Cynthia Zarin, Ira Silverberg, Fariha Róisín, and others reflect on the reach of the iconic American voice
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends,” Joan Didion wrote at the start of her seminal essay “Goodbye to All That.” “I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended.”
Didion’s New York was different from ours—different, even, from the one that existed just before she published the essay in 1967, by virtue of the fact that her cutting perspective burrowed into the collective local consciousness, dissecting the spell that the city once cast so you could see it exactly as she did: as “an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power.” New York, Didion wrote, was “only for the very young,” and it was “distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.”
Upon her passing in late December, the Los Angeles Times published a tribute piece that put it well: “Only a great artist creates and ruins a genre at the same time.” Didion fashioned a literary cliché—an inimitable narrative, which essayists everywhere still strive to match—and, in the same breath, knocked the technicolor dream of New York City down a level. It’s not that Didion achieved legendary status by being glamorously jaded. It’s that the way she thought—and the way she put it down on paper—was singular in the truest sense of the word. Didion was the first and the best to frame it that way—whatever it and that way happened to be.
On losing a husband and daughter: “Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
On the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five: “For as long as this case held the city’s febrile attention, then, it offered a narrative for the city’s distress, a frame in which the actual social and economic forces wrenching the city could be personalized and ultimately obscured.”
On the reason to write in the first place: “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.”
Between the aesthetics, the politics, the psychology; considering the memoirs, the fiction, the New Journalism; and in light of her honesty, her modishness, her coolness, terseness, style, nuance, and lack of complication—what’s left to say about Joan Didion’s legacy? For Document, 10 writers across the cultural landscape reflect on the reach of the unforgettable American voice, from New York to California to everywhere.
“She lived, as it were, along with us, showing us—with her characteristic precision, clarity, and elegance—what it is like to be young, then older; how it feels to have and then to lose; to hold and then let go.”
Filmmaker and author of Happy Hour
Didion always made leaving New York seem like an experience worth having. Even at her most journalistic, I always found her work fragrant. There was flair. She had a particular rhythm to language that influenced generations of writers to view the world with her signature—Didion’s exacting gaze. She was the kind of writer who had people scrambling to find their own kind of flair. She made it
Critic, essayist, author of Blue Angel
In her beautiful 1967 essay, “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion wrote that it was impossible for anyone brought up in the East to understand what the city, what the idea of the city, meant “to those of us who came out of the West and the South.” Having grown up in New York, I remember agreeing—and then going on to read a description of a childhood, a fantasy childhood, that was even more unlike my own than Didion’s accounts of coming of age in California. That child “who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has spent several hundred Saturdays first at F.A.O. Schwarz and being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin”—who was she? And who in the world was Lester Lanin? My friends and I grew up listening to early Motown, singing doo-wop, our voices vastly improved by the flattering acoustics of subway stations. We dreamed not of shoe fittings at Best’s but of handmade sandals from the Village, and if our uncles went anywhere near Wall Street, it was to pay their annual tax-time visits to their accountants.
I left New York at around the same time as Didion reports at the end of her essay, not for LA but for Cambridge, Massachusetts—where I never stopped grieving for New York, where I never stopped feeling that I had been exiled from a lost paradise. How could I have wound up in a place where strangers on the MTA seemed to have been fashioned entirely out of dough and where I searched in vain for a classmate who listened to James Brown?
In retrospect, what’s striking about “Goodbye to All That” is how white Joan Didion’s New York was—how everyone she knew seemed to be young, upwardly mobile, and (no matter how much of an outsider they might have felt) confident and attractive. When one left the city in which I’d grown up, or was compelled by circumstances to leave, it was because life there had become unsustainable—too expensive, too dangerous, too unwelcoming—and not from the personal malaise or anomie that drove Didion and her husband back to California.
The city that Didion wrote about in “New York”—her 1990 essay about the Central Park jogger case—was much more like the place I recognized, the city that had always been there, barely concealed beneath the glittering veneer of parties and martinis that Didion had described 23 years earlier. It was, as she noted, a metropolis of “8 million stories and all the same story, each devised to obscure not only the city’s actual tensions of race and class but also, more significantly, the civic and commercial arrangements that rendered those tensions irreconcilable.” It had become a city in which “the more privileged, and especially the more privileged white, citizens of New York had begun to feel unnerved at high noon in even their own neighborhoods.”
