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Reflecting on the Life, Work, and Art of Legendary Writer Joan Didion

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

By Bart Boehlert

The great writer Joan Didion, who elevated the art of nonfiction with her books and essays, died at home at age 87 on December 23, 2021, in her Upper East Side apartment at 33 East 70th Street. Now less than a year after her death come two remembrances of her – an auction of her collection of art and objects at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, and an exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles curated by The New Yorker writer Hilton Als entitled “Joan Didion: What She Means.”

These recent tributes have this writer recalling his trip to interview Joan Didion at home for a magazine feature when her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” was headed to Broadway in a production starring Vanessa Redgrave. (Read the article here.) The bestselling novel described Didion’s year of grief and denial after her beloved husband, writer John Dunne, died of a heart attack at home in their living room.

Her book publisher set up the time for the interview in Didion’s apartment. I arrived late; I couldn’t get a cab and the trip across town from Chelsea to the Upper East Side took forever. When I knocked on her door, I was nervous and sweating and ashamed of my tardiness. She opened the door, tiny and frail, and politely invited me to come in and sit in the living room. We had a friendly chat and she answered my questions courteously. When I asked her, she said, I was indeed sitting in the chair where Dunne had suffered his heart attack. We talked about her work and bringing her book to the stage. I was thrilled to sit down with her and loved everything she had to say to me.

Didion described her highly disciplined daily work process: “I start work around eleven in the morning and have a bowl of soup in the kitchen around two, and then I work ideally until about seven. Ideally, I don’t go out. I start dinner and make a drink and go over the pages and mark them up. The next day, I work on the marked-up pages.”

The reclusive writer stated that, “My ideal would be sometime in January, I would like a snowstorm that lasts until almost Easter, and the city is paralyzed and no one goes out. I want a really quiet place.” A sense of style was important to Didion, and I asked her about it. “Style is a way of meeting the world,” she said to me. “You try to meet the world a little bit more gracefully than you might actually feel.” How true that is.

At the end of our allotted hour, she discreetly let me know that our time together had come to an end. As the door closed behind me, I was grateful to have had the honor to meet the legend in person.

“Style is a way of meeting the world. You try to meet the world a little bit more gracefully than you might actually feel.” --- Joan Didion

The contents of the apartment I visited were auctioned November 16th at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York. The estate sale included furniture, art, decorations, books and her writing paraphilia. Besides art work by Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Diebenkorn, Brice Marden and Ed Ruscha, plus photographs of Didion by Brigitte Lacombe, Annie Liebovitz, and Mary Ellen Mark, one could bid on her Celine sunglasses, objects from her desk like paperweights, and kitchen cookware. Even the blank note books in lot #14 carry Didion’s aura and provenance. The auction achieved a sale total of $1,920,700 and auction records were set for some artists. Proceeds from the sale benefitted patient care and research of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders at Columbia University, and the Sacramento Historical Society for the benefit of Sacramento City College scholarship for women in literature.

Depicting life in New York City: John Koch, Portrait of Dora in Interior, 1957. Oil on linen. Courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Hammer Museum has mounted an art exhibition up through February 19, 2023, in which curator Hilton Als attempts to answer the question “Joan Didion: What She Means.” The show is organized chronologically based on the places that the writer lived. Didion, the great chronicler of California culture, was born and grew up Sacramento, then moved to New York, back to California and then back to New York. Als told The New York Times that he sought to create “a visual atmosphere of Joan’s experience.” Made up of 60 artists, the 215 works in the exhibit include paintings, photography, sculpture, video, film footage, and manuscripts.

The auction and exhibition offer a welcome opportunity to learn more about the American artist and enjoy again the inspiration and clarity and lucidity of her work. And, of course, one can always return to the pleasure of her books.

Click here to learn more about the exhibition at the Hammer Museum.

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