“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” These words from the Episcopal doxology comforted Joan Didion her whole life. She was raised in the religion and although she became someone who believed in the power of narrative, the primacy of family, the joy of cooking, Buddhist philosophy, and the California sky more than any deity, she still found solace in this mantra and in the gothic beauty of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on New York’s upper west side, where her daughter married, her husband’s memorial was held, and her remains are now entombed. Yesterday the life of the writer, who died December 23, 2021, at the age of 87, was honored there in a simple and moving memorial of speeches and music delivered by a formidable list of Didion’s family, friends, colleagues, and admirers. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (who grew up with Joan in Sacramento), former California governor Jerry Brown, filmmaker/actor Griffin Dunne (her nephew), actor Vanessa Redgrave, and writers David Remnick, Calvin Trillin, Jia Tolentino, Hilton Als, and Kevin Young all offered words of reminiscence and reflection. Patti Smith sang. Organized primarily by Didion’s editor Shelley Wanger, it was a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual, and sometimes deeply sad service, a fitting farewell to one of the greatest writers of the past century.
Two women who knew Didion intimately offered portraits of their friend that to me captured her as a human and a thinker in very different but accurate ways. Author Susanna Moore (Miss Aluminum) recalled the terse but memorable advice given to her over decades by this woman who wrote intensely but spoke little, including “Write it again,” “Crazy is never interesting,” and “Evil is the absence of seriousness.” Susan Traylor, who met Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo Dunne when they were both four and became best friends forever, told funny, heartwarming stories of how Joan became a kind of second mother to her, stricter than her own but a supportive rock in hard times. Tales of a mom who served chocolate souffle to children because she didn’t know how to make a birthday cake and sang silly songs about mice way past their age-appropriateness revealed the fabled lover of irony as a warm, awkward human being.
I was surprised the cathedral wasn’t overflowing with Didion’s notoriously devoted followers, but perhaps that was because the memorial, months in the planning, was just announced last week. The luminaries and publishing people seated up front almost outnumbered the general public in back and included Fran Lebowitz, Anjelica Huston, Liam Neeson, Greta Gerwig, Carl Bernstein, Annie Leibovitz, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Sara Davidson, and Lynn Nesbit. I was honored and humbled to be in their midst.
No one from Didion’s family spoke. I’ve spent the past year researching and writing about Joan for a book, and I have learned that she comes from a lineage that prizes privacy. There were also only a handful of people in the columbarium afterwards, looking for the square piece of granite engraved with the names of Joan, her mother Eduene Jerrett Didion, her husband John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. It was bereft of flowers. I’ll go back with a lei, for the woman who loved Hawaii and its tradition of dropping flowered necklaces to honor the deceased. “Leis go brown,” Didion wrote. “Tectonic plates shift, deep currents move, islands vanish, rooms get forgotten.” Words survive.