Reading the two essays, one after the other, feels a bit like watching someone wake up from a reverie: being startled out of a dream of “new faces” and meetings under the Biltmore clock and awakening to a world in which young men of color could be accused and wrongfully convicted of assaulting a white woman, a world in which one had been obliged to replace the fantasies and endless possibilities of youth—with all its glorious and painful opportunities for self-reflection—for the harsher and more complex realities of adulthood. The differences between the two essays may, I think, partly explain why Didion has become such an iconic and beloved writer: We feel that she lived, as it were, along with us, showing us—with her characteristic precision, clarity, and elegance—what it is like to be young, then older; how it feels to have and then to lose; to hold and then let go.
In sentence after sentence, essay after essay, she helped us to see how experience can be at once intensely personal and broadly universal, what it means to have our eyes opened: to open our eyes.
“I didn’t realize worthiness was inherent and not something each person is assigned or not assigned, and I didn’t quite get that I was important, valid, just by virtue of being on this planet. Alive.”
Vanity Fair contributor, man about town, author of Out
In high school and college my literary idols were Rimbaud, Eliot, Kafka, and Burroughs. And then along came Joan Didion in 1968 with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, opening my eyes to how powerful nonfiction could be.
Poet, novelist, author of How to Cure a Ghost
Self-respect has been a pursuit of mine since the beginning of the pandemic, and became a necessary venture after I realized I didn’t have any. I was so easily susceptible to self-ridicule and embarrassment that my whole life became a tepid clown show of me doing juggling acts to prove that I was valuable. I didn’t realize worthiness was inherent and not something each person is assigned or not assigned, and I didn’t quite get that I was important, valid, just by virtue of being on this planet. Alive.
Joan Didion seems like she had self-respect, but then I remember she was a (triple) Sagittarius and I wonder if she was plagued by the same sentient sound of the eerie longing left by shame. Shame is the opposite of self-respect and it really is an imposition. I remember reading that John Gregory Dunne, Didion’s husband (a Gemini) had a rapturous temper. Explosive enough to note, which is always a warning sign. As someone who has seen the way that violence permeates and ruptures a family, I was surprised by Dunne’s temerity and maybe, judgmentally, a bit shocked by Didion’s unwavering support ushered through her silence.
Self-respect is hard to gather when you feel you have not gained the merit worthy of the respect you seek, meaning: I have high expectations of who I am and who I want to be. An unwavering Capricorn in every detail, I seek the height of mountains… So how to gain respect for a self still in motion? A self in (constant) evolution?
It wasn’t until recently that I realized I didn’t have to hold myself by a leash anymore, that self-respect could be gained through witnessing oneself in a total way.
Both Joan and I are Cancer Risings, our hearts are our pilgrimages, we see tenderness as a virtue. You can tell in the way she would cascade emotion through her sentences, weaving them with the grace of a swan, pulling together feeling and words with such candor and gentle regard. Sooner or later, my therapist told me, you have to pay attention to what you give, who you are, and see value in that. As a Capricorn, because I had not won in a traditional way—not with family, nor inheritance, nor schooling, nor the awards and grants awarded to those who know the right people—I felt less than. Because of this, I felt unworthy.
I don’t want to scream anymore; now, I choose the elegance of sitting back and observing. Getting older (for me) means giving fewer fucks. It means people become predictable and patterns reveal themselves quicker. Self-respect has been mustered from deep within me—within the dance that is conjured each day, sacrosanct, I find a way to evoke the power inside and let it guide me into a trance. Hindu Vedic scholars figured out kundalini energy by studying the composition of the energetic bodies of humans; through deep spiritual investigation, they conceptualized our chakras. When I think of self-respect, I think of my ancestors. Hindu or Muslim, elders are elders with wisdom that I seek.
