On Wednesday, September 21, hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to celebrate the life and work of writer Joan Didion, who died on December 23, 2021, at the age of 87.
The memorial service, organized by Didion’s longtime publisher Knopf, was long delayed due to the pandemic. In April 2022, an intimate ceremony attended by close family and friends was held to inter Didion’s remains in the Cathedral’s columbarium, but there had not yet been a formal event to commemorate her.
In the hour leading up to the service, a slideshow of photos of Didion ran on a loop: sitting solemnly in her study; happily cooking in her kitchen; posing in front of her Stingray; palling around with Elizabeth Hardwick, Sonny Mehta, Toni Morrison, and Susan Sontag. In the frontmost seats sat friends, family, and invited members of the publishing community, while the back half of the Cathedral was opened to the public. Among those in attendance were actor Bob Balaban, photographer Annie Leibovitz, writer Fran Lebowitz, author Donna Tartt, and journalist Bob Woodward.
The evening’s speakers included Didion’s editor at Knopf Shelley Wanger; New Yorker editor David Remnick; author and musician Patti Smith; poet Kevin Young; and writers Hilton Als, Susanna Moore, Jia Tolentino, and Calvin Trillin.
Didion’s family and friends shared humanizing memories of the famously serious writer. Actor Griffin Dunne, son of journalist Dominick Dunne, fondly remembered his “aunt Joan,” calling his collaboration with her on his 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold “one of the highlights of my life.”
Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and former California governor Jerry Brown, who spoke via a pre-recorded video, both knew Didion through their older sisters, with whom Didion was friends during her adolescence. Kennedy recalled Didion spending many evenings at his home writing essays for class, drafting articles for the school paper, or transcribing dinnertime conversations in her notebook. He concluded his speech by thanking “all of you in the writing profession and in the publication business for helping to honor and preserve what Joan wrote, and what she still teaches us.”
New Yorker editor David Remnick and staff writers Hilton Als and Jia Tolentino reflected on Didion’s influence on them as writers and on the practice of writing as a whole. Remnick hailed her as the “foremost enemy of cant, cliche, and falsehood,” who wielded the “X-Acto Knife that was her prose,” asking: “Is there an essayist today who is more universally admired by young readers and fledging writers?”
Tolentino concurred. “So profound is [Didion’s] legacy that the literary world has been searching explicitly and shamelessly for her replacement,” she said, alluding perhaps to the fact that she herself has often been compared to Didion. “But there will never ever be another Joan Didion.”
Als, who curated an upcoming exhibit on Didion at the Hammer Museum, read a passage from her essay “Notes of a Native Daughter” and praised her sharpness as a critic, which he attributed to her “rejection of what women are often trained to do: to help before criticizing, or swallow the criticism altogether.”
Vanessa Redgrave, who starred in the 2007 theatrical adaptation of My Year of Magical Thinking, delivered a poignant reading from the final pages of the memoir on which the play is based. She read from her personal copy of the book, which she said had been autographed by Didion at the Los Angeles bookstore Book Soup.
Redgrave, 85, was escorted to and from the stage by actor Liam Neeson, who was married to Redgrave’s late daughter, Natasha Richardson, until her sudden death in 2009. (As it happens, in 2014, Redgrave performed selections from Didion’s 2011 memoir Blue Nights, about the death of her own daughter Quintana in 2003, on the very same stage at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.)
A rendition by Patti Smith of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” concluded the service. Slowly, accompanied by pipe organ, mourners exited the Cathedral. Some, who’d been seated in the front half, retreated to black town cars parked Amsterdam Ave, many of them white-haired and sharply dressed, precisely what one might picture when imagining publishing’s old guard. But in the back half of the Cathedral, the exodus looked quite different: lingering in the aisles were countless young women—in blue jeans and cowboy boots, sporting buzzed heads and long skirts, carrying on-trend purses and bookstore totes—who had come to pay their respects.