The Smallest Woman in the Largest Apartment
Joan Didion and The Fullness of Memory
A million years ago, my brother, a writer who had relocated to California from New York, came back to Manhattan to cover an event and was somehow invited to a Christmas Party at Joan Didion’s apartment.
“She was gracious and tiny,” he told me later, "and she had the hugest New York City apartment.”
At Hunter College, in the mid 70’s, I took a writing course and was assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
To read Didion was to want to become a writer.
What was piercing about Didion’s work was how close, it seems to me, she got us to the portal into which she was peering. Alcatraz Island, with its nasturtiums and assorted plants, was a place that to like you had to want to live in a place with a moat; the Tate–LaBianca murders evoked feelings of anger, horror, disgust, the end of something — everything but surprise; New York City could never truly be experienced if you still had your return ticket home in a drawer in your desk; and how the first anniversary of a loved one’s death reminds you there will never again be solace in short-term memory.
Writers are told to write what they know; Didion reminded me to write where I am — literally, physically.
Her writing didn’t just touch me. It was touchable.
For reasons that defy understanding, I often report for a geology magazine and was asked once to do a piece on offshore drilling in California.
Here was my lede:
“California is a place,” Joan Didion wrote, “in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”
Hope and fear, gold and rust —in one graph.
The quote never made it into the story as the editors didn't know who she was.
After my son died, I wrote her a note — The Year of Magical Thinking had been out a few years — in which I asked her whether she would give it all back, her writing, her career, her fame, to see her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, again.
(It was the same question I asked then-Vice President Joe Biden about his dead sons and first wife. Inane thing to do now that I think about it.)
I also mentioned in the note that she had met my brother at a Christmas Party and repeated his observation about her relative size compared to her apartment’s.
I never expected to hear from her.
She wrote back.
“Of course I would give it all back, but of course that is impossible. Best to you. P.S. Tell your brother the apartment is not that big.”