And, what other way to describe a Sagittarius? Other than one who is in constant hunger for higher knowledge. It’s my ninth year, ruled by Sagittarius, and in tarot the ninth card is the strength card. I think of that word when I think of Didion, isolated in Manhattan in her apartment full of ghosts. What it must’ve taken to muster such barrels of courage and strength in order to move through the chaos of death—to synthesize it in words so others can grieve through you. The loss of an only child and husband is a death of oneself, in some regard, and she carried on two decades alone without the both of them by her side. Strength builds self-respect.
When she was 28 years old, Didion moved back to California from New York, describing it as “distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair”—a description that was apt as I transplanted myself from New York to California for the first time, just a few months prior to now, as I write in my cool apartment in Silver Lake. As a child of Australia, I’ve learned from Los Angeles, my new home, that geography has its own pull, and the land has secrets worthy of deep exploration. I feel the most rooted here, knowing Didion spent years here, too, writing books and screenplays and essays on the Black Panther Party. I use her as a totem of self-regard; from the conversations between our two minds, I gather self-respect.
“Her goodbye to New York lasted for a time, and then she came back, to the city that claimed her anomie, her anxiety, her tendency to repeat herself; to go back and say it again, and for once, try to get it right.”
New Yorker contributor, poet behind Orbit
How old was I when I first read Didion’s essay, “Goodbye to All That?” Fifteen, 16? At 17 I was on the 104 bus riding north up Broadway under a theatrical blue sky curved like a convex mirror, and I thought: My life begins now. Who knows why? I had been born six blocks away. All I had to say goodbye to was childhood, and an interminable sense of waiting for the curtain to lift. I knew passages by heart. I recited under my breath, I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. What did I know? No one had touched me. I had no idea what in any colloquial way meant, except that the word colloquial sounded to me like the chattering sparrows that congregated in the shrubs by the stairs down to the IRT subway at Columbus Circle; a heightened, mysterious whir. Five years or six years later I was at a party at the St. Regis, wearing a dress made of mauve plastic lace, on a balcony overlooking the starry park, and a man more than twice my age, whom the party was for (he had spent two decades writing a book about which I remember only his description of the taste of a screen door on the tongue), took my glass of champagne, poured it over the edge, and said, “You think it will always be like this. Well, it won’t.”
During a subway renovation, the shrubbery disappeared, and I worried about the birds. By then I had read Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect” and could quote: The day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it and However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. By then I was indeed lying in the bed I had made; the sheets snarled, damp with 3 a.m. jitters. In those days, when we knew almost no one who was dead, we smoked, and there were burn holes on the pillowcases, eyelets outlined in blackened kohl. It would be years before I realized that if you make your bed in the morning, at least you’ve done something. On dismal days, when trying to stave off huge floods of tears (the price of some of my lies) was my main activity, I thought without fail of Didion’s at-home remedy for a broken heart: It is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in ‘Wuthering Heights’ with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. “On Self-Respect” first appeared in Vogue, over 60 years ago, with the subtitle, in italics, “Its source, its power.”
Didion was from California. Her goodbye to New York lasted for a time, and then she came back, to the city that claimed her anomie, her anxiety, her tendency to repeat herself; to go back and say it again, and for once, try to get it right. When the Columbus Circle station stairs reopened, the shrubs and clamorous birds returned. Some of us never said goodbye—where would we go, when right next to that shiny bar in Brooklyn, your father used to smack a Spaldeen against the stoop? As she predicted, after that balcony scene I went to parties where I knew everyone, but only much later did I understand that just possibly not everyone is who you thought they were. What I mean to say is, using the comma as a stammer, which makes it seem as if you are trying hard to get to the truth, is that her work for me was a manual not only for writing but for living. In the end, those dicta turned out to be close kin. Narrowing my eyes, my view of that girl on the balcony, who pretended she knew what to make of a man who poured a drink into the darkness, and then what to make of her, is through the lens she gave me to see.
“I cried because I saw her work as history. I cried because I understood that Joan Didion’s death was, finally, the official end of the 20th century.”
Editor, arts consultant, literary citizen
The first thing I noticed about Joan Didion was how good she looked. It was May 1983, at the American Academy of Arts & Letters annual ceremony in Upper Manhattan. William Burroughs was being inducted. Allen Ginsberg was proudly holding court. He’d convinced the very stuffy membership to invite Burroughs to its ranks. He explained to me that Didion was important in swaying the vote.
