The Authors Guild pays tribute to the incomparable Joan Didion and greatly mourns her passing today at age 87. Award-winning journalist, novelist, memoirist, screenwriter, playwright, and longtime Authors Guild member, Didion was a literary icon whose distinct writing style and ability to build dramatic tension out of seemingly spare sentences was often imitated but rarely matched.
Transformed How We Write
Born and raised in Sacramento, California, and a graduate of UC-Berkeley, she moved to New York after she won an essay-writing contest sponsored by Vogue, where she worked for several years. Didion first broke out as one of the New Journalists in the late 1960s. With narrative essays such as “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album,” “On Self-Respect,” and “On the Morning After the Sixties,” she forever transformed how we reported, viewed, and understood the world, notably California, which served as a source of inspiration and disillusionment throughout Didion’s career.
She published her first novel Run River in 1961, followed by Play it as it Lays (1970), which became a 1972 film starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins. With her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, she also wrote the screenplays Panic in Needle Park (1971) starring Al Pacino, A Star Is Born (1976) starring Barbra Streisand, True Confessions (1981), and Up Close and Personal (1996) starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Didion turned next to political reporting, filing long essays on the civil war in El Salvador and Cuban émigré culture in Miami, published in book form as Salvador and Miami. Her searing 1991 New York Review of Books commentary “Sentimental Journeys,” on the Central Park Five case, proved extraordinarily prescient given the later exoneration of the five convicted African American teenagers, who spent up to 13 years in jail. She also spent months covering Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking about Dunne’s unexpected death, followed shortly by the tragic illness and passing of her daughter Quintana Roo, won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography. She adapted the book into a 2007 Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave. In 2019, The Guardian named The Year of Magical Thinking one of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
Burned Into Our Consciousness
The Authors Guild honored Didion with its Service to Literature Award at our 2015 Annual Benefit. At that event, Authors Guild Council Member Roxana Robinson, who served as Guild President at the time, said of Joan Didion:
”Her writing is so electrifying, so powerful, that for writers, every new work of hers was like a national event. Just as people remember exactly where they were when men landed on the moon, writers remember the first time they read The White Album. Or the great essay, “Why I Write.” Or entered the bare, beautiful landscape of her novel, Play it as it Lays. Passages in Didion’s work have become burned into our consciousness.“
In response to news of her passing today, Roxana said, “There are certain moments that brand themselves into our consciousness, moments that stand as intersections between our public and private lives. These moments create a tremor that runs through the entire country. Joan Didion’s death is one of those moments, as was her writing.”
A writer to the very end, Didion’s final book Let Me Tell You What I Mean was published earlier this year.