How Joan Didion Became the Ultimate Literary Celebrity

Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne had lived in Brentwood, an affluent Los Angeles suburb, for two years, when they opened the newspaper one morning to find someone had organized a bizarrely intrusive prank. In the pages of the Los Angeles Times, they saw their house—a Colonial-style villa with a grand entrance hall, a swimming pool, and a garden where they grew roses and herbs—“for sale” in the classifieds section. The asking price was low at just under $1 million. The ad implied a drastic change in their circumstances: “BRENTWOOD PARK STEAL! Famous writers’ loss is your gain.”

The specious ad’s claims of financial downfall didn’t make sense. In the early ’80s, when this happened, the Didion-Dunnes were more successful than ever, known for both their fiction and magazine writing, and long established as a screenwriting duo. Dunne immediately sent the newspaper’s publisher an indignant letter, which didn’t help much. He and Didion never found out who was responsible for the ad.

But the incident did highlight a phenomenon that surrounds many “famous writers”: their readers’ desire to visit, inspect, and sometimes buy their personal property. At the tamer end of the spectrum, daytrippers wander benignly through Emily Dickinson’s gardens or admire Hemingway’s hunting trophies at designated museums. More extreme are fans like Paul Moran, the man who began sorting through John Updike’s trashcan for memorabilia in 2006.

Interest in Didion’s lifestyle might have been particularly strong, since she was best known for writing from a very personal viewpoint. And the two essay collections that cemented her fame, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, bore touches of understated glamor. She wrote about staying in bed with a migraine, conversation she overheard in hotel bars. In her first column for Life, she wrote about going to Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce.” She also saw the limits of this type of writing. The response she’d had from readers was emotionally overwhelming, and “there was no way for me to reach out and help them back,” as she later told an interviewer.

Although she started to take on more political subjects in the late ’70s, the interest in her personal life—and her personal belongings—only grew. In the crossover of feminism, fashion, and literary interests, there is a whole swathe of the internet where Didion is a staple reference. Her borscht recipe can be found on the website Brain Pickings, and her list of items to pack for reporting trips periodically crops up on style blogs. Though often uncomfortable, she didn’t shun all of the attention that came her way. In 1989, she appeared in GAP ads with her 23-year-old daughter, wearing black turtlenecks, and staring defiantly into the camera with only the barest suggestion of a smile. Last year, she wore huge black shades in ads for the French luxury goods brand Céline, which inspired devotion in unexpected places and in-depth analysis from the already devoted. Planning a documentary about Didion, her nephew Griffin Dunne raised funds on Kickstarter by selling, at $2,500 a pair, Didion’s own sunglasses.

If the differences between success and celebrity matter at all, they matter in Hollywood, where Didion worked for decades. A lot of the problems with writing about Didion are the same as writing about any celebrity. What you have access to is the stuff your subject has already released. Access to everything else is tightly restricted—the archive of Didion’s papers at the Bancroft library in Berkeley includes very little correspondence or personal material. The most revealing details about her life come from letters other people have sold or given away. Within these limitations, the best a biographer can do is comb through the material, rearranging in chronological order, rearranging in thematic order, and looking in the spaces between to see if there is a story that can be separated from the brand.

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