Joan Didion is one of the few American writers who excelled in a multitude of fields.
Many of the tributes to Didion after her death Thursday at age 87 emphasize her early "new journalism" hallmarks "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album."
Yet, her later work for the New York Review of Books would make a major career for many writers. She wrote the classic memoirs "A Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights," fearlessly examining her grief over the deaths of her husband and daughter. Shamefully, The New York Times obituary barely mentioned those books in passing, as if they were an afterthought.
She wrote defining pieces about her native California and New York City, her adopted home. Her New York Review pieces on American politics and U.S. abuses in Latin America are unmatched. As an under-appreciated novelist, she established a new narrative style. With her husband, John Gregory Dunne, she reached the heights as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Although she gained fame as a "new journalist," Didion began as a writer for fashion magazines Mademoiselle and Vogue. She and her husband wrote for the mainstream publications Life and Saturday Evening Post as changes in American culture brought their demise. She refashioned her work-a-day magazine articles into a vibrant new language.
Even when writing her most impressionistic "new journalism" pieces in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album," she kept to her old-school magazine training. While suffering from migraines, depression and marriage troubles, she kept writing. For much of her career, she wrote on deadline.
Like Nora Ephron, she believed that every thing was copy.
The tributes to Didion don't mention that she was funny. Even her bleakest moments have a mordant humor.
Her finely etched sentences last better than the macho outpourings of Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer.
Didion was one of the few writers whom I never stopped reading.