Didion had reviewed William’s novel The Soft Machine a decade before, saying the fine thing about Burroughs and the novel was that they both were, “complex, subtle, (and) allusive… hard, derisive, inventive, free, funny, serious, poetic, indelibly American, a voice in which one hears transistor radios and old movies and all the clichés and all the cons and all the newspapers, all the peculiar optimism, all the failure. Against that voice, those of the younger ‘satirical’ or ‘black’ novelists sound self-conscious and faked; it is the voice of a natural, and what it is saying is in no sense the point.” She sounded almost like Burroughs there for a minute.
I was a 20-year-old member of the Burroughs retinue then. I was overwhelmed by the intellectual and artistic superpower in the room. One of the ways I’d compensate for my youth, and my naïve yet emerging literary and cultural vocabulary and opinions, was to talk about clothing. I’d worked at the now-mythological Charivari in high school in the late ’70s, and I could always fall back on fashion. She was in white cashmere, I think. But had I read her? My anxiety was rising as Ginsberg began to make the intros.
I tried on a potential conversation that relied on having read her in high school. She’d be amused by this little fellow who’d read her at Bronx Science. In truth, I’d only just read Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, and knew better than to gush.
I wanted to believe that I sold her that cashmere sweater, or something classic and chic, so we could bond over WASP signifiers. Was she wearing white Belgian Shoes? We didn’t carry classics at Charivari, rather we minted new ones. And she was Upper East, and Charivari was Upper West—distinctions that seemed to matter then. And I was a Bronx Jew living in Lawrence, Kansas. I would read more of her work.
She first won an Academy Award (1978) and then gained membership (1981) in the almost all-male Academy. Burroughs, whose family was like Midwestern Watsons—pushing capitalist America ahead with practical technologies and good family names—was a dark horse, a renegade, a Queer, and likely wouldn’t have been admitted to the Academy had Allen not, essentially, forced his way in. Didion made sense as an Academy member. More so than Burroughs. It warmed my heart that she supported him. I kept on reading her. I loved seeing photos of her, clad in white, that look of hers—all-knowing. I saw her as a visionary writer.
When I returned from Kansas, I began a career in publishing. I also worked two nights a week as a nightclub doorman. Until recently, for people of modest means, jobs in the culture sector required a second income to survive. Entry level was for upper-class kids. I shape-shifted in social scenes and I would see her and her husband at parties. I would always remind her that we met when I was quite young and how much that had meant to me. I was seeing her through a nostalgic filter.
She was utterly charming, but when I would get heady about her role in the culture, she’d demur. She seemed to get more stylish as the years went on. Sometimes I’d ask where a bracelet or scarf came from. My recollection is that they were appropriately matched to her age and station—but with some Euro flair. Was that a Bulgari bracelet?
She resided in a particular pantheon of writers I deemed out of my league. She was with the Updikes and Cheevers. I was in the tribe with the Ackers, Ginsbergs, and Tillmans. That woman was fierce, upper-class, and an unparalleled critical stylist. My people were beginning to enter the literary space with work that was born of a different cultural point of view—whether working-class, transgressive, or formally challenging. I continued to read her; I appreciated her clarity; I began to understand that the genius was entirely “dominant culture.”
I bottomed out when I read The Year of Magical Thinking. The denial of death shocked me. I wanted her to be “enlightened” and embrace her husband’s death; understand life cycles, karma; lead her readers into greater acceptance of the inevitable. It was an unfair judgment born of having lived through the AIDS crisis. I heard friends laud the book, speak to her “amazing” emotional availability, and I judged them too. That dominant culture thing was bugging me.
I hated that book. I wanted her to transcend her WASPiness.
In 2015, my friend James Danziger put on an exhibit of Julian Wasser’s portraits of Joan—Joan in front of the Corvette, the classic publicity still—which I bought. She’s young, beautiful, casual in a loose-fitting white top and loose-fitting printed pants. Joan, looking like the rock star of letters that she was—but an elegant rock star. If Joan Baez had been born a Biddle, perhaps… Had she done the Céline campaign yet? She was gorgeous in those photos. But the Julian Wasser photo, that was the Joan I loved. The visionary. The point of view I could only hope to aspire to.
