What She Means, the exhibit inspired by the life and work of Joan Didion, is at the Hammer Museum until February 19. You can read my article about it in the January edition of High Country News.
“By following the chronology of Didion’s life, “What She Means” reveals the transformation of the California girl into the American woman — once you figure out the organizing premise and settle into the work.”
Patti Smith was radiant and fierce in her performance at the Saban Theatre Monday night. I’ve been to dozens of shows by the writer and musician during the last three decades; at this Songs & Stories event for the Aloud series of the Los Angeles Public Library, I saw aspects of her I had never seen before. First of all, she had a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint “to dream, to rule, to wrestle the earth from fools.” (Sorry, that was my riff on her anthem “People Have the Power,” not hers.) Smith clicked through images from her new book, A Book of Days, projected on a screen behind her as she told stories, jokes, and history lessons and sang songs, accompanied by longtime collaborator Tony Shanahan. Actually, an unseen technician advanced the slides for her; Smith laughed about this tour being her first experience with presentation software. In fact, despite her 75 years on the planet, the award-winning author is no Luddite. Book of Days is inspired by Smith’s third act as a social media influencer; her daily Instagram account, ThisIsPattiSmith, has 1 million followers. “I’m not capable of being square,” she said Monday.
(As an aside, my 2021 Los Angeles Times article about Patti’s online renaissance during the pandemic took a second place prize at the National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards presented Sunday night by the Los Angeles Press Club.)
Patti was funny and sharp and sentimental Monday. She offered professional advice: to develop your “writer’s muscle” by having a “daily practice.” Hers is to get up every morning, grab a coffee, and open a notebook, she revealed. Appropriately, Monday was Joan Didion’s birthday; Smith and Shanahan played Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” for the writer. “When I think of dark glasses, I think of Joan Didion and Bob Dylan,” she said. In response to an audience question, she spoke about the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was young, revealing that they are in each other’s lives “but she’s very private.” Answering another inquiry, she said, “Michigan is where I had the saddest and most beautiful times of my life. I cherish them all.”
In her eighth decade, Smith is just getting better and more appreciated. She is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, with the headline “The Radical Hope of Patti Smith.” Her voice is more assured, rich, and beautiful than ever. She and Shanahan delivered a stunning version of their 2004 song “Peaceable Kingdom.” But probably my favorite moment of the night was when he goaded her into singing, a capella, a holiday chestnut from her childhood by the Ray Coniff Singers. Roll the tape.
Speaking of Patti Smith cover stories, the first one I wrote was published 27 years ago by The Village Voice.
Eighty-eight years ago in Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, a girl became the first child of Eduene Jerrett and Frank Reese Didion. Joan Didion grew up to be a courageous, award-winning, world-renowned pioneer of literary journalism and crafter of brilliant, surprising novels. In all her travels, even as she spent her last decades in New York, she remained bound to her Central Valley roots. “As I thought about it I realized that I have been writing about the California woman all my adult life, that what it means to be a California woman has been a great question to me – the California woman has been – if not exactly my subject – at least quite certainly my material,” she said in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. This is the first December 5 that she has not been on this earth to celebrate her birthday. Let’s honor it for her by being relentless in our reporting and kind in our relationships.
“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.