Joan Didion, famed American essayist and novelist, has died

written by Jackie PalumboScotty Andrew, CNN

Her publisher confirmed to CNN Thursday that American author Joan Didion, the writer and novelist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, has died at the age of 87.

“We are deeply saddened to report that Joan Didion passed away earlier this morning at her New York home due to complications from Parkinson’s disease,” Paul Bogardes, AA Knopf’s publicity officer, said in a statement.

Didion was a leading figure in the new press movement of the 1960s and 1970s, beginning her career with articles for Life magazine and other publications, and capturing the turmoil of American life in the post-war era. During her prolific career, she has published several volumes of articles, non-fiction books, memoirs, novels and screenplays.

Known for her distinctive prose, she is best known for collections of essays such as 1968’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and 1979’s “White Album.” Her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” won her the 2005 National Book Award for Non-Fiction. IIn 2013, former President Barack Obama awarded Didion the National Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House, calling her “one of our most respected observers of American politics and culture.”

Former President Obama honored Didion with the 2012 National Humanities Medal at the White House. credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

For many, Didion’s writings were unparalleled. “No one writes better English prose than Joan Didion,” critic John Leonard stated in a review of The White Album, according to the New York Times. “He tried to rearrange one of her sentences, and I realized that the sentence was an imperative, a hologram.”
Despite her small stature, Didion was a giant in and out of literary circles, with novelist Brett Easton Ellis. Call her once “The writer who means the most to me.” Writers Eve Babitz and Bell Hawkes also died recently, and in the wake of Didion’s death, acclaimed writer Roxanne Gay books On Twitter, she said it was “another amazing loss”.

California roots

Didion, who was born in Sacramento, moved to New York after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where she began working at Vogue, according to Bogardes.

While rising up the ranks at a fashion magazine, Didion met and married John Gregory Dunn, the Time journalist with whom she collaborated on screenplays including “Panic in Needle Park”, known for Al Pacino’s stellar performance, and the 1976 version of “A Star is Born” starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Writer Joan Didion in her apartment on the Upper East Side of New York.

Writer Joan Didion in her apartment on the Upper East Side of New York. credit: Neville Elder/Corbis Entertainment/Corbis/Getty Images

Didion moved back and forth between California and New York during her career, both states serving as inspiration for her writing. Her 1967 essay Goodbye To All This, about why she had left New York, became a lasting influence on the article’s format. The following year, she published Indolence Through Bethlehem, set primarily in California, which cemented her position as a historian keen on everyday and intimate life.

The “White Album,” too, provided insight into its home state, with its hitherto removed images of West Coast counterculture, the Manson murders, and the rapidly shifting political landscape. The title article was named in 2013 as one of the top 10 articles since 1950 by Publishers Weekly and begins with one of Didion’s most famous lines: “We tell ourselves stories for a living.”

Didion's writing style and sense of fashion have been endlessly imitated.

Didion’s writing style and sense of fashion have been endlessly imitated. credit: Janet Fries/Holton Archive/Getty Images

Didion was known for her understated personal style as well as her insightful writing, and her fashion choices – long-sleeved knits, oversized sunglasses, and variable dresses – were written extensively. At the age of 80, Phoebe Philo chose Didion – who ran the French fashion house Céline – to represent a number of ads for the brand, photographed by Jürgen Teller.

In 2014, Didion was described by Vogue’s Alessandra Kodina as an “intellectual, timeless girl of dreams,” as evidence of Didion’s famous, brief, and meticulous packing list of more than two skirts, a jacket and bourbon.

Sadness check

Didion’s personal life was marked by loss, and she experienced grief extensively in her work. In 2003, Didion’s husband died of a heart attack while their daughter, Quintana Roo Den, was in the hospital, recovering from septic shock. Didion wrote about caring for her daughter while dealing with her husband’s death in 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which in 2007 became a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.
The ‘Year of Magical Thinking’ was the first book I remember reading with the intention of trying to understand grief, said poet and writer Said Jones. greeting Didion on Twitter. “It was very strange to me at the time; I felt that Joan Didion (she was also a stranger to me at the time) was explaining to me that my life was bordering on a country of which I did not realize.”
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn in 1972.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn in 1972. credit: Frank Edwards/Photo Archive/Getty Images

Within two years of Didion’s husband’s death, her daughter passed away at the age of 39 after years of illness and injuries. Didion chronicled her experience with grief again on “Blue Nights” in 2011, in which she also questioned her weaknesses as a mother.

In 2017, she reflected on her career and personal losses in a Netflix documentary “The Center Not Hold” directed by her nephew Griffin Dune. In it, she described how writing has always been a tool for her, saying, “I’ve always found that if I check something, it’s less terrifying.”

In honor of Didion, her publisher AA Knopf posted on Instagram Didion’s musings on deaths from the “Year of Magical Thinking.”

“We are not perfect wild things,” she wrote. “We are imperfect human beings, we perceive this mortality even when we cast it away, and we have failed by our great complexity, so when we mourn our losses we mourn ourselves too, for better or for worse. As we were. We are no longer. Because one day we will never be “.

This story has been updated with additional details about Didion’s life and reaction to her death.


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