The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

Here are some highlights from this 2015 book:

* “I belong on the edge of a story,” Didion once said. Temperamentally, she is a reader, not an on-the-spot reporter or a stringer chasing witnesses down the street. In 1976 she signed on to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone. She wrote to the magazine’s editor, Jann Wenner, that being in the courtroom on a specific day was not important to what she was writing. Wenner seemed dismayed at this news, but Didion insisted she was thinking of Hearst as an idea of California rather than as a defendant in a trial. She said she would probably spend more time in the Bancroft Library than she would in the courtroom.
Always, she has stressed the limits of traditional reporting: Rarely will a place reveal its past or a person tell you the truth. Most first-person accounts are predictable, self-serving, and bland (she has been especially scornful of the “insider” reporting practiced by Bob Woodward, who often gets chummy with his subjects and whose interviews, she argues, are leaks by officials spinning events). Rather, what’s required of a writer is a thorough investigation of the public record. She feels that the surfaces of things—the stated claims of legal contracts, the walls and floors of gas stations, high schools—reveal as much as, if not more than, their depths. She abhors abstractions. Wary of interpreting behavior as a clue to character (the addiction, the sexual insecurity, the psychic wound repeating itself in each new relationship), she seeks, instead, fruitful inconsistencies. Thus, her careful linguistic construction of Joan Didion, her emphasis on the brute world’s shaping of identities, on the importance of actions and facts—or, more accurately, the forms assumed by “facts” (documents, essays, architecture); her reluctance, especially in early work, to judge or qualify.

* Her coolness was apparent in interviews she had given over nearly five decades in which she’d revealed little of herself, in which she’d crafted another persona, not entirely at odds with the Joan Didion in her formal writing but not completely consistent with it, either. In interviews, Joan Didion was generally looser, funnier—but just as deflective. “Clearly, I’d say anything!” she admitted merrily in 2011, on tour for Blue Nights, when pressed about nonanswers she’d offered in the past. Time and again, she’d repeat particular anecdotes, writerly wisdoms, and calculated confessions. Always, her interviewers noted her famously frail physique, her halting voice hovering just above a whisper. The details were accurate so far as they went, but their repetition tended to create what we think of today as a brand, and it was first promoted by Didion herself. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she had written, “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate.” This is the Joan Didion we would come to know, to the exclusion of all others, no matter what she said in interviews. Obviously, no reporter was going to get much out of her that she didn’t want out.

* a desire to write tends to bloom in “lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

* Didion revealed that one of her mother’s most common utterances—on any subject—was “What difference does it make?” She rarely dusted the house or made the beds because “they just get slept in again.” Though she was “passionately opinionated on a number of points,” she seemed to believe in nothing.

* There is a “vast emptiness at the center of Western experience,” Didion wrote, “a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.”

* Clark Kerr, Berkeley’s chancellor, joked that his job was to “provide parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.”

* If the world was pointless but we had to live in it, we did so by investing importance in objects, people, ideas, and social roles. How and why these things came to embody the meanings we gave them—this was the burden of analysis, a way of decoding life’s grammar. In novels, comedies of manners depended on seeing beneath the social niceties, separating what people said and did in public from who they were in private.

* In his landmark essay, “Technique as Discovery” (1948), Schorer advanced the New Criticism. The content of novels was less important than the “form and rhythm imposed” on them by the writer’s techniques, he said. Technique not only “ contains intellectual and moral implications … it discovers them,” transforming the “world of action” into “texture and tone,” creating a new and unique area of human experience. Didion now grasped Hemingway’s appeal for her: His “early subject, the exhaustion of value, was perfectly investigated and invested by his bare style,” Schorer wrote.
Furthermore, he said, writers expose their subjects through style: Didion built a career on this argument. Writing was not polemical. It was a kind of music, with major and minor keys.
For Schorer, point of view was the main technique propelling a writer “toward the positive definition of a theme.” No one manipulated point of view better than Joseph Conrad. In Heart of Darkness, the horror swallowing Marlow and Kurtz is made more terrible by its passing from one person to the next and finally to the reader. The book’s theme is not the madness it depicts, but our complicity in it, manifested by the point of view, making us the recipients of an old and tragic tale.

* And then she was back in Sacramento, in the listless arms of her family.

* She projected her own lassitude onto people she met and witnessed only what she wanted to see (her critics have always charged her with this).

