Joan Didion, one of the most widely respected journalists and writers of the latter half of 20th century, has died due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 87.
Didion was a pioneer of what was initially called “new journalism,” a narrative style that relied on the storytelling techniques of fiction -- with distinctive protagonists, antagonists, and plot arcs -- than typical documentary journalism. Throughout her career, Didion published a total of 19 books, including the essay collections Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and the White Album (1979), which chronicled the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 70s; the novels, including the bestsellers A Book of Common Prayer (1977) and Play It as It Lays (1970); and the memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, about the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, which won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction. Didion and Dunne’s daughter, Quintana Roo, died two years later of severe pancreatitis, prompting a second memoir, Blue Nights, published in 2011.
Didion was born in Sacramento, Calif., on December 5, 1934. She graduated with a degree from in English from University of California Berkeley in 1956, before winning a writing contest that landed her a job at Vogue magazine in New York City, which launched her career. Her first book, the novel Run River, was published in 1963.
She cast her acerbic eye on a wide range of topics, from city life in Los Angeles and New York, to life the of Cuban immigrants in Miami, to the rise of a range of various social movements, including feminism, the sexual revolution, and civil rights.
She was also a scriptwriter, having collaborated with her husband on numerous screenplays, including The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1972), which was Didion’s second novel, A Star Is Born (1976), and Up Close and Personal (1996).
Over the course of her career, Didion was the recipient of numerous awards. In 2005, she was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Belles Letters and Criticism. In 2007, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A portion of National Book Foundation citation read: “An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, Didion’s distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists.” In 2013, she was presented with a National Medal of Arts and Humanities award by President Barack Obama, as well as the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Joan was a brilliant observer and listener, a wise and subtle teller of truths about our present and future,” said Shelley Wanger, Didion’s editor at Knopf. “She was fierce and fearless in her reporting. Her writing is timeless and powerful, and her prose has influenced millions.”
In writing about her last book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of essays published earlier this year, the New York Times, called Didion, “an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time."
Reflecting on her work following the publication of Blue Nights, Didion, then 76, was asked by PW how she defined herself. Was she primarily a wife, a mother, a writer? Didion says she knew she was a good wife; she wasn't sure what kind of mother she was. “I used to say I was a writer, but it’s less up front now. Maybe because it didn’t help me.” Writing about morality and culture was like “pushing the stone uphill again. You write about X political events and nothing happens. That doesn’t push you to write again.”
Knopf closed its announcement of Didion’s death with a quote from The Year of Magical Thinking. It reads: “We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
A chronicle of PW's reviews of Didion's books is available here.