The photo moved from one place of employment to another, and finally to my library at home, hanging alongside portraits by Ginsberg, and of Acker and Burroughs. That was always off somehow. But there she stayed, in the pantheon of writers who changed how I see the world, until late last year.I was at a plant medicine retreat in the jungle outside Tulum when she died. I went with the hope of transcending sorrow. I was hoping to start the new year with a different take—fill the space of grief with love; accept that loss is permanent rather than a low-grade perpetual sadness that has plagued me since the late ’80s. When I got to the airport in Tulum, I turned on the Times app. I’d been in a media blackout for a week. There was her obit. I burst into tears in the security line.
I cried because I loved her work and it helped to define my sensibilities. I cried because I was so happy that my sensibilities had evolved. I cried for America as it reckoned with so much. I cried because I felt so hopeless about that reckoning. I cried because I saw her work as history. I cried because I understood that Joan Didion’s death was, finally, the official end of the 20th century.
The photo by Julian Wasser hangs over my bar now. The irony is that I don’t drink.
“Joan turned out to be an intoxicating mix of artist and hack, the kind of writer whose profound certainty about what they want to say paradoxically makes them completely open to the idea of being edited.”
Editor-at-Large for AirMail and founder of Digital Party
I was living in London when I discovered Joan Didion. A friend who worked at the New Yorker sent me The White Album as a present after a dinner party. It was the first time I encountered her tone. Initially, it seemed both laconic and spacey, the very essence of stoned California laid-back cool. She was a writer with an almost prenatural ability to know when just one or two well-placed words would outperform long sentences or rambling paragraphs. Frankly, I was intimidated by her writing and intimidated by her. Even when she was overawed herself, like she was in the beginning of her famous essay, “Goodbye to All That,” she seemed to capture the essence of the vulnerability of youth without getting overly emotional or gushing. She was sylphlike, a cipher to me. Even physically, her impossible slimness, slimness unachievable by any amount of dieting or exercise, seemed like her writing—effortless and a gift that mere mortals could never obtain.
I know her great-niece Annabelle Dunne; we worked together at Vanity Fair and would have dinner sometimes on her trips back to New York from LA when she was filming the documentary about her Aunt Joan.
Annabelle would tell me how hard it was to watch this incredible mind in its decline. (Joan had Parkinson’s disease, which was also the disease that eventually killed my own father after a 25-year struggle.) Knowing a bit about Parkinson’s and how it quietly boxes in the mind (“death by a thousand cuts,” my mother used to say about my father’s own struggles) and always seems to strike down minds that race at a thousand miles an hour, minds always in fifth gear with synapses reacting so quickly that to be inside those minds must be like sitting at a Fourth of July fireworks show, I came to the conclusion that if Joan Didion had Parkinson’s, she couldn’t be California cool on the inside. She must have had a mind just as messy and hectic as the rest of us. Her ability was to tighten the output valve better than most. So I stopped feeling intimidated by her writing, and I started just appreciating it.
Director, screenwriter, playwright behind Plenty
An excerpt from We Travelled: Essays and Poems
It sounds odd maybe, callous even, to say that the 18 months I spent preparing and directing The Year of Magical Thinking were professionally among the happiest of my life. When I was first approached by the American producer Scott Rudin in November 2005 to direct a play Joan Didion wanted to write based on her hugely successful book, a couple of friends looked at me sideways. Was I sure? Did I really want to let myself in for such a long time addressing such forbidding subject matter? It was easy enough to spend a few hours reading a book about death which you could let flop in one hand while nursing a scotch in the other. But how would it be to spend months in the grueling Broadway system—endless previews, needless hysteria, erratic critics—in the company of a 72-year-old first-time playwright whose agony of grief was so raw? Wasn’t the prospect… well, rather austere? So it’s hard to explain why my own reaction—the one you have before you can think—was that the whole thing sounded, in prospect, highly enjoyable. I responded to Scott’s offer in a loose paraphrase of Citizen Kane: “Great. It sounds like we could have some fun.”