* “Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it,” she declares. “[T]he banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised, and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of our popular songs.” But mourning the loss of Eden leads to dolor. Now, in the mid–twentieth century, with the recognition that reclaiming Eden is impossible without forking over a theme-park admission fee, the only escape from dolor is a “sense of the absurd, the beginning of a kind of toughness of mind; and to win that particular victory is to cut oneself irrevocably loose from what we used to call main currents of American thought.” This is so because “hardness of mind is antithetical to innocence, it is not only alien to us but generally misapprehended. What we take it for, warily, is something we sometimes call cynicism, sometimes call wit, sometimes … disapprove as ‘a cheap effect,’ and almost invariably hold at arm’s length, the way Eve should have held that snake.”

* Tom Wolfe was another interloper getting a lot of mileage out of the West, writing about California car culture. Didion found his prose hit-or-miss—his editors were too lax with him, she thought—and when he sent Dunne a business letter on colored construction paper, she wondered about his sexuality.

* She met Tom Wolfe. He seemed androgynous to her, not a “fairy,” she told Mary Bancroft, but something entirely new.

* Isherwood’s longtime partner, Don Bachardy, told me, “Well, it was obvious why Chris didn’t warm to Joan. She doesn’t like fags. Really—I always thought, What’s she doing, married to John? I’ve never been as cruised by anyone as I was by him. He wouldn’t take his eyes off my crotch. He always seemed very queer to me, and so did his brother Nick. I couldn’t understand how John could be so obvious about it. It was embarrassing to me. And Joan was around the whole time. She had to know. Women who are married to queers or who find out later … it has to be very peculiar for them. And it’s easier to blame the queers than the husband.”
Bachardy’s remarks should be taken with heavy pitchers of salt; they’re best understood in light of Dunne’s class background, which made him feel perpetually excluded from whatever was happening, intensely curious about experiences he might be missing. Hence, his voyeurism, his reporting, his fascination with crime and prostitution (obsessions he would play out in his fiction), with getting invited to every party in town, a need he shared with his brother Nick (who, as it happened, admitted his bisexuality shortly before his death in August 2009).

* Since 1945, he was told, mechanization had reduced Hawaii’s sugar workforce from 35,000 to 10,500. Chavez’s agitation in the valley would only hasten the growers’ move toward machinery. Cesar was ensuring his own doom, the doom of his movement, the ultimate sacrifice of the people who had placed all their faith in him.

* One chilly late-summer night, near the end of the Dunnes’ stay in the valley, in the foothills of the Sierra, Dunne watched a “California golden girl,” probably a student, seduce a “panicky young farm worker” from Mexico. The girl “worked hard and loyally for Chavez,” but “no amount of good faith on her part could bridge the chasm of social and sexual custom” between her and the young man. The encounter was bound to end badly, Dunne thought, just like the long, dusty struggle for justice: “I remember the boy still desperately picking on his guitar even as he was being led off to the bedroom”—maybe the last love song he’d ever sing.

* The “New Journalists,” as Wolfe would call them, competed fiercely for the same subjects, many of them—car culture, hippies, NASA, Las Vegas—featuring Western settings or connections. “When I started writing in what became known as my style, I was trying to capture the newness and excitement of the West Coast thing,” Wolfe said. “It’s where all the exciting youth styles were coming from. They certainly weren’t coming from New York. Everything I was writing about was new to the East Coast.”

* Perhaps the starting point was 1946: Persuaded by data sheets that the American populace was crippled with neuropsychiatric disorders, the U.S. Congress signed into law the National Mental Health Act, budgeting $4.2 million to study dysfunctions and to treat their manifestations through medicine. In this context—in tandem with the military’s aim to develop mind-control drugs—two Bay Area psychologists, working with Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital, published a study arguing that mental patients receiving psychotherapy fared no better after nine months than patients getting no treatments; mood-enhancing drugs, then, might be a profitable area of research. The primary author of this study was a young man named Timothy Leary.

* “I think sex is a lot darker than Kate Millet does,” Didion said. “It seems to me a fairly right fantasy … that men want to ravage and women want to be ravaged.”

“I agree with every single thing that Norman Mailer puts down on paper … [H]e is one of the few people who can write about sex without embarrassing me.”

* Several months later, in her review of Play It As It Lays in The New Yorker, Kael accused Didion of bringing to the screen the “ultimate princess fantasy,” which is “to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of; you are simply too sensitive for this world—you see the truth, and so you suffer more than ordinary people, and can’t function.”

* Toward securing establishment recognition, Didion’s major cachet was her inclusion in Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, The New Journalism. She didn’t know why she’d appeared in such company—“Certainly I have nothing in common with Hunter [Thompson],” she had said—but her name in the table of contents, as only one of two women (Barbara Goldsmith was the other), among such notables as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, Gay Talese, Terry Southern, and George Plimpton, began a process of canonization, planting Didion as a geodetic mark in the American literary landscape. In his introductory manifesto, Wolfe made his now-familiar argument that the New Journalism was an exciting new prose form, more with-it than the novel. But what really made the anthology a benchmark, and its writers a posse to be reckoned with, was the growing recognition that this exciting new form championed more or less traditional American values.

