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Would Joan Didion Have Liked Her Memorial Service Much?

Vanessa Redgrave and Liam Neeson. Photo: Christopher Smith/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Last night, there was a memorial service for Joan Didion at St. John the Divine. She had died in December, at the age of 87, but there had never been a proper send-off because of COVID.

The invitation, sent by her publisher, raised literary eyebrows. It said the event would be open to the public (after all, anybody could read Didion, and many admired her, and some thought maybe they could even write like her), but there would also be a VIP section for Didion’s friends, family, and “people from Knopf Doubleday Publishing and other publishing guests.” Because Didion’s life was a very carefully pruned dinner party, her memorial service could be read as a text for what her legacy meant and to whom — and even for who might profit off it.

The principal organizers were three publishing power players who make up Didion’s literary trust: Shelley Wanger, her editor of 25 years; Lynn Nesbit, her agent; and Sharon DeLano, who edited some of her magazine pieces. (One topic being gossiped about at the memorial was how an official Didion biographer has yet to be anointed and how that will be a very plum assignment for whoever is granted access to her archives.) Inside the cathedral was a taxonomy of New York’s book world. There were other big-name Knopf friends such as Donna Tartt. And there was a small cohort there from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which retains the lucrative rights to three of Didion’s early books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and Play it as it Lays — the ones people still read when they first fall in love with her or at least the idea of her.

But you might have passed right by the book-world elites. Didion and her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been social arbiters on both coasts. Screenwriters, movie producers, and various other members of the glamour-production industry, including Annie Leibovitz and Brigitte Lacombe, were there. So was Liam Neeson, in attendance with Vanessa Redgrave, who would later speak. There were lots of Upper East Side types, such as the top plastic surgeon Gerald Imber. He met Didion and Dunne decades ago in first class on an American Airlines flight to St. Bart’s. “He introduced himself and said, ‘I’m John Gregory Dunne, and I’m writing a screenplay about plastic surgery, and I know who you are.’ She was a rock, and he was hysterical.” And scattered about the VIP section were pockets of Didion’s actual relatives, great nieces and nephews who had flown in from California.

I spotted Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation. She was childhood friends with Dominick Dunne’s daughter, Dominique, whose murder ignited her father’s latter-day magazine journalism career in Vanity Fair. Also vanden Heuvel’s mother was the writer Jean Stein, who wrote West of Eden, which was blurbed by Didion, so vanden Heuvel grew up hanging around the Didion-Dunne household. “She was a very strict mother, but she was a force,” she recalled about Didion. What’s something that might surprise people about her? “She loved bad boys.” Joan Juliet Buck sat in front of me. How’d she know the other Joan? “I knew the other Joan through Lynn Nesbit, back in the ’80s, when she and John moved to New York.” She and Didion covered Michael Dukakis and the Democratic convention together in Atlanta in 1988. “I was astonished by the fact that we could walk into a room together that was full of people, and we’re both there to take notes, and she would vanish. She was already small, but she would make herself not exist. And you didn’t know where she was. I’ve never seen anyone do that.” She added, “The thing about Joan was she was so tiny and delicate. I always felt like an elephant around her.” (Easy to do since she was always nerve-rackingly frail and had shrunk to less than 75 pounds in later years.)

Earlier this week, I happened to end up at a literary party for tweedy transatlantic types hosted at the Grolier Club on the Upper East Side by Tom Stoppard and Sabrina Guinness, who were in town for the opening of Leopoldstadt. I noticed a lot of crossover between that party and this memorial: Charlie Rose, Fran Lebowitz, Jane Buffett, Boaty Boatwright, and Anjelica Huston. “She loved Moby-Dick,” Huston said of Didion. “She said it was the best thing ever written in the English language.” Boatwright, who was a top agent of the old New Hollywood, was standing beside Greta Gerwig. “I was lucky enough to meet Joan through Boaty,” said Gerwig, “and as I’m from Sacramento, it was one of the great honors of my life.” She even used a Didion line in Lady Bird: “Anybody who talks about the hedonism of California never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

The program. Photo: Shawn McCreesh

Thirteen people spoke, though Kevin Young simply read two poems — one of his own followed by, naturally, “The Second Coming” — and Calvin Trillin read a biting passage from After Henry about Didion’s distaste for politicians and other Washington, D.C., insiders. But not before Justice Anthony M. Kennedy spoke about being childhood friends with Didion, then Jerry Brown, who had Zoomed in from California for a short speech that centered around Didion sharing his fondness for the old California governor’s mansion Nancy Reagan had hated. Patti Smith chose to sing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” (Smith had also performed at the funeral for Didion and Dunne’s daughter, Quintana Roo.) Redgrave, who starred in the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, spoke haltingly of Didion watching every single performance from the wings, pointedly about Scott Rudin’s talents as a producer (she mentioned him twice), and majestically as she read from the final pages of the memoir. When David Remnick spoke, he admitted that really it should have been Bob Silvers up there since The New York Review of Books had been Didion’s spiritual home. (Silvers died in 2017.) “Is there an essayist today who is more universally admired by young readers and fledgling writers?” asked Remnick. Proving his point, the entire back half of the cathedral, open to the public, was packed. The Didionhive turned out.

Wanger said Jia Tolentino, who spoke a few minutes later, had been chosen as a speaker because “we thought she could give you a sense of what another generation felt about Joan and her legacy.” Tolentino began her remarks by saying that for writers of her generation, Didion had “famously become a symbol.” But then she said “that to turn Joan Didion into an emblem is to misrepresent” her “fundamental project, her clairvoyant disassembling of overprecious myth.” This conundrum hung over the entire event in fact. Tolentino next talked about the first time she read Didion, in her 20s, and how she “saw instantly the inheritance, the piece of gold, that I and so many others would hope to lay hands on.” But then she assured everyone, “There will never ever be another Joan Didion.” Hey, you hear that back there!  

In the public-seating section — for her fans without prestige skin in the game, who maybe even mostly admired her for her later books about mourning first her husband, then her daughter — one woman told me she found out about this on Instagram and just had to be here. Dennis Conroy, a 58-year-old Brooklyn man who said he works in “editorial,” heard about it from his friend a few hours prior and rode his bicycle all the way uptown from Prospect Heights to be here. “It was a quintessentially New York moment,” he concluded. It was a sentimental sentiment Didion would have been loath to express herself.

Would Joan Didion Have Liked her Memorial Service Much?