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New York, New York

Joan Didion Crosses the Street

For a generation of young writers, Joan Didion is more than an icon: She tells them how the world was when their parents were young.

Photograph by Lindsay Beyerstein

It was 13 degrees outside. The winter light was piercing on the western side of Park Avenue. I had on two sweaters under my wool coat, a pair of leggings under my jeans, and winter boots with fur trim up to my knees. An ill-fitting knit hat scratched at my forehead and my sunglasses sat cold on my nose. I had just stepped out of an office where a doctor had told me about my inverted cervical spine, the herniated disc in my thoracic spine, and the pain I would need to accept.

At a previous appointment, another doctor had pressed on my back and said, “You know the old ladies you see up here on the East side that are all stooped over? This is the beginning of that.” I had always imagined that it was the weight of decades of city living that had made those women curve in on themselves. When I thought about it this way it did not seem inconceivable that at the age of 23, and after three years of living here, my own spine would begin to buckle. For four months I had visited this office three times a week for physical therapy with no improvement. The doctor suggested six additional months of the same. He and I both knew that I would not be coming back.

The sidewalk was nearly deserted as I started walking north. There was only one other figure in sight: a small woman with striking white hair, very pale skin, and large dark eyes. She had a cane and was picking her way slowly across 57th Street in my direction. Her tiny frame was draped in a thin coat more suited to 60 degrees than 13. She wore white slipper shoes, thin white chinos, and her ankles were bare to the icy wind.

My first thought was of the doctor’s words, “this is the beginning of that,” but this woman’s spine was straight. This was a woman I had never met, but thought of everyday. Between doctor’s appointments, I had been reading and re-reading my way through her work. This was Joan Didion. I recognized her immediately. She was looking at my boots and then she peered up at my face as we crossed paths. Startled perhaps by my look of recognition, she quickly looked down at her feet and kept walking. I stood there and watched her go.

I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born.

When I was a teenager my mother explained the ‘60s and ‘70s to me by giving me her worn copies of Joan Didion’s collected essays. Haight-Ashbury was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Howard Hughes was “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38.” I knew “John Wayne: a Love Song” before I had any idea who John Wayne was. My mother read these titles off to me with a deep reverence and it sounded like a different language. This was before I knew writers to have distinct styles. I would not understand the full meaning of many of the cultural references in Didion’s work until later re-readings in college, but I learned to associate the eras of my parents’ youth with the severe rhythm of a Didion sentence. I did not see Didion’s style as belonging to Didion; I saw it simply as the way sentences were written before I was born. I thought it was as much an indication of time passing as the yellow of the pages. My mother was captivated by Didion’s California and it became the California of my imagination. I would read “Los Angeles Notebook” and get the words mixed up with my mother’s voice.

But my mother’s personal geography never included New York. When I was run down and sought to think of New York City as a force responsible for the bend in my spine, it was Joan Didion’s words that I wanted to hear.

At a dinner party that same night, in an apartment overlooking the Natural History Museum, I tried to relay my afternoon encounter to the group—all writers of varying ages. It was the younger writers who could most appreciate the excitement of the sighting—the ones who still read “Goodbye to All That” repeatedly, who were still unsure of New York City themselves. We had all worked together over the past few months and Didion’s work had been a frequent point of conversation. What did I think of the cane, they wanted to know. Was it temporary? Did she look sad? Why was she dressed so strangely? Our hostess, a contemporary of Didion’s, begged us to change the subject. She hadn’t been able to get through The Year of Magical Thinking, which she thought portrayed an idealized version of Didion and John Dunne’s marriage. There were friends of friends in common, she had heard some stories. The professor among us, a successful essayist in his own right, told me that he would never see her on a pedestal. She was, to him, just another successful writer who had done some very good early work. He could not read the words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” or “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” and find in them messages on how a life can be lived.

“You should have offered her your boots,” one friend said. “She was cold.”

Joan Didion does not seem like she would make the most maternal of literary idols. It is a challenge to find a line in her writing that is not imbued with dread. Her essays and journalism are crisp and cutting, perfectly controlled. Her novels are mean things filled with angry dialogues, domestic murders, suicides, and jet-set wealth. Getting to the heart of what is arguably her greatest subject—Los Angeles in the 1960s—gave her little comfort. “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means,” she wrote in The White Album. She refuses to reassure, she does not place an artificial meaning on a subject she sees as having none.

I am not alone in my generation in thinking of her as a sort of mother figure. In 2006, she had a public conversation with then Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch at Summer Stage in Central Park, and the crowd was filled with over a hundred people in their twenties and thirties, many gazing at her with adoration. She read from The Year of Magical Thinking and tears streamed down the faces of girls who clutched copies of her books.

People stood around, exchanging heartbroken glances in the rain. At the time I was alarmed by their reverie. I had thought I was alone in this.

Just as she settled in to the conversation with Gourevitch, beginning to speak of her phobia of snakes and all things reptilian, the sky opened up with a torrential downpour. Both Gourevitch and Didion didn’t quite know what to do—the stage was sheltered but the audience was not and yet no one was running for cover. The audience was content to get soaked and ignore the flashes of lightning to hear about this woman’s fear of snakes. Even after Gourevitch apologized and cancelled the talk, taking Joan Didion offstage, people stood around, exchanging heartbroken glances in the rain. At the time I was alarmed by their reverie. I had thought I was alone in this.

For some of us, mimicking Joan Didion has become the height of literary ambition, and not just her sentences. “Goodbye to All That” is a jumping-off point, California will fall short of its promise, but there is always Hawaii, and a penthouse, even when you are broke. There is a husband across the hall in his own study in your house in Malibu while you write. This is the Joan Didion who is forever leaning out of that Stingray with a cigarette in her hand. She appeared to be living in her sentences, and it was this intimacy that took me everywhere that she had been, even in the decades before I was born. The text might say it was hard, but the style makes it look easy.

“Life changes in an instant,” I remembered my mother saying on the phone, quoting the repeated line that runs through The Year of Magical Thinking, in the days after we had both read it. “It’s chilling.” For my generation, Didion showed us the world when our parents were young; with a memoir on grieving, she suggested where they were headed. It was a bit of a clichéd line, but this was Joan Didion writing it. This was Joan Didion without better words and that was what was chilling.

Didion said in a Paris Review interview that the responses she got from readers were often alarmingly desperate, and she had no reply for them. She said she did not want to become a Miss Lonelyhearts. I have no regrets about not speaking to her when I saw her on the street. I grew up with her writing, but she wrote none of it for me. It was enough to know on that cold afternoon that I was there and she was there.

V.L. Hartmann is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in the New York Times and has been anthologized in the essay collection Lost and Found: Stories From New York. You can email her here. More by V.L. Hartmann