* These criticisms stirred the debate, once more, between mainstream journalism and the New Journalism. In a useful overview, Sandra Braman, a teacher of mass communications at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, compared Raymond Bonner’s reporting for The New York Times from June 1982 to Didion’s coverage of the events in El Salvador during the same narrow period. Bonner filed thirteen stories, on deadline, in June. “According to the text,” Braman writes, “Bonner collected facts by attending public ceremonies and press conferences, reading newspapers and magazines, listening to the radio (or reading CIA-supplied transcripts of broadcasts, per a description of the process provided by Didion), and then making phone calls or seeking personal interviews with officials to get their responses to statements made by other officials.” By contrast, Didion kept a running list of random notes and personal observations throughout the month. “She attended to information from her own senses of sight, smell, hearing, and touch,” Braman says. “Her written and aural sources were extremely diverse.”
The “geographic source of news” for most of Bonner’s dispatches was San Salvador and Washington, D.C., political capitals in the business of dispensing official information. By contrast, Didion “participated in informal and formal social gatherings, and absorbed facts during daily transactions such as at the drugstore or in a restaurant … quasi-official sites such as the morgue, and unofficial sites like a number of neighborhoods.”
Braman concludes, “Bonner and The New York Times rely almost exclusively upon facts that list numbers—of dead, of disappeared, of land titles, of votes—and names—the Land for the Tillers program, the election, the president. Didion, on the other hand, specifically notes the uselessness of this kind of fact in El Salvador: ‘All numbers in El Salvador tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number.’” Bonner’s accounts were “disjointed.” “Two kinds of stories appeared: Ray Bonner reported on the violence, and the next day there was an anonymous story repeating a State Department statement that the killing had declined.” For Didion, “[c]ollecting facts was a 24-hour job and occurred whether a situation was explicitly reportorial or not.”
As Braman says, whatever one thinks of the virtues of traditional reporting versus the techniques of the New Journalism—or even if one acknowledges the benefits of both—it’s impossible to ignore the fact that corporate news outlets exist primarily to disseminate “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.” For better or worse, subjective accounts remind us that human life is a “perpetual frontier.”

* [James] Atlas said, “I came away from [it] with the distinct suspicion that [John] Kennedy’s assassination was set in motion by members of the Cuban community operating out of Miami.”
“I think there was a conspiracy,” she admitted. As she spoke, she leafed through The Report of the Select Committee on Assassinations on her coffee table. “I don’t have any idea who instigated it, but the way people were thinking encouraged whatever did happen. There’s a kind of collective amnesia about the whole thing. The Warren Commission constructed its mission to be restoring equilibrium. No one really wanted to know.”

* The problem with conspiracy theories is threefold: They are impossible to prove; they attract extremists stoked by paranoia; and they have become so popularized in movies, TV dramas, and on the Internet, their claims are easily dismissed as entertainment. “The truth is out there” was just another advertising slogan.
What distinguishes Joan Didion from an exploitative figure like, say, Oliver Stone, and the rabble of Web voices, is her disciplined thinking, her organization in the midst of fragmentation…

In the final analysis, Didion’s attraction to conspiracy tales, particularly in the 1980s, has less to do with the intrigues themselves than with her persistent longing for a narrative, any narrative, to alleviate the pain of confusion.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and if the story is not readily apparent, we will weave one out of whatever scraps are at hand; we will use our puzzlement as a motivating factor; we will tell our way out of any trap, or goddamn seedy motel.

* In New York, narratives were damage control. In Los Angeles, they were opportunistic slogans, the war cries of unchecked capital formation.

* At LAX, she got on a bus for a Jackson rally in South Central. The afternoon sunlight was gorgeous. The freeway looked stunning. “I was just in tears the whole way,” Didion said. “I couldn’t even deal with the rally because it was so beautiful. Los Angeles was so beautiful, and I had given it up. It took me a while to get sorted out.”

* Listening, observing, she came to think of her fellow reporters as part of a “small but highly visible group of people who, day by day and through administration after administration, relay Washington to the world, tell its story, agree among themselves upon and then disseminate its narrative.”
She wrote, “They report the stories. They write the op-ed pieces. They appear on the talk shows. They consult, they advise, they swap jobs, they travel with unmarked passports between the public and the private, the West Wing and the green room. They make up the nation’s permanent professional political class.” They also moved through restricted landscapes, speaking obscure languages the rest of the country couldn’t even begin to access.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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