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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 time, there was a memorial service for Joan Didion at St. John the Divine. She had died in December, on the age of 87, however there had by no means been a correct send-off due to COVID.

The invitation, despatched by her publisher, raised literary eyebrows. It said the occasion could be open to the public (after all, anybody might read Didion, and a lot of admired her, and a few thought perhaps they may even write like her), but there would also be a VIP part for Didion’s pals, household, and “people from Knopf Doubleday Publishing and different publishing visitors.” Because Didion’s life was a very fastidiously pruned ceremonial dinner, her memorial service might be read as a textual content for what her legacy meant and to whom — and even for who might revenue off it.

The principal organizers were three publishing power players who make up Didion’s literary belief: Shelley Wanger, her editor of 25 years; Lynn Nesbit, her agent; and Sharon DeLano, who edited some of her journal items. (One matter being gossiped about on the memorial was how an official Didion biographer has but to be anointed and how that might be a very plum assignment for whoever is granted access to her archives.) Inside the cathedral was a taxonomy of New York’s e-book world. There had been different big-name Knopf friends who didn’t really know Didion, similar to Donna Tartt. And there was a small cohort there from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which retains the profitable rights to 3 of Didion’s early books, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and Play it because it Lays — those people nonetheless learn when they first fall in love along with her or no much less than the concept of her.

But you might need passed right by the book-world elites. Didion and her author husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been social arbiters on each coasts. Screenwriters, movie producers, and numerous different members of the glamour-production trade, including Annie Leibovitz and Brigitte Lacombe, were there. So was Liam Neeson, in attendance with Vanessa Redgrave, who would later converse. There had been plenty of Upper East Side sorts, corresponding to the top plastic surgeon Gerald Imber. He met Didion and Dunne a long time ago in first-class on an American Airlines flight to St. Bart’s. “He launched himself and mentioned, ‘I’m John Gregory Dunne, and I’m writing a screenplay about cosmetic surgery, and I know who you are.’ She was a rock, and he was hysterical.” And scattered in regards to the VIP part had been pockets of Didion’s actual family members, nice nieces and nephews who had flown in from California.

I spotted Katrina vanden Heuvel, the writer of The Nation. She was childhood associates with Dominick Dunne’s daughter, Dominique, whose homicide ignited her father’s latter-day magazine journalism career in Vanity Fair. Also vanden Heuvel’s mother was the author 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, however she was a force,” she recalled about Didion. What’s one thing that might surprise folks about her? “She beloved bad boys.” Joan Juliet Buck sat in entrance of me. How’d she know the opposite Joan? “I knew the other Joan by way of Lynn Nesbit, back in the ’80s, when she and John moved to New York.” She and Didion coated Michael Dukakis and the Democratic conference collectively in Atlanta in 1988. “I was astonished by the reality that we could stroll right into a room together that was full of people, and we’re both there to take notes, and he or 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 factor about Joan was she was so tiny and delicate. I always felt like an elephant around her.” (Easy to do since she was all the time nerve-rackingly frail and had shrunk to less than 75 kilos in later years.)

Earlier this week, I happened to end up at a literary celebration for tweedy transatlantic sorts hosted on the Grolier Club on the Upper East Side by Tom Stoppard and Sabrina Guinness, who were on the town for the opening of Leopoldstadt. I noticed lots of crossover between that celebration and this memorial: Charlie Rose, Fran Lebowitz, Jane Buffett, Boaty Boatwright, and Anjelica Huston. “She loved Moby-Dick,” Huston mentioned of Didion. “She stated it was one of the best factor ever written in the English language.” Boatwright, who was a prime agent of the outdated New Hollywood, was standing beside Greta Gerwig. “I was fortunate enough to meet Joan through Boaty,” mentioned 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 in regards to the hedonism of California never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

The program.
Photo: Shawn McCreesh

Thirteen people spoke, although Kevin Young merely learn two poems — certainly one of his personal adopted 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 round Didion sharing his fondness for the previous California governor’s mansion Nancy Reagan had hated. Patti Smith selected to sing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” (Smith had additionally performed at the funeral for Didion and Dunne’s daughter, Quintana Roo.) Redgrave, who starred within the stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking, spoke haltingly of Didion watching each 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 basically it ought to have been Bob Silvers up there since The New York Review of Books had been Didion’s non secular home. (Silvers died in 2017.) “Is there an essayist right now who’s more universally admired by young readers and fledgling writers?” requested Remnick. Proving his point, the whole back half of the cathedral, open to the basic public, was packed. The Didionhive turned out.

Wanger stated Jia Tolentino, who spoke a couple of minutes later, had been chosen as a speaker because “we thought she could give you a sense of what one other technology felt about Joan and her legacy.” Tolentino began her remarks by saying that for writers of her era, Didion had “famously turn out to be an emblem.” But then she mentioned “that to turn Joan Didion into an emblem is to misrepresent” her “fundamental project, her clairvoyant disassembling of overprecious fable.” This conundrum hung over the complete event in reality. Tolentino subsequent talked in regards to the first time she read Didion, in her 20s, and the way she “saw immediately the inheritance, the piece of gold, that I and so many others would hope to put palms on.” But then she assured everybody, “There will never ever be another Joan Didion.” Hey, you hear that back there!  

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

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