Joan Didion, journalist and revered novelist, dies at 87

Joan Didion, one of the most respected journalists and writers of the second half of the 20and century, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 87 years old.

Didion was a pioneer of what was initially called “new journalism”, a storytelling style that drew on the storytelling techniques of fiction – with distinct protagonists, antagonists and plot arcs – that the typical documentary journalism. Throughout his career, Didion published a total of 19 books, including collections of essays Advance to Bethlehem (1968) and the white album (1979), which recounts the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s; novels, including bestsellers A common prayer book (1977) and Play it as it is (1970); and the memory The Year of Magical Thinking, about the aftermath of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, who won the 2005 National Book Award for non-fiction. 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, California on December 5, 1934. She earned a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956, before winning a writing competition that landed her a job at vogue magazine in New York, which launched his career. His first book, the novel Run the river, was published in 1963.

She cast her acerbic gaze on a wide range of topics, from urban life in Los Angeles and New York, to the life of Cuban immigrants in Miami, to the rise of various social movements, including feminism, revolution gender and civil rights.

She was also a screenwriter, having collaborated with her husband on numerous screenplays, including Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play it as it is (1972), which was Didion’s second novel, A star is born (1976), and Up close and personal (1996).

During her career, Didion was the recipient of numerous awards. In 2005, she received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Belles Letters and Criticism. In 2007, she received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Literature. Part of the National Book Foundation quote read, “An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, Didion’s distinctive blend of elegant and fierce prose 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 received a National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Barack Obama, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN Center USA.

“Joan was a brilliant observer and listener, a wise and subtle teller of truths about our present and our future,” said Shelley Wanger, editor of Didion at Knopf. “She was fierce and fearless in her reporting. His writing is timeless and powerful, and his prose has influenced millions.

Writing about his latest book, Let me tell you what I mean, a collection of essays published earlier this year, the New York Times, called Didion, “an eloquent witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time”.

Reflection on his work following the publication of blue nights, Didion, then 76 years old, was approached by TP how she defined herself. Was she above all 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 straightforward now. Maybe because it didn’t help me. Writing about morality and culture was like “pushing the stone up again. You write about X political events and nothing happens. It doesn’t push you to write again.

Knopf closed his 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 this mortality even as we push it away, stranded by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses, we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no more. Like we won’t be at all one day.

A chronicle of PW’Reviews of Didion’s books are available here.