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‘California belonged to Joan Didion’: Gavin Newsom salutes the iconic writer

A woman posing in a cable-knit purple sweater.
Prolific writer Joan Didion has died at age 87.
(Liz O. Baylen / For The Times)

Writers, readers, politicians and entertainment luminaries have taken to social media to honor renowned author Joan Didion, who died Thursday morning at age 87 in her New York home due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Shortly after Didion’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, announced her death, California Gov. Gavin Newsom released a lengthy statement eulogizing the “preeminent author, culture critic, and requisite voice of California,” who was born in Sacramento on Dec. 5, 1934.

“A fifth-generation Californian, Joan was a pioneer of the new journalism