Distinguished American writer Joan Didion has always seemed delicate, but now she looks frail. Her shoulders are thin and stooped as she speaks haltingly about the loss of her daughter a few weeks ago, as she was still grappling with the sudden death of her husband on Dec. 30, 2003. Her weight has dropped below 80 pounds, and her pants and pullover hang loosely from a 5-foot-1 frame that now seems perilously thin. She seems dwarfed by a living room filled with art and mementos.
As she notes at the beginning of her new memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which goes on sale today, “Life changes fast.” The book is , about the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, of a heart attack just a few weeks shy of the 40th anniversary of a marriage that was a legendary creative partnership. It was going to press when, on Aug. 26, her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, a photographer and photo editor who had been hospitalized since June, died at 39 after a long series of illnesses.
As she prepared last week for her daughter’s memorial service on Thursday at New York’s St. Vincent Ferrer Church, Didion seemed suspended in raw grief.
“You feel fragile,” she began, taking a seat in front of a fireplace, her eyes dark and bright, her voice soft. “For a while after somebody dies you can’t eat. I’m trying to eat again. I’ve lost 5 pounds. I [now] weigh in the 70s, so 5 pounds is a real issue. My friends call. They remind me to eat. It’s sort of embarrassing. We should all be able to take care of ourselves.”
“There’s a point when someone dies that you just can’t stop the outbursts of crying,” she said. “Then there’s a point where you just live with it. It’s an absence rather than a condition.”
If she didn’t try to carry on right now, she said, “I would feel guilty. Was I reentering life? There’s a certain obligation to live your life.”
“That’s one reason I’m going out on the road” to promote the book, as she had planned before Quintana’s death, she said. “It’s part of learning to live with it.”
“I think it’ll be her salvation,” said her agent, Lynn Nesbit. “That might be too strong a word, but I hope it will be good therapy. Work is a safe haven for her.”
The silent rooms of the apartment seem a minefield of memories.
Here are the photographs of Quintana as a wide-eyed baby. Here she is as a little girl wading in the sea in Malibu, as an early adolescent with long blond hair and a suddenly direct gaze that hints of adulthood to come.
Here is the living room where, at Didion’s annual Easter gathering of family and friends, Quintana asked her husband, Gerry Michael, to help her get up from the wheelchair her illness had caused her to use. She walked from the door to the sofa.
Here is the small table where, in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion describes how Dunne collapsed from a heart attack in the middle of a conversation about World War I or scotch, she can’t remember which. Here is the living room that paramedics turned into a triage center, spilling blood onto the floor, just a few feet from the white slip-covered furniture, the delicate toile pillows and the clouds of papery white moth orchids that float over terra cotta pots on a table at the entrance of the still apartment.
“It isn’t like when John died, when there were a lot of people there,” writer Calvin Trillin, a friend of Didion and Dunne, said of the days following Quintana’s death. “I think this time she wanted to do it more by herself. Somebody told me there’s an African blessing, ‘May we be buried by our children.’ It’s obviously the hardest loss.”
The apartment seemed warm and humid, but Didion felt a chill -- “If you weigh under 80, you tend to get cold” -- and pulled on a soft pink sweater. When you are grieving, she said, “you feel very fragile, physically fragile, for no reason. Maybe you are more fragile because you’re under stress. I got pneumonia in May for no reason.”
She walked down a hall papered with framed pictures of Quintana: “Anyone who is not objectionable about his daughter is a pervert,” read a quote attributed to Franklin Pierce at the center of a photo montage of Quintana hanging by the his-and-hers studies where Didion and Dunne talked across the hall throughout the day.
If Dunne heard an interesting anecdote on the telephone, friends say, he would call out, “Joanie, pick up the extension,” so she could hear the story too.
“They were together 24 hours a day,” said Nesbit, a longtime close friend of the couple. “They were truly each other’s best friend. It’s quite heartbreaking to see that picture on the back of the book of the three of them together and look at Joan today. Grief is etched all over Joan’s face.”
