magical thinking

The Media Remembers Joan Didion

Photo: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Joan Didion’s funeral — the one she planned herself before her death in December at 87, attended by close family and friends — was held in April at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side. It was “very brief” with a selection of “remarkably dour” texts from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, said Patrick Malloy, the dean of the cathedral. On September 23, there was a larger event at St. John the Divine organized by Knopf, her longtime publisher, open to the public and even livestreamed on YouTube. Several hundred people came in person, queuing in a line that snaked halfway down the block: writers, editors, actors; members of Didion’s generational cohort as well as a lot of young people, many in Doc Martens and making the effort to wear black; and, inside the cathedral, a couple of confused backpack-wearing tourists.

There were 15 speakers and performers, a list organized by the executors of Didion’s literary trust: Shelley Wanger, her editor; Lynn Nesbit, her agent; and Sharon DeLano, a writer and close friend. The list included Patti Smith, Justice Anthony Kennedy, New Yorker editor David Remnick, actor Vanessa Redgrave, and writers Jia Tolentino and Hilton Als. It felt like a memorial for the members of the publishing world in a similar way that an office birthday party, no matter how sincere, will always feel a bit careful. More quotations than anecdotes — reading from her 1988 New York Review of Books article “Insider Baseball,” journalist Calvin Trillin emphasized a line about men getting “jobs at the places that had laid off their uncles” — a way of mourning a person distilled to a mind and a body of work with the private and unfinished bits out of frame.

Didion’s habits and speech made good stories: She appeared as the skewerer of Reagan-era aesthetics (former California governor Jerry Brown, in a prerecorded video, cited her description of the home Nancy Reagan had built to replace the previous governor’s mansion as a “case study in the architecture of limited possibilities”), as a person who descends the stairs in a pink Chanel robe, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, and writes down transcripts of dinner conversations to study how to write more natural dialogue. Actor Susan Traylor, a childhood friend of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, recounted Didion making a party of 7-year-olds miniature chocolate soufflés because she didn’t know how to make a birthday cake. She’s aphoristic — author Susanna Moore remembers her declaring that “evil is the absence of seriousness” after Bianca Jagger was rude at a party and her instructing Moore, after a sudden move to London, to “read The Golden Bowl. Stop running away.”

There is the question of whether Didion would have liked something like this — a large public event where she was eulogized by esteemed peers, attended by people with her face on their tote bags (the tote bag was featured in a slideshow of Didion photos that played before the service began). Nicholas Latimer, the senior director of publicity at Knopf, confirms Didion had no advance role in its planning, and the service was without her taste for the dour and the brief. (“It’s always seemed to me that to turn Joan Didion into an emblem is to misrepresent a woman so averse to reflexive adulation or sentimentality,” Tolentino said.) Still, the instinct to hold a memorial for Didion the writer — a person particularly admired by “young readers and fledgling writers,” as Remnick said, who “reaches young people with an emotional and intellectual immediacy” — felt apt, a way to honor what Didion meant to her readers, if not exactly who she was.

At funerals, my mind sometimes absurdly goes to a Roman practice given the contemporary name damnatio memoriae, in which a particularly strongly hated political figure’s name would be struck from history after their death. It would be removed from sculptures and public works, effaced from coins — which didn’t always work, which is why we know about it. The most revealing human rituals are those that aim to bring about the impossible, especially as it pertains to death, and the practice reveals a more universal anxiety over how a person continues to signify after they’re gone; I think about it as the inverted image of hagiography. It’s comforting that, when you try to change what a name signifies, stubborn bits of it remain scratched into the stone. Underneath the palimpsest of the Didion of tote bags and Céline sunglass advertisements, the Didion of literary praise, party stories, and bon mots, is the precision of her own words. All of us will someday no longer be around to say what we mean; the best we can hope for is to leave enough behind to make it clear.

The Media Remembers Joan Didion