Didion was one of the country’s most trenchant writers and astute observers. Her bestselling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honors and are considered modern classics.
Didion was born in Sacramento in 1934 and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1956. After graduation, Didion moved to New York and began working for Vogue, which led to her career as a journalist and writer. Didion published her first novel, Run River, in 1963.
It was in New York that Didion met John Gregory Dunne. The two married in 1964 and moved to California. They adopted a daughter, Quintana Roo, in 1967.
Working as full-time writers, each acting as the other’s first reader, Didion and Dunne were frequent literary collaborators. The two worked together on screenplays for, The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1972), which was Didion’s second novel, A Star Is Born (1976), and Up Close and Personal (1996).
Didion’s other novels include A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996).
Didion’s first volume of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published in 1968, and her second, The White Album, was published in 1979. Her nonfiction works include Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992), Political Fictions (2001), Where I Was From (2003), We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live (2006), South and West (2017), and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021). Her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, written in the immediate wake of Dunne’s death, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005.
Less than two years after Dunne’s death, their daughter Quintana Roo died of acute pancreatitis. Didion wrote about Quintana’s death in her 2011 memoir Blue Nights.
In 2005, Didion was awarded the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Belles Letters and Criticism. In 2007, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A portion of the National Book Foundation citation read: “An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, Didion’s distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists.” In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Barack Obama, as well as the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Shelley Wanger, her editor at Knopf, said, “Joan was a brilliant observer and listener, a wise and subtle teller of truths about our present and future. She was fierce and fearless in her reporting. Her writing is timeless and powerful, and her prose has influenced millions.
“She was a close and longtime friend, loved by many, including those of us who worked with her at Knopf. We will mourn her death but celebrate her life, knowing that her work will inspire generations of readers and writers to come.”
“We are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” —Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking