Advertisement
Share

Why They Left : ‘It Was Time’ for a Change, Say Didion and Dunne, the Quintessential Californians Now Living in N.Y.

Times Staff Writer

Just after 6 in the morning of their last official day as residents of the City of the Angels, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne decided to pay a final visit to their house in Brentwood.

They had spent that night three weeks ago like characters from a novel either one of them might have written, staying in a motel, the Bel-Air Sands, along the San Diego Freeway. Both were taking 8 o’clock planes, she to Carmel to visit her parents; he to New York, their new full-time abode.

Abruptly they pointed their car west on Sunset Boulevard to the street where deciduous trees shed leaves at will, four times a year at least.

Speaking not a word, they walked through the empty house, ghosts on a real estate mission. They opened each door, each cupboard, each closet. They stepped into the garden, stood by the pool. For a time, they lingered in the kitchen. Finally they came once again to the front door.

Advertisement

“You ready?” Dunne asked.

“Yes,” Didion said. Just as quickly, her head fell to his shoulder and both began to sob.

Surrounded by Boxes

“I loved that house. I really loved it,” Dunne said as he recalled the incident, seated now on a flowered couch that required four movers to haul it up the service staircase.

Around him everywhere were giant brown moving boxes marked with their contents: “Dunne, living room”; “Glassware, Dunne”; “Dishes, Dunne.” Polished sparkling-clear, their collection of hurricane lamps was already spread out. “All ready,” Didion joked, “in case of a storm.”

Antique dishes filled this surface and that; family pictures in silver and porcelain frames crowded a too-small table, sandwiched like high-rises in midtown Manhattan. Framed posters, Didion-Dunne movie announcements, paintings and Dunne’s huge black-and-white photographs of California freeways stood on the floor, awaiting wall space. In the entry hall, Didion’s assortment of sunglasses, arranged in neat rows on a round pewter platter, offered a curious contrast to a scene of such disarray that Dunne was moved to say in a deadpan, “Welcome to Omaha Beach.”

Didion, wearing moving-day clothes that hung loose on her perennially frail body, looked momentarily overcome by the effort of repositioning 24 years and 26,000 pounds of possessions.

“You have no idea,” she said, “how much smaller a 10-room apartment in New York is than a 10-room house in Los Angeles.”

Advertisement

Just a week before, they had driven author Philip Roth to their favorite Mexican restaurant in East Los Angeles. Now, here they were, just off Madison Avenue in the ‘70s, an area as tasteful and elegant as New York’s tasteful and elegant Upper East Side knows how to get. Even the dogs strut proudly in this district of designer-dress shops, magazine-cover hair salons and art boutiques. In the lobby of the Didion-Dunne apartment house, where each guest is personally escorted to the resident’s floor, a doorman named Larry radiates dignity and pronounces, “This is the best building in all of New York.”

But as Didion observed, “There were not too many ways I was going to do it if it wasn’t"--she paused--"right.”

They had been contemplating this move for several years, Didion and Dunne explained. Four years ago, in a kind of dry-run, they bought an apartment on West 58th Street, figuring they would give New York, the city where they met a half a lifetime ago, another shot.

They spent an entire fall in that apartment, and while Didion was in Florida doing the research on “Miami,” Dunne wrote a large portion of his most recent novel, “The Red, White and Blue,” there. Together, they worked in that apartment on a script for a movie called “Playland.”

Advertisement

But the apartment “was not quite right,” Didion said. “It wasn’t like a hotel room, where you could go and the linen would be changed and everything would be cleaned. It had to be taken care of.”

Besides, coastal ambivalence had a heavy emotional toll. Being “heterocoastal” (as Dunne once described it, refusing to be “bi-anything”) was “too confusing,” Didion said, “it created an artificial rhythm in our life.”

Then, a year ago January, the couple found themselves unexpectedly back in New York, “one of those awful three-day trips,” Dunne said. As seems to be the rule at one continental end or the other of such trips, the plane heading back to California sat for hours on the runway in Newark, N.J. Didion and Dunne used that time to make their decision. They would move to New York.

