The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joan Didion was the essence of effortless cool, amid a life of loss and disillusionment

Author Joan Didion, left, and her husband, John Dunne, are shown during an interview in their Malibu home in 1977. (AP Photo/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Early this year, Time magazine published an interview with Joan Didion that made me extremely happy.

The happiness — well, maybe more like relief — came not because the article deepened my understanding of a writer I had long admired for her crystalline prose and dead-on observational skills, nor because it gave me new information about her glamorous but tragic life.

No, I was just glad that I wasn’t the person who tried to draw her out.

Time’s Lucy Feldman gave the interview her best shot, asking the literary and journalistic icon, for example, “What makes a better journalist, the ability to empathize or the ability to observe with detachment? Which is your greatest strength?”

Didion’s full answer: “I don’t know that I’m good at either.” That was one of her more forthcoming moments. (Another exchange: “What do you make of the old adage, ‘write what you know’?” The response: “I don’t make anything of it.”)

At that point, Didion — who died Thursday at 87 — had nothing to prove, no need to impress. Without ever seeming to strain, she had already done that since the 1960s in her novels, essays and screenplays. She solidified her reputation, and reached a new generation, in more recent years, with a pair of memoirs for the ages (“The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights”) about the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the lingering illness and eventual death of their daughter, Quintana Roo.

Joan Didion, who chronicled American decadence and hypocrisy, dies at 87

She had made that reputation sentence by sentence, observation by observation. It was the prose — not the intrigue of her bicoastal life or her self-assured demeanor — that set her apart, and that made her such a magnetic and singular figure, especially to women in journalism and the arts.

Few of us would really have wanted to have Didion’s life; at least in recent decades, it was far too sad. But her overflowing abundance of talent? That part was enviable.

Her writer’s voice is an unmistakable through-line from work as early as “On Keeping a Notebook,” from the 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” all the way to “Blue Nights” in 2011.

From the former, consider these classic lines: “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. 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.”

And from “Blue Nights,” recall her advice to herself about how to respond when acquaintances would ask how she was holding up: “Do not whine, I write on an index card. Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.”

Review: 'Blue Nights,' by Joan Didion

Didion seemed to have some kind of unshakable and certain knowledge that the rest of us could only catch in a fleeting glimpse from time to time.

This made her the very essence of literary cool. We could see it in photographs of her, cigarette in hand, leaning on a Corvette or walking on the beach; but mostly, we could read it on every page. Her prose was wised-up, pared-down and utterly sure of itself.

What’s more, her thinking was original, not aiming to ingratiate, only to explore what she was seeing and feeling and to get it down clearly. Thus, her writer’s voice was self-contained and detached, almost to the point of being deadpan, and her conclusions were original and ahead of their time.

Joan Didion’s ‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean’ shows a writer ahead of her time

It should be no surprise, then, that she presciently challenged conventional wisdom when she wrote for the New York Review of Books in 1991 about the Central Park Five, plumbing the prosecutorial flaws and the underlying racial bias in the case against the young men found guilty — and eventually exonerated — in the assault and rape of a young female jogger.

For her many ardent admirers, Didion’s death hits hard. She was, after all, one of a kind. There are no Didion replacements or clones, and the past two years have already been so full of loss and disillusionment, the very things she understood so well.

The comfort, as with all great artists — and I would not hesitate to call her one — is that we have her work to remember her by.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” goes the first line of “The White Album,” Didion’s celebrated autobiographical essay about the death of the American Dream and her own psychological distress. She eventually adds a caveat: “Or at least we do for a while.”

In Didion’s case, given the quality of the stories she leaves us, that should be a good long while.

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