Joan Didion, Beloved Author, Dies At 87

Didion will long be remembered for her award-winning novels, memoirs and essays.
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Joan Didion, author of “The Year Of Magical Thinking” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” has died at age 87.

She died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease at her home in New York City, her publisher said in a statement.

Didion, whose writing shaped American literature for decades, was also famous for her novels “Play It As It Lays” (1970) and “A Book Of Common Prayer” (1977), as well as essays such as “On Keeping A Notebook,” “Why I Write” and “Goodbye To All That,” many of which ended up in her book of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968).

She won several Lifetime Achievement Awards, and in 2006, she was a Pulitzer finalist for her 2005 memoir “The Year Of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband, John Dunne, and her subsequent mourning.

Didion was born Dec. 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California. Her father, Frank Reese Didion, was an officer in the Army Air Corps, a career that forced the family to relocate quite a bit throughout her childhood. A voracious reader, Didion had to get written permission from her mother, Eduene (Jerrett) Didion, to borrow adult novels and biographies. She remembered writing as early as age 5. Her 2003 memoir, “Where I Was From,” is based on feeling like an outsider during those formative years.

Didion graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1956. During her senior year, she wrote a prize-winning essay that landed her a job at Vogue. There, she published the famous essay, “On Self Respect.”

In 1964, Didion married Dunne, a writer at Time. The couple moved to Los Angeles shortly afterward to pursue screenwriting careers. They adopted their first and only daughter, Quintana Roo, in 1966.

Joan Didion and her husband John Dunne in 1972.
Joan Didion and her husband John Dunne in 1972.
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Dunne and Didion were considered an incredibly successful literary couple, and the couple wrote the screenplay for “Play It As It Lays” together. Didion and Dunne also had active social lives, throwing large dinner parties in their Hollywood home. According to Didion’s accounts, their marriage was a happy one.

“I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right,” Didion wrote in “The Year Of Magical Thinking.” “But we were each the person the other trusted.”

Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack in 2003 at age 71. His death came shortly after Quintana had fallen into a coma while being treated for septic shock due to complications with pneumonia. When Quintana emerged from her coma nearly a month later, Didion had to deliver the news that her father had died.

The months ahead were difficult ones for Quintana. After Dunne’s funeral, which was put off until Quintana was well enough to attend, she had a massive hematoma that required six hours of brain surgery, according to New York Magazine. She died in August 2005 at the age of 39 after spending nearly three months in intensive care due to acute pancreatitis.

“This is something that, because I wrote about it, I can talk about it,” Didion told New York magazine. “In terms of John’s death, in the course of writing the book, I had to come to terms with it ... I wouldn’t want to have a long conversation about Quintana’s death.”

NPR noted Didion had submitted her final manuscript for “The Year Of Magical Thinking” shortly before Quintana’s death. She later wrote about her daughter’s death in her 2011 memoir, “Blue Nights.”

Didion will be remembered for her novels, memoirs and essays, and her famous quotes about memories, leaving beloved cities behind, heartbreak and grief will forever be a part of our literary culture.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” Didion wrote in her essay “On Keeping A Notebook.” “Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

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