With the sun as bright as a typical Los Angeles day, thousands of people gathered in New York on Wednesday to pay tribute to Joan Didion, the legendary author who died in December at the age of 87. The massive stone Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine was gray and gloomy inside.
Didion had a special fondness for the cathedral; the very Rev. Patrick Malloy told the audience that at a ceremony in April the author’s ashes were interred in his columbarium. The cathedral also holds the ashes of her husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo – subjects of Didion’s two major memorials.
Speakers at Didion’s service included friends, family and fans, as did the audience, a mix of New York literary figures, Hollywood stars and the writers working today who are committed to Didion’s style, clarity and relentless craft. Vanessa Redgrave read, nephew Griffin Dunne remembered and Patti Smith sang.
Among the most surprising people to take the stage were former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who knew Didion when they were kids in Sacramento, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown (via recorded video), who was with Didion and Dunne stayed in New York during his 1992 presidential campaign.
For those who only knew Didion through her writing, it was an opportunity to peek behind the restrained frankness of her non-fiction book. Actor and director Griffin Dunne recalled how he first met his aunt Joan – she didn’t laugh at him when he had a swimsuit mishap. In 2017 he directed the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Though they discussed some “desperately sad subjects” in the film, Dunne said, “Working with her has been one of the highlights of my life.”
Author Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, drew life lessons from her decades-long friendship with Didion: the social observations of 1960s Los Angeles, including “Evil is the absence of seriousness ‘ and ‘Crazy is never interesting’. .” The sharp warnings: “Drop the whole idea of knowing the truth”, “Whatever you do, you will regret both”, “Stop running away”. Most brutal and useful for an author: “Write it again .”
Actress and filmmaker Susan Traylor, who was a childhood friend of Quintana Roo, showed a different side of Didion. She spoke about the laughter and cheering at their family dinners, about how she felt protected by Didion’s caring side.
The memorial not only provided a glimpse into Didion’s private life, but also celebrated her work, which spanned six decades of non-fiction and fiction. Calvin Trillin read from one of her essays. Jia Tolentino spoke of her influence. Hilton Als described how she came to herself. All three authors are contributors to the New Yorker, a disparity not lost on the magazine’s editor David Remnick, who also spoke.
“I’ve rarely had the good fortune to publish Joan Didion,” admitted Remnick. “When Joan took the time to write for magazines, she almost always did so—brilliantly, daringly, and with an overwhelming sense of security—for Bob Silvers at the New York Review of Books. Of course, today Bob is among the missing, and when it comes to the world of Joan Didion, the cathedral is full of ghosts. Bob. Barbara Epstein. Jason Epstein. Susan Sunday. Nora Ephron. Tony Morrison.”
Didion has often given her non-fiction writing a personal touch, but when her husband died of a heart attack in 2003, she brought a new level of vulnerability to her writing. Her memoir of what happened next, The Year of Magical Thinking, won the National Book Award for nonfiction, became a bestseller, and was adapted into a play by David Hare, starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Redgrave took the stage at the Cathedral with the help of her son-in-law Liam Neeson, who carried a book bag for her. From this she took a bound cover. “Joan Didion. The Year of Magical Thinking. Signed to Book Soup,’ Redgrave explained. The audience laughed like Book Soup was a silly name. “In Los Angeles,” she added seriously. Redgrave spoke about the making of the play and Didion’s presence backstage at the dinner in the wings.
The slide show before the event started had shown photos of Didion and Redgrave. In one, Didion looked thin and frail, tiny on a couch next to the sturdy Redgrave. But now the Oscar-winning actress, while still impressive at 85 and able to electrify a room, seems frail. It was a painful reminder of what a memorial like this is about – time. And how art survives.
Literary New York and California both sought to claim Didion as one of their own during their lifetime. Born and raised in Sacramento, she moved to New York City, moved to Los Angeles, and then moved back to New York. She was a native Californian, yes, but numerically and by choice, New York was her home.
After the memorial service, I wanted to find out what her friends and admirers thought: Was Joan Didion a New Yorker or a Californian?
Humorist and uber-New Yorker Fran Lebowitz, who had been in the audience, was sitting outside smoking a cigarette. “California,” she said before I could finish my question. “I know she lived in New York, but [California] would be the first thing I would think of Joan. I know a lot of people would be angry about that – although many of them are dead – there aren’t any other writers from California from that time.” (Lebowitz’s favorite Didion play is 1993’s Trouble in Lakewood, about the farce, class and track America.)
I found Trillin in it. “I think Californians,” he said cautiously. “I have visited them in both places. You know she used to come back to the house she grew up in to finish books.”
At that moment, Carl Bernstein approached me and after thanking him for his work, I asked him the same question. He didn’t hesitate. “In both places,” he said, “she was the greatest reporter of our time.”
Earlier Patti Smith had closed the event with the Bob Dylan song “Chimes of Freedom” accompanied only by Tony Shanahan on acoustic guitar. It was a transcendent performance, beautiful and haunting and powerful. When it ended there was no applause. Just the echo of the cathedral and the shuffling of a crowd who knew it was time to leave.
Kellogg is a former book editor at The Times.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-22/in-a-new-york-cathedral-joan-didion-is-memorialized-as-a-californian Vanessa Redgrave, Patti Smith, others memorialize Joan Didion