The 13 Best Parts of the New Joan Didion Biography, The Last Love Song

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Joan Didion. Photo: Economopoulos, Aristide/Corbis

Here’s the first thing you should know about The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s cradle-to-very-old-age account of the life of Joan Didion, which is out August 25 and is already ushering in a new season of Didion think-pieces and Didion reckonings and general Didion mania: Joan didn’t participate. Neither (obviously) did her deceased husband and screenwriting partner (and journalist and novelist in his own right), John Gregory Dunne; nor did her deceased daughter, Quintana Roo; nor did Quintana’s husband; nor many of her close friends. Instead, Daugherty pieced together Didion and Dunne’s lives (it really is almost a dual biography) using old interviews, some personal letters, archived materials, public records, and new interviews with the peripheral characters in the couple’s lives. His main source seems to be Didion and Dunne’s own writing about themselves. This strategy at times makes for odd reading, since one gets the distinct impression that Real-Life Joan Didion was often selectively truthful with the presentation of On-the-Page Joan Didion.

Still, if you want a taste for what it was like to be a high-flying journalist at the apex of New Journalism and a lauded screenwriter during a Hollywood golden age, or if you just want to know the gossip behind all the troubled marriage innuendos haunting The White Album, then this is your book. Here, a handful of the most interesting tidbits I learned while reading The Last Love Song.

She was really good at making famous friends.
In high school, she was pals with future Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s sister Nancy, and California governor Earl Warren’s daughter Nina. In college it was Barbara Brown, daughter of soon-to-be governor Pat Brown. In New York, she knew Norman Mailer and Bill Buckley; in Hollywood, Natalie Wood, Tony Richardson, the Mamas and the Papas (they lived down the street). A young unknown actor named Harrison Ford did their home renovations in Malibu. The list of cameos goes on and on. “Joan and John were tremendous celebrity fuckers,” the screenwriter Josh Greenfeld told Daugherty. “The thing is, they really knew how to work a party. They’d go through a party in twenty-five minutes and talk to everyone they had to talk to, and go.” The only person not charmed by them seemed to be Christopher Isherwood, who was L.A.’s literary "It"-boy when Dunne and Didion got to town. “Mrs. Misery and Mr. Know-All,” he wrote in his diary. Didion “spoke in [a] tiny little voice which always seems to me to be a mode of aggression. Or an instrument of it anyhow; for it must be maddening in the midst of a domestic quarrel. She drinks quite a lot. So does he.”

She was crazy about Joseph Conrad.
She reread his novel Victory before starting a new work of fiction. Her other big early influence was her Berkeley English professor, the novelist Mark Schorer, who helped cement her style of drawing meaning from the pointed juxtaposition of details. (If you want to understand how Didion came to sound like Didion, read Schorer’s essay “Technique As Discovery.”) Daugherty points out how Didion aped her teacher more directly, comparing the opening lines of Schorer’s The Wars of Love (“I begin in this unpromising way ... reader, to give you air warning which is your right”) with an early passage in Didion’s essay “In the Islands” (“I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am”).

Before there was Dunne, there was Noel Parmentel.
The writer Dan Wakefield described Parmentel as "the most politically incorrect person imaginable. He made a fine art of the ethnic insult, and dined out on his reputation for outrageousness. In print, he savaged the right in the pages of The Nation, then would turn around and do the same to the left in National Review."* He was also Didion’s lover and friend in her early New York days. Parmentel is the man she stays up all night with in “Goodbye to All That.” According to Parmentel, she wanted to marry him and have his babies, but he wasn’t having it. Instead, he introduced her to her future husband, though Daugherty makes Dunne sound kind of like a rebound: “She imagined being done with Parmentel, saying to him from now on they’d just be buddies ... She thought of men she suspected of wanting her, men who liked her. Greg Dunne.” To make matters more awkward, a character in Parmentel’s likeness crops up in three of her novels — Run River, Play It As It Lays, and A Book of Common Prayer. In that last book, which came out in 1977, 14 years after her first fictional portrayal of him, Parmentel felt that his likeness to the character Warren Bogart, the drunk, abusive ex-husband of the main character, constituted “a hostile act by an old friend.” He even consulted a lawyer about filing a defamation lawsuit. (Side note: Parmentel originally came forward in a profile for New York Magazine in the 1990s, which you can read here.)

Didion didn’t take failure very well.
According to Parmentel, she once had a nonfiction article on “grand old hotels” rejected by American Heritage. “She cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe how hard she was taking it. She said this made her feel like when she hadn’t been admitted to Stanford. I felt so bad for her that I sent the piece to somebody I’d met at Esquire and said, ‘For Christ’s sake, publish this thing — it’s breaking her heart.’ And they did.”

