It’s 1975, and the head of the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley is waiting for Joan Didion to arrive for dinner. He doesn’t know much about the magazine writer and novelist who spent her formative years at Berkeley, trudging around in a dirty raincoat and eating nuts from her pockets. Twenty years after graduating, she has been offered a prestigious teaching appointment at the university, and so this formal faculty dinner is in her honor.
Eventually, Didion walks in five-foot-two at an exaggeration, dressed in a Chanel suit and white-knuckling a purse that she won’t set down the entire evening. She’s 41, but the vibe she’s giving off is of someone trying their best to look like an adult, but who might duck under the table any second. Once she leaves, the faculty decides this woman – ostensibly miserable, inarticulate, unsure of herself, and wearing the entirely wrong thing (who wears Chanel to a dinner party? Apparently, no one in the ’70s) – will be eaten alive in the classroom.
The department secretary, seeing an opportunity to humiliate Didion, books the university’s largest theatre for her public address, thinking she won’t be able to fill it. Then, suddenly, it’s a madhouse. Women are crying as they’re turned away from the door; others stand on tiptoes in the back or sit on the floor, happy just to catch a glimpse of their tiny idol whose voice barely registers above a whisper. “There’s something weird going on with Joan Didion and women,” the faculty head declares, realizing this sparrow of a woman doesn’t just have readers, she has fans.
Joan Didion was born on December 5, 1934, into a prominent family that had lived in Sacramento, California, for five generations. Her father, Frank, was in the Army Air Corps, and so the family was always on the move. Joan didn’t attend school regularly and skipped second grade altogether, but wrote ferociously in a notebook she said her mother, Eduene, had given her “with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts”.
In the mid-’40s, the family – now complete with little brother Jim – moved back to Sacramento. As an adult, Joan would become famous for writing about California. Back then, though, she couldn’t wait to get out. She won a guest-editorship at Mademoiselle magazine and moved to New York for the assignment. She then won an essay competition at Vogue, which landed her a job in the city that paid $45 a week. She worked there for nearly a decade, making a name for herself and maintaining her byline as her fame grew. In the evenings, she went to fabulous parties, freelanced for other magazines, and tried to write a novel. Her boyfriend introduced her to the Time magazine journalist John Gregory Dunne as “the guy you ought to marry”, and so, in 1964 just before her 30th birthday, she did. “Out of the blue, he asked me to come [to visit his mother],” Didion recalled. “And the minute I got into this house of great calm and order and peace and wellbeing, I thought, I want to marry him.”
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