepid she was throughout her career.

Was there anything about her that was revealed to you as you researched?
The thing that surprised me the most was going into the old Vogue magazines and Mademoiselle magazines. She got her start writing for what used to be called women's magazines and I'd never really looked at those. They were amazing in the 50s and 60s; they were publishing great stuff. She started out writing about fashion and pop culture and I think that's really important.Since early on she was looking at fashion and pop culture trends, I just think she had her eye on things that other writers didn't. She could see how trends were prophesying what was to come, that there was a new tone in the air.

She worked as a staff writer Vogue, and she's been featured in Gap and Céline ads. How would you describe her relationship with fashion through the years?
She's written about what she learned as a young writer sitting in on fashion photo shoots. She saw people like Irving Penn that were there to create an artificial scene. He would try to arrange a fashion shoot in a certain way. He was in control of it. That was an important lesson to her as a writer. You're creating an artificial thing when you write. You're deciding how to arrange the material. I think she learned a lot from the visual side of things.

Did you interview Didion for the book?
I have talked to her before, but I didn't for the book. She didn't want to talk for the biography. I think she felt she's told her own story the way she wanted to tell it and she doesn't like others trying to tell her story.

Who was the most interesting person you talked to?
The most interesting was talking to people who knew her early in her career. Noel Parmentel, who was very important to her and was a first romantic interest. He knew a lot of how she got started and her first days in New York. A lot of people from her childhood in Sacramento, and later a lot of people who knew her daughter Quintana. We know from her own essays her middle period, so for me, discovering things about the early period and the later years with Quintana was eye-opening to me.

A big part of what the biographer has to do is be a drudge, go to the library and look at archives. Many of Didion's papers are at Berkeley. I went to the libraries and read correspondence, which is a great way to put together a chronology. [Husband John] Dunne, like Didion, wrote a lot of personal essays. They shared a magazine column for Esquire. Those were very personal essays and revealed a lot about their life.

It was interesting to read about how she opposed the women's movement. I think she's admired by a lot of women for her ambition and her ability to break into the supposed men's world of hard-hitting journalism.
My guess is she would never say she was anti-women's movement but in the early days she didn't see the necessity for it. She grew up pretty independent herself and never had the sense she was held back in any way. She would look at other women and say, "I don't understand what you're griping about, just do what you want to do." Later on she understood there were bigger issues and there were economic problems but she didn't have patience for people saying, "I'm the victim."

Didion is one of the few writers I can think of who really created a brand for herself, which is why I think she's such an interesting figure in fashion. Why and how did she create that image for herself?
I'm not sure why. Why has she become a fashion icon? On the one hand she's been aware of it from the beginning, her experience working for Vogue gave her an eye for it and taught her if you make yourself into a brand there's a better chance of becoming popular, so there was a degree of calculation. But on the other hand she's not phony. It's not like Madonna who's always recreating herself. She is herself and that's part of it. She's a tough woman, she's been a survivor and gone through so much, and doesn't present herself as a victim.

It's interesting to see Didion take on a new life online. She's very popular and talked about a lot. She might be one of the few writers that survive the transition. Maybe it's because of her style, which has always been fragmented and fast-paced and, in some ways, suited for the web.

Did you go to her former houses in Malibu, Brentwood, New York?
The one in Malibu is not there anymore but I went to the area and I saw the one on Franklin Ave that she lived in during the Manson days. I stood outside her apartment in New York. That's another thing, the biographer is kind of a stalker.


Text Austen Rosenfeld
Photo courtesy Julian Wasser/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Joan Didion