About Joan Didion

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, CA in 1934, the daughter of an officer in the Army Air Corps. A shy, bookish child, Didion spent her teenage years typing out Ernest Hemingway stories to learn how sentences work. She attended the University of California, Berkeley where she got a degree in English and won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. The prize was a research assistant job at the magazine where Didion would work for more than a decade, eventually working her way up to an associate features editor. During this time she wrote for various other magazines and published her first novel, a tragic story about murder and betrayal, called RUN RIVER in 1963. The following year she married fellow writer John Gregory Dunne and the two moved to Los Angeles. The couple adopted a daughter whom they named Quintana Roo after the state in southern Mexico.

Didion’s first volume of essays, entitled SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM, was published in 1968 and was a collection of her feelings about the counterculture of the 1960s. The New York Times referred to it as “a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.” Her critically acclaimed second novel PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1970) was about a fading starlet whose dissatisfaction with Hollywood leads her further and further away from reality. Herself engaging in the Hollywood lifestyle, Didion would go on to co-write four screenplays with her husband: PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972, based on her novel), A STAR IS BORN, (1981) and UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL (1996). A second book of essays, THE WHITE ALBUM, was published in 1979 about life in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Throughout the years Didion has written many more essay collections on subjects that have swayed her. Her fascination with America’s relations with its southern neighbors could be seen in SALVADOR (1983) and MIAMI (1987). POLITICAL FICTIONS (2001) focuses on her thoughts on American politics and government. Didion and her family moved back to New York in the 1980s, and her observations of the city can be read in AFTER HENRY (1992). She reflects on California’s past and present in her 2003 collection WHERE I WAS FROM.

Joan Didion’s husband died in 2003. Didion wrote about the grief she felt at Dunne’s death in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (2005). The book has been called “a masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism,” and won the National Book Award in 2005. Sadly, also in 2005, Didion lost Quintana Roo to acute pancreatitis. Didion wrote a memoir about the loss of her daughter called BLUE NIGHTS, which was published in 2011.

Didion’s work, which has been associated with the “New Journalism” movement, has been recognized on many occasions. She received the American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal in Criticism and Belles Letters in 2005 and won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2007. She is a member of the Academy of Arts & Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and The Berkeley Fellows. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard University in 2009 and an honorary degree from Yale in 2011.  In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Obama, and the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.