John Dunne once caught the clap.
Possibly at the Graben Hotel in Vienna, while on assignment for Time.

She wasn’t too keen on being edited.
After the novel that would be Run River was rejected by a dozen publishers, Parmentel helped her secure a deal with Ivan Obolensky, who still seems bitter about the experience. “Doing anything for her was like throwing a rock in a pond,” he told Daugherty. “Flashbacks and stream of consciousness … certain people love it. But I felt it was extraneous and the book suffered — she suffered — for it … There was very little she would change … She was filled with her own magnificence — that’s always a loss for the author.”

The early period of Dunne and Didion’s marriage sounds awfully troubled.
There are lots of references to fighting and threats to leave. Part of the personal problems, in Daugherty’s telling, may have stemmed from professional jealousies. Slouching Towards Bethlehem came out around the same time as Dunne’s first book, Delano, which got far less attention. “Years later … he would tell interviewers they never competed. But he was clearly distressed at Delano’s small ripples while his publisher and editor evinced mounting excitement over Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” Dunne also apparently told his friends, possibly jokingly, that his marriage was a “week-to-week affair.” Didion’s friend Eve Babitz described Dunne’s temper: “He pounded down doors ... She thought staying with him proved she had character." Dunne described Didion as alternately detached and high drama.” Their relationship didn’t really improve until after their screenwriting partnership took off and they were more equally famous. If you want a thinly veiled account of the troubles, apparently, you should read Dunne’s Vegas.

Dunne maybe once hit on a man.
Daugherty follows this anecdote with a pro forma “take this with a grain of salt,” and yet he still includes it in the book. Christopher Isherwood’s partner Don Bachardy told the biographer the following: “Really — I always thought, What’s she doing, married to John? I’ve never been as cruised by anyone as I was by him. He wouldn’t take his eyes off my crotch. He always seemed very queer to me.” Do with that what you will. Also, Didion once likened her marriage to the relationship between Truman Capote and Harper Lee. “It wasn’t so much a romance, as Other Voices, Other Rooms.

You needed a really strong liver to survive Hollywood in the '60s and '70s.
There’s much evidence supporting the couple’s reputation for hard living, but this is maybe my favorite bit, via the screenwriter Julia Phillips, from her memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again: “I remember the first time I had dinner [at the Dunnnes’] house. I’d let John … mix my drinks. By the time the main course was served I was on my knees in the bathroom throwing up into the toilet … Since I was in their bathroom anyway, I checked out their medicine cabinet. Outside of my mother’s it was the most thrilling medicine cabinet I had ever seen. Ritalin, Librium, Miltown, Fioranol, Percodan … every upper, downer, and in-betweener of interest … circa 1973.” 

The couple wanted Jim Morrison to play the lead in Panic in Needle Park.
That Doors’ recording session Didion sat in on in The White Album was also a scouting mission to see if Morrison was right to play the heroin-junkie lead in their movie (a role eventually taken by Al Pacino). Also, that line in the book where Morrison is supposedly lowering lit matches to his crotch is remembered differently by Babitz, who was there. “He did light matches, but he tossed them at Didion, flirting and laughing.”

They also wanted James Taylor and Carly Simon for A Star Is Born.
Dunne and Didion worked on the script for the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born before it became a vehicle for Barbra Streisand. (For “research,” they hung out backstage with Led Zeppelin.) Ultimately, they gave up control of the project when Babs’s hairstylist turned producer boyfriend Jon Peters got involved. Some of the other Dunne-Didion projects that could have been: They turned down a Graduate–Rebel Without a Cause mash-up set in the west Valley with a female James Dean–style lead, as well as a version of the Serpico story and an adaption of Tender Is the Night. (Dunne’s collected wisdom on their screenwriting careers is collected in an essay called “Tinsel,” which is worth digging up.)

Nancy Reagan never forgave Joan for her takedown profile.
Didion wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post when Reagan was California’s First Lady. In her memoir, Reagan said she found the portrait to be “dripping with sarcasm.” “My smile was described as a 'study in frozen insincerity,'” she wrote. “Would she have liked it better if I had snarled?”

Oh yeah, and Warren Beatty was a creepy drunk.
According to her friend Sara Davidson, Didion once threw a party for her Hollywood pals, including Warren Beatty, who went around the party telling people he was doing “some gynecological detective work.” "At one point," Davidson said, he pulled up a rattan chair, facing Didion on the couch, "opened his knees and pressed her knees between his. 'This is it for me,' he said, 'This is all I want, right here. I’m happy.’ Didion fidgeted. Beatty looked at his watch and said, ‘I don’t have to be on the set until ten Monday morning.’ Didion said, ‘This is not … feasible.’” 

*A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed this quote to Norman Mailer.