That our time with Magical Thinking in New York did indeed reward the whole company and crew with so much pleasure and humor is principally down to the spirit of the author. I had never met Joan before we started to consider how she might imagine a possible play. Nor, when I was first approached, had I even read her latest book. In Britain, Magical Thinking had not had anything like the impact it achieved in the US: It had not become the indispensable modern handbook to bereavement. At the turn of the century, however, I had written Joan a heartfelt fan letter, out of the blue, one author to another, about her collection of essays Political Fictions. She had answered with what I would now recognize as a characteristically courteous and thoughtful reply. It was self-evident to the most casual reader that by keeping herself away from any contact with Washington, Joan was able to define the characters and intentions of the leading imperial figures with far more insight than any Beltway insider. Her methods were deep research, intuition, and watching television. But beyond admiring her wonderfully obvious authorial stance—“Let’s talk about politics like we’re human beings”—I was struck by how she also made political reporting so fresh, so immediate, by not bothering with piety. Having started out as a roguish if complicated admirer of the ideals of Barry Goldwater, Joan brought to her view of the latest fearful idiots in the White House a marked personal prejudice in favor of courage, order, and liberty.
There is, of course, in all Joan’s reporting, an exciting tension between what appears to be the cool poise of her much-admired prose style and the banked-down, vivid heat of her feeling. Subjective and objective are at glorious war. So when I did finally meet her in Scott’s offices on 45th Street on a freezing January day in 2006, it was a difficult first step for me to point out to this apparently frail, painfully thin woman (“Under 75 pounds,” she said, “and you begin to feel the cold”) that we were facing an egregious artistic problem.
Since she had written her best-seller about the death of her husband, the screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne, her daughter Quintana had also died, at the age of 39, after a series of terrifying medical incidents. For that reason, it was impossible to dramatize the book as it was. A mere recitation was anyway out of the question. Joan had written prose. Now we needed a play. But, more damagingly, the character on stage would look unintentionally stupid if she appeared to know less than the audience. How could she alone not know that her own daughter had died? What was required, therefore, was a full-scale reinvention, not only of the events themselves, but of the voice in which the events were recounted. An author who had dug as deep as she could into the madness which overwhelmed her upon her husband’s death was being asked by a director she didn’t know to subject her feelings for her daughter to a similar pitiless scrutiny.
Nothing is more testing for any writer, however distinguished, than to recast familiar material in a new form. If a work is any good at all, the author will have arrived at a tone, a shape, and a progress which all seem right and inevitable. But in asking Joan to start again, and in particular to address the question of who the narrator truly was—for the clarity of that question depends on the destiny of all one-person shows—I underestimated her Hollywood nous. Joan turned out to be an intoxicating mix of artist and hack, the kind of writer whose profound certainty about what they want to say paradoxically makes them completely open to the idea of being edited. In the coming months, I would get used to the questions “How’s this?” “What do you think?” and “Is this okay?”
“sometime soon the culture will shift again, rocking formerly fixed ideas. try as you might to hold on, but there is no point. i keep my distance. skating the bowl and watching intently. never diving in too deep.”
Sara Elmessiry, aka Felukah
Rapper, songwriter, poet behind Other Beating Wings
let me tell you what i mean. two trains away from a side i’ve never seen. all you need is goodbye when all you want has yet to pass through you. through someone, something, somewhere else.
let’s say you found yourself in the city, swimming amidst promises and harsh realities. you’ll tell yourself stories in order to live. that’s no secret, we all do. you’ll paint a psychic portrait telling the story like it is. not glittery, not trying. still here. the haze you once craved called california in the ’60s and ’70s. you try chasing it down via nostalgia. psychedelic rock. a cigarette in the wind. nobody at the center and the center will not hold.
sometime soon the culture will shift again, rocking formerly fixed ideas. try as you might to hold on, but there is no point. i keep my distance. skating the bowl and watching intently. never diving in too deep.
in my head, didionism never dies. like her, i can seep into the mold of the mind i crave. like her, i often would rather not. most people walk around with their own preexisting judgments wrapped around them, cleverly highlighting and dimming distinctive qualities to fit every occasion. i know. i’ve seen it. others are less subtle trying to mask their individuality. no matter the case, consistent is the desire to belong. in some way. unless,
i play it as it lays. waiting, not anxiously, for a juncture in time to call my name. the broader picture hangs high on my bedroom wall. a sea filled with artists, writers, and musicians from one generation calling out to the last. the next reaching even further back, perhaps in an effort to reignite, reattach, reassemble. run, river. one’s first work of fiction will not be their last. lest the ink runs dry, or the time flies too fast. didion’s voice carries on through the vaults of prose and people her style inspired. not glittery, not trying. but here. but present. and filled with life.