Not Disillusioned

Advertisement

“There was no reason,” Dunne said, no ideological objection to what in 1967 Didion called Life Styles in the Golden Land, no real disillusion with the Dreamers of the Golden Dream. Twenty-plus years later, California was still the place, after all, where, as Didion wrote in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” one could go to the grocery store in one’s bikini.

Certainly they were not uncomfortable in their existence in Los Angeles. “We adored the house in Brentwood,” she said. They might have moved, say, to Malibu.

“But if you move to Malibu, you’re not really shaking your life up that much,” he said.

Or maybe San Francisco?

Advertisement

“That,” she said, “would never happen.”

In New York, he added, “we know a lot of people.”

And, she said, “we wanted to travel. Travel is hard out of L.A.”

“When we left our house in California, there was quite a lot of preparation,” she said. “We wanted to be able to close the door.”

Advertisement

“But none of those are reasons,” he said.

The real reason, Dunne said, was this: “We felt it was time to make a change.”

In 24 years in Los Angeles, Dunne wrote seven books, “all vaguely set in Los Angeles.” Didion, the quintessential Californian, born in Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, had moved from chronicling the curiosities of California to recording the atrocities of El Salvador, the surging movement of Miami.

There was the “Playland” script, set aside now until the writers’ strike is resolved. Both had magazine writing projects in progress, as always. But for once, perhaps for the first time in this long, creative union, neither was at work on a book.

Advertisement

“I suspect if I were halfway through a book, or Joan were halfway through a book, we would not have moved,” Dunne said.

Picture these two writers. He is 55, a professional Irishman, his vocabulary liberally sprinkled with words his mother would not have liked him to utter in church. She is 53, with huge ginger-colored eyes and a young child’s Dutch-girl haircut. When Didion speaks, her voice is soft and the words sound hesitant, as if she were waiting for permission. Dunne booms forth with his opinions, the kid who always had his hand raised first.

Recently, chastened by a doctor who discovered he had a massively obstructed heart valve, Dunne dropped 30 pounds from his historically chunky frame. Now, as he prepares to drink Diet Coke in a wine goblet, Didion arrives with a squeeze of lemon to cut the sweetness.

Their books habitually grace best-seller lists, and often serve as college writing texts. While most writers would be pleased to succeed in any single genre, Didion and Dunne, together and separately, have distinguished themselves as writers of films, novels, nonfiction books and journalism.

Advertisement

They have a seemingly insatiable passion for the world. They travel constantly: to Europe, the Mideast, Asia, Latin America. Over lunch, they want to talk about politics, about whether Dukakis can actually beat Bush, about what Jesse Jackson’s imprint will finally be.

But recently, sometime in the last several years, they had begun to notice the unspecific, but unmistakable symptoms that come from feeling, as Didion put it, “stale.”

“It was a vague feeling of staleness,” Dunne said, not willing to concede that they had come anywhere close to drying up.

So during the wait on the plane in Newark, the Dunnes decided to put the Brentwood house on the market, see what price it would bring, and find out what kind of money they would have to play with for a New York apartment.

Advertisement

To their astonishment, the house brought three offers in 24 hours, each more appealing than the other.

“Our hand was forced,” Dunne said.

But if real estate in West Los Angeles was so hot it was almost radioactive, in New York, they discovered, property was simply crazy.

“Between February of last year and October, before the (stock market) crash, it seemed completely out of whack,” Dunne said.

Advertisement

For example, they refused even to look at the apartment they ultimately bought. Its price tag was way too high.

But over the months since October, when Wall Street decided to touch its toes and stay there, New York apartments began to cost less--just barely--than the Taj Mahal. The fourth time the price dropped on the apartment at 71st and Madison, the Dunnes’ real estate broker told them to get over there and take a look.

There was room for separate offices, a bedroom for daughter Quintana, a student at Barnard College. The kitchen was roomy, with a giant restaurant stove and an enormous refrigerator. The dining room was big. The master bathroom had a bidet, a Jacuzzi and as much marble as most self-respecting Greek monuments. And, said Didion, “there was a place for the Xerox machine.”

