Joan Didion bought her wedding dress the day JFK was shot. Two months later, the nuptials took place in the mission church, located precariously atop the San Andreas Fault, from which Kim Novak’s character leaps to her death at the end of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Portents and omens; but like Hamlet, Didion and her groom, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, defied augury. Perhaps in retrospect they should have paused to rummage through the entrails.
As Tracy Daugherty shows in The Last Love Song, over the ensuing decades Didion would have repeated occasion to ponder another quote from the same Shakespeare play, the one about sorrows coming not in single spies but in battalions.
Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme, the subjects of Daugherty’s last two books, were no longer around when he dove into their pasts. Though she is getting on in years (she turns 81 in December), Didion still speaks — but not, alas, to Daugherty. She withheld her cooperation. Faced with a shut door, he instead exploited the accessibility of her printed words.
Hence the problem. Heller and Barthelme rarely wrote about themselves; Didion did — quite a bit, in fact. Summary and quotes from those widely praised works saturate this biography. You may be tempted to bypass it and go straight to the primary sources, but then you will miss Daugherty’s exemplary criticism; his autopsying of the corpus is incisively professional, close reading done with enthusiasm.
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Didion’s friends loyally rejected Daugherty’s queries, but others, outer satellites orbiting this literary star and her family, stepped forward. His biggest “get” is her mentor (and lover) from her salad days in New York. Every so often, however, gossip slips through, such as the catty accusation from Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood’s partner, that Dunne was gay. No shame in it, of course, if true; but one requires further proof, not a lame disclaimer that “Bachardy’s remarks should be taken with heavy pitchers of salt.”
The narrative is also burdened with an unwieldy, repetitive structure that attempts to mimic Didion’s signature fragmented style. And while historical context is important, especially in any discussion of this author, whose coolly chiseled prose chronicled the upheavals and dislocations of the ’60s and ’70s, Daugherty sometimes overplays the greatest hits of the period. There is no reason, for example, to give an extensive account of the Patty Hearst affair when Didion wrote about it only once — and not very well, according to her biographer.
But Didion’s long difficult journey will make you overlook those flaws. The descendant of California pioneers, she was raised a rugged individualist. When she moved east, she felt out of place among liberal elites. A Goldwater girl, she admired John Wayne, contributed to National Review. Dunne, an unrepentant Democrat, helped to soften her politics, though this role model for young women always remained averse to feminism.
The Dunnes — or the Didions, as they were known after she eclipsed him, to his chagrin — established themselves as a second-tier power couple in Hollywood, writing essays and novels on one hand, and to pay the bills, screenplays on the other. They hobnobbed with stars, drove nice cars, owned homes in Malibu and Brentwood (O.J. was a neighbor). From afar they were the envy of every MFA student. But count the cracks in the facade. Despite her pathological shyness, Didion was a drama queen, prone to migraines and nervous breakdowns. Dunne was a temperamental drunk, with “too high a trouble quotient.” Their adopted daughter, Quintana, was a precocious yet emotionally troubled child who abused alcohol and drugs.
Remember the wedding? The best man, Dunne’s younger brother, committed suicide. The flower girl, his beloved niece, would grow up to be murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Dunne’s heart, failing for years, finally gave out one evening in December 2003, after he and Didion returned from the hospital, where their daughter was battling pneumonia. Less than two years later, Quintana succumbed to an illness that may have been aggravated by her addictions.
Didion wrote about this horrible one-two punch in the memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. If Daugherty reignites interest in any of her fine books, his biography will justify itself.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.