Justin Vivian Bond
Songwriter, cabaret artist, activist, performer-at-large
A monologue inspired by Joan Didion’s writings
I want to tell you the story of the summer of 1972 in Los Angeles. More specifically, the Holiday Inn in Burbank where I had my first taste of Manhattan-style clam chowder, of swimming in the shadow of the Capitol Records building, of “Sue’s girl.” The babysitter. “I’ll have Sue’s girl come over. She can watch ’em.”
My uncle Buddy, “Give me some of that candy, kid. I’m trying to stop smoking… Geez, what are these supposed to be? Raspberries? You got something against chocolate?”
My aunt, who still lived back East, was a former TWA Air Hostess and a founding member of the Clipped Wings society. Unbeknownst to her, she and her two sons had been “replaced” by a new wife and a new family out West. A boy and a girl. Two perfectly blond children—one of whom would later go on to Harvard Law, the UN, Sierra Leone. Gotta make Daddy proud. But when confronted by the brutal realities of a civil war, a perfectly blond child can only bear to look at so many mangled Black bodies before they are forced to retreat from the ambitions of the father and open a bed-and-breakfast in the South of France with a handsome European wife, herself a breast cancer survivor and former legal counsel for the World Bank.
Dismembered body parts left in Freetown and The Hague. Dreams rebuked in Calabasas. No more California, no more El Dorado.
“But everyone knew we were the legitimate ones.”
Legitimacies, potentialities, bars raised, bars passed. Manhattan-style clam chowder in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Burbank where “Sue’s girl” gave me permission to have as many Shirley Temples as I’d like.
“You sure you don’t want a Roy Rogers? Roy Rogerses are for boys.”
No, I’d rather have a Shirley Temple.
“Well, okay then. You can have as many Shirley Temples as you’d like.”
Uncle Buddy: “You gotta see Vegas. The lights are so bright it looks like it’s morning 24 hours a day. You can see it from space. I’ll get you a hotel. Tell you what—take the Lincoln, I’ll fly over in a few days and treat you to dinner at Caesars. It’d be a shame to be this close to Nevada and not see Vegas.”
Years later, when it was starting to become clear that my uncle should have stayed with the raspberry candies instead of switching back to Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light 100s, we were sitting around my mother’s kitchen table when the story broke on CNN that Farrah Fawcett, a former television star and “close personal family friend,” had been diagnosed with a rare form of anal cancer.
“Nothing can lick Farrah, she’s a gorgeous lady but she’s tough. Underneath all that soft, beautiful skin she’s rangy—she’s scrappy, tight. She’s got the body of a beautiful boy—like one of those boys you’d meet in Thailand.” Quick wink, another slug of Bombay Sapphire.
You gotta see Vegas. The lights are so bright it seems like morning 24 hours a day. You can see it from space.
Maybe I should talk about the renovation of my grandmother’s house, the family farm back East where she always said her greatest pleasure in life was sitting at the kitchen table and looking at the view of those beautiful mountains. After she died, my uncles decided to get the place in shape. Make it into a kind of tribute. The dream home she’d never had. Turn it into a showplace. Keep it in the family.
Plans were drawn up, improvements made. Why the dream had been deferred until after her death was never fully explained to me, but explanations take time. One thing’s for sure, by the time they’d finished with it, there was not one room, including the kitchen, from which you could enjoy that view. All you could see was the newly black-topped drive and the McMansions across the road.
A real showplace.
“I’ve lived here for over 60 years and not a day goes by when I don’t look out the window and thank the Good Lord for those beautiful mountains.”
You gotta see Vegas. It’s like the sun is shining 24 hours a day. It’s a modern miracle.
She’s got the body of one of those beautiful boys you’d meet in Thailand.
Aw, ya gotta see Vegas… Take my car.
Everyone knew we were the legitimate ones.