Across the street was a church, a building of landmark status. That meant no one could build there, no avaricious real estate developer who might blot out their light and their view.

Advertisement

They bought it, then spent weeks in Los Angeles sifting through their belongings. On one single weekend, they threw 71 boxes into a dumpster parked by their house. “It didn’t make a dent,” Dunne said. Eventually, they filled the entire dumpster.

“Nine tons,” Didion said.

“But that’s 9 tons measured in coal, isn’t it?” Dunne asked.

“Nine tons is 9 tons,” Didion replied.

Advertisement

By late April, the moving van was clogging New York City traffic for an entire exhausting day, from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m.

“I just tried to ignore it,” Didion said. When she heard the horns outside and walked out to see the commotion, “I tried to think, now what kind of people would do such a thing, not that we were the instigators.”

The Dunnes even brought their car, a true luxury in Manhattan.

“It costs an obscene amount to park it,” Didion said.

Advertisement

“But not as much as it costs to insure three cars in Los Angeles, not when one of the drivers is a 21-year-old,” Dunne said, and laughed.

The day they sold the house in Los Angeles, Didion called an old friend, Robert Gottlieb, the editor of the New Yorker, and told him she would be willing to do the Letter From Los Angeles series of articles they had talked about, and rejected, months before.

“Suddenly it seemed more viable,” Didion said. To write the three “letters” each year, Didion will make regular trips back to Los Angeles.

But she will not, they insist, fall prey to the Eastern custom of viewing all of Southern California from the side of a single swimming pool.

Advertisement

Dunne, who will soon begin writing a column on New York for Esquire, said he was always irritated “when people from the East came out to write about L.A. and thought it radiated out from the Beverly Hills Hotel.”

Similarly, Didion and Dunne always bristled when Easterners would hum their “there are no real writers in L.A.” refrain.

Better Ideas From Others

“That is one of its great advantages,” Didion said.

Advertisement

“One of the reasons I liked living there is that there is no community of writers,” Dunne said. Spending your life talking to other writers, he added, is “a form of not writing.”

“I don’t like to actually formulate ideas out loud,” Didion said. “I don’t like to listen to what other people are working on because it always sounds so much smarter and better than what I’m working on.”

So in New York, will they feel pressure to become part of the writers’ community, fixtures on the literati circuit?

“I hope not,” Dunne said.

Advertisement

In any event, Didion said, “we’re going to be moving around a lot.”

At times in the course of a sometimes-rocky 24-year marriage, travel has been the balm that soothed the sores. “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific,” Didion wrote in “The White Album,” “in lieu of filing for divorce.” As years went by, Didion and Dunne would escape to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, a quick flight from Los Angeles, ostensibly for the same restorative purpose.

“I’m looking for someplace that’s warm in the winter and only one plane flight away,” Didion said. “I want there to be a city there as well.” She thought for a moment. “I guess it will have to be San Juan.”

For now, there will be the process of adjusting to a city where dinner invitations are issued weeks in advance.

Advertisement

“It sounds like a good idea at the time,” Didion said. “And you don’t want to be rude. . . .”

An Ad Hoc Pair

“But we’re such ad hoc people,” Dunne said. “I make plans for Sunday next.”

Such laissez-faire scheduling seems out of place here in Filofax heaven, where one’s hairdresser might just be able to squeeze one in, the week before the Fourth of July.

Advertisement

Dunne, Hartford native, Princeton graduate, is reminded that just a year ago, he announced in a national magazine article that “I would never leave California.”

He winces. “Did I say that?”

The truth, Dunne said, is that “Los Angeles is the one city in my life that I have ever truly loved.

“I don’t think I will ever love a city like that,” Dunne said.

Advertisement

It is a state of mind, California, they agreed. “It is hard to find California now, unsettling to wonder how much of it was merely imagined or improvised,” Didion wrote in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and the description still applies.

And so here they are, in New York. For now.

When they told their daughter, Quintana, of their decision to move, she thought it over, they reported, then posed a single question.

“Does this mean I can still be a Californian?” Quintana asked.

Advertisement

Yes, they said. She would still be a Californian. And so would they.


Advertisement