In Didion’s study, a game of computer solitaire glows on the green screen of the laptop on her desk. A shelf nearby holds a picture of a previous Joan Didion, a young woman with a deadly serious gaze that seems at odds with the glamour of the large dark sunglasses she typically wore and the fascinating life she had earned. Nearby is a photo of Quintana, a little girl in a washed-out sundress, a few inches from a book called “Baby Animals and Their Mothers.”
Another pile of books near the desk deals with the matter at hand: “For the Bereaved: The Road to Recovery,” “The House of Death,” “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy” and an academic tome, by Sherwin B. Nuland, called “How We Die.”
“This one is really fantastic,” Didion said. “It’s not about grieving. It’s about what happens when people die.”
Quintana went into the hospital with what appeared to be the flu on Christmas 2003, just five months after she married. By the time Dunne died five days later, Quintana’s illness was spiraling into pneumonia, a whole body infection and a pulmonary embolism. She was hospitalized again with arterial bleeding a few months later at UCLA Medical Center.
Quintana returned to the hospital in New York in June with an abdominal infection.
“The shock of it was that this time, she had a lot of strength,” Didion said. “Her husband and I assumed she’d overcome it.”
“One thing I sort of learned over the course of this is, even at the very cutting edge of medicine, it’s kind of a crapshoot,” she said.
Quintana’s husband, Michael, a musician, was already a widower and a father when they married in July 2003, said Didion’s brother-in-law, Dominick Dunne. Dunne said Michael was a “wonderful husband to her” after she became ill, helping her get into cars and helping with her wheelchair, which he said she had been using for about a year.
At the Easter lunch, he said, “it was extremely hard for her to walk. But she did it. Our eyes filled with tears at that moment, because what we saw was that was what her life was going to be.”
Didion’s book was not altered to reflect her daughter’s death. By that time, it was “all but bound,” she said, and it may not have been possible to rework it.
“I’m not sure I would have anyway,” Didion said. “If I had been writing it at the time she died, that would have become part of it. It was about a specific period of going crazy and getting over it.”
Now she must cope with something all parents find it difficult to accept: a child dying first.
“And yet they do all the time,” she said, sighing. “In my case I worried so constantly since she was a baby and a small child. I was kind of obsessive and overprotective. Once she was grown up, you’re kind of past that.”
But the realization of a parent’s worst fears has stunned her. “You’re sleepwalking,” she said. “You forget things too.” She waves away the idea of grief counseling -- “Therapy is nothing I really want at the moment.”
Under other circumstances, Didion might have shared this terrible burden with Dunne. The two shared much else: writing film scripts together, editing each other’s pieces. When Didion wrote her famous Life magazine column about going with her family to Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce,” Dunne edited it and drove her to cable it.
“I never had to finish sentences because he would finish them for me,” Didion said. When people asked if they were ever divided by rivalry, “I never got why. What was good for him was good for me. What was good for me was good for him. I don’t understand what school of marriage they’re thinking about.”
“They were, in the best sense of the word, enmeshed in each other’s lives,” said Times media critic Tim Rutten, another friend. “As writers and people, they were one of those rare couples in which both people really appreciated in the other the things they appreciated in themselves.”
The impulse to tell her late husband things still occurs to Didion, all day long. “It’s always something minor. Some bit of information. Some interesting development. I think it hits people forever.”
“When John died it was the first time in my life I couldn’t control anything,” she said. Before, “I had these delusions of control.”
In her book, Didion describes how she resisted giving away Dunne’s shoes and other personal things because he needed them to come back, one of the impulses that made her feel “a little crazy” after he died. His study is still a jumble of books and papers.
“What made me feel crazy was I realized I expected him to come back, and I was guided by that belief,” she said. “I felt exposed all the time and paranoid. There were a lot of things I realized were a little deranged.”
At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which she covered for the New York Review of Books, “I thought there was a bomb at Fleet Center in Boston,” she says. “I had to get out. I couldn’t stay there. I don’t know why. But it was crazy.”
Dunne’s death was a shock to his friends too. On the day Dunne died, Nesbit spoke to him twice on the telephone about Quintana, who was then in the hospital for the first time.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if she’ll pull through,’ ” Nesbit recalled. “He said, ‘I just don’t know,’ and he broke down and cried.” A few hours later, someone called to tell her Dunne had died.
Quintana, by then in and out of consciousness at the hospital, had to be told of her father’s death twice.
“I am sort of religious. But I don’t believe in a personal God,” Didion explained, taking a seat in front of the fireplace in the living room. “I believe in geology. You can’t be in an earthquake ... without believing in that. It’s pretty awe-inspiring. It’s not personal. I don’t feel the lack of a personal.”
In some ways, mortality has always been close at hand. In 1972, Didion was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after she went blind, several times, in alternate eyes, for six weeks at a time. When MRIs became available, she never had one to try to confirm or dismiss the diagnosis, because “I hadn’t had a symptom since the early ‘70s and it didn’t seem worth it to have an MRI to prove something I didn’t want to prove.”
“Mortality seems to be one of those things you confront over and over again without quite getting it,” she said dryly.
“I think Joan is very much like the pioneer women, her ancestors, that she describes in her book on California,” Nesbit said. “She’s very fragile in her appearance, but she’s indomitable.”
Even at a time like this, Didion is a witty conversationalist, and she brightens whenever the conversation turns away from her grief.
“Joan is very funny,” her friend Nora Ephron said. “I’m always telling her she’s a fraud: Everyone thinks she’s fragile and humorless, when we all know she’s wildly funny -- and the last surviving member of the Donner party.”
Her humor shined through as she told the story of being fired as a film critic by Vogue magazine after she wrote a review of “The Sound of Music” that suggested there was a latent romantic frisson between Peggy Wood, who played Mother Superior, and Julie Andrews, the novice who marries the Baron von Trapp.
“I found it hard to write in New York at that age,” she said. “I didn’t have the confidence, until I moved back to California. There’s a rush to opinion in New York that is kind of destructive, particularly to young writers. It’s very incestuous. One of the things that was really great about Los Angeles was you didn’t see other writers and editors. You saw a broader range of people.”
Back in those days, she wrote a biting critique of feminism, but she rejected any suggestion that she was unsympathetic to it.
“I didn’t feel unsympathetic to feminism,” she said. “I felt it was becoming mired in arguments over who did the dishes.”
She says she considers Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” to be a landmark feminist work because “it gets to the heart of serious economic issues,” the low-wage jobs that women are relegated to and the fact that “there is always a male overseer who bullies them.”
She would like to write another book, soon, she said, a short one, not a memoir but a nonfiction book on a subject requiring research.
Outside, a ceiling of pearly gray clouds coalesced over Manhattan, and the apartment had grown dark. “It just keeps dripping. It’s been like this all week,” Didion lamented. “Rain would be a relief.”
Asked the name of the artist who created a black-and white abstract that dominates one wall, Didion gave up and shrugged, “I could look it up. I can’t remember anything right now.”
Then she remembered to eat. She sat down to a lunch of salmon and asparagus in the brightly lit kitchen. Across from her, a Warholesque portrait of multiple images of her daughter hangs above a doorway.
As her book tour approaches, “I feel a little incapable, like I might not know how to work the machine to get a boarding pass,” she mused.
“Will my credit card match the name on the ticket?”
What she’s looking forward to are the anonymous hotel rooms and unfamiliar places that are familiar to the readers of her books.
“I think there will be something restful about being alone and getting away,” she said. “I just really want to get away. What I want to get away from is a lot of unknown stuff. A lot of details.”
Outside, it finally began to rain.