From the early 1960s until her death in December 2021, Joan Didion established herself as one of contemporary history’s most poignant observers and chroniclers of American life. She covered everything from San Francisco’s counterculture scene to the political landscape of the late 1990s, interspersing her journalistic work with novels, memoirs, and even screenplays. Read on to find out more about the woman who once so memorably wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
1. Joan Didion has an ancestral connection to the Donner party.
In Sacramento, California, on December 5, 1934, Joan Didion was born to Army finance officer Frank Didion and his wife, Eduene (née Jerrett), who stayed home to take care of Joan and later her younger brother, James. Both sides of Didion’s family had been in California since the mid-19th century. Her mother’s ancestors, the Cornwalls, had gone west in 1846 with an ill-fated troop of settlers known as the Donner party.
The Cornwalls split from the group at Nevada’s Humboldt Sink to head north—a decision that may have saved their lives. The rest of the Donner party spent the winter stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada; nearly half died, and some of the survivors only stayed alive by cannibalizing their former companions.
2. Joan Didion wrote her first story at age 5—and it was a bleak one.
Because her father’s military job forced them to move frequently, Didion’s continuous formal education didn’t start until around fourth grade. But her interest in writing began at age 5, after her mother gave her a notebook “with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts,” as she wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” Her first story followed a woman who thought she was “freezing to death in the Arctic night.” The next day, the woman realized she had ended up in the Sahara Desert, “where she would die of the heat before lunch.”
3. She was a big fan of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad.
By the time she was around 15 years old, Didion had taken to retyping Ernest Hemingway’s sentences as a method of studying their structure and concision. The author of A Farewell to Arms would remain one of Didion’s most revered role models throughout her career. Other writers she cited as influential included Henry James, George Eliot, V.S. Naipaul, and Joseph Conrad. In an interview for The Paris Review, she called Conrad’s Victory “maybe my favorite book in the world. … I’ve never written [a novel] without rereading Victory.”
4. A Vogue contest kickstarted her writing career.
In the summer of 1955, before her senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, Didion worked as a guest fiction editor at Mademoiselle magazine (the same position that Sylvia Plath had filled two years earlier and later wrote about in The Bell Jar). Her big break came in 1956, when she won a Vogue writing contest and was offered a full-time copywriting job at the magazine, earning $37.50 a week. She started with merchandising and promotional copy, graduating to editorial copy and eventually features.
Her first piece, published in August 1961, was sort of a fluke. Vogue had commissioned another writer to pen an essay titled “Self-Respect—Its Source, Its Power,” a headline that would also make the front cover. The issue was running up against its printing deadline and still the story hadn’t come in, so Didion stepped in to write one. It was later rereleased in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem under the title “On Self-Respect.”
5. She considered being an oceanographer.
During those early years at Vogue, Didion briefly considered giving up her tedious, sparse writer’s life altogether and pursuing oceanography, since unexplored ocean depths had long intrigued her. After visiting the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, she promptly abandoned the dream. “I learned that I was so lacking in basic science that I would have to go back to the seventh grade and start over. So I didn’t do that,” she said in a 2006 interview for the Academy of Achievement.
6. Didion hated the title Run River.
In 1963, Didion published her first book: Run River, a novel about a California couple whose fractured marriage leads to a violent crime. The UK edition featured a comma in the title—Run, River—but Didion “hated it both ways,” as she told The Paris Review. Her publisher, Ivan Obolensky, had rejected her working title, In the Night Season, and come up with Run River on his own. When Didion asked him what it meant, he said it meant that “life goes on.” “That’s not what the book is about,” she responded.
7. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote screenplays.
Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, was also a writer, and the two collaborated on several screenplays, starting with 1971’s Al Pacino-starring The Panic in Needle Park. A couple scripts were adapted from their own books: 1972’s Play It As It Lays, from Didion’s 1970 novel of the same name; and 1981’s True Confessions, from Dunne’s 1977 eponymous novel. Other screenwriting credits include 1996’s Up Close and Personal, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, and 1976’s A Star Is Born.
According to Didion, it was Dunne who first suggested reimagining A Star Is Born—which had already been made twice at that point, in 1937 and 1954—for the rock ‘n’ roll era. In their initial pitch to Warner Bros., they used James Taylor and Carly Simon as placeholders in the lead roles, which eventually went to Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. Didion and Dunne even spent a summer touring with bands in preparation for writing the script.
8. Harrison Ford renovated Joan Didion’s house.
Didion will forever be associated with her hometown of Sacramento, which she loved and wrote about often. For most of her adulthood, however, she lived in either New York City or the Los Angeles area. During a stint in Malibu, Didion and Dunne contracted none other than Harrison Ford—who worked as a carpenter before finding fame as Star Wars’s Han Solo—to renovate and expand their beachfront house.
The job took a couple months, and Ford joked in the 2017 documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold that after every workday, he had to explain “why we hadn’t made more progress and how it was gonna cost even more money.” The Fords grew close with the homeowners, who started inviting them to their annual Easter party. Despite feeling like all the other partygoers were “smarter” and “more cultured” than Ford, he “was always made to feel welcome and comfortable.”
9. Didion had some eccentric writing rituals.
Before she began writing each morning, Didion drank a Coca-Cola. (In later life, she switched to fruit and coffee, but she still indulged in her characteristic Coke during lunch.) It wasn’t her only quirk. While writing Run River, she’d tape the pages of each scene into one long string and hang it on her wall. “Maybe I wouldn't touch it for a month or two, then I'd pick a scene off the wall and rewrite it,” she told The Paris Review.
Didion also liked to start every day by retyping whatever she’d already written to build up some momentum. And whenever she encountered writer’s block, she’d drop her manuscript in a plastic bag and store it in the freezer for a while, as her editor, Shelley Wanger, revealed in the 2017 documentary.
10. Didion’s later life was marked by tragedy.
On December 25, 2003, Dunne and Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, whom they’d adopted in 1966, was hospitalized with a case of the flu that quickly gave way to pneumonia. Five days later, Dunne died of a heart attack. At that point, Quintana was comatose due to septic shock, and Didion postponed the funeral until her daughter recovered. When Quintana flew to California after the funeral, she suffered a fall at the airport and ended up needing surgery for a brain hematoma.
Didion chronicled that harrowing period of time in The Year of Magical Thinking, which would soon become one of the most celebrated memoirs ever written about grief, love, and loss. Quintana’s health never fully stabilized, and she passed away in 2005, just before the book’s publication. Didion didn’t revise it, but when she adapted the work as a one-woman play, director David Hare convinced her to add in material that dealt with her daughter’s death. The production debuted on Broadway in March 2007, with Vanessa Redgrave—a longtime friend of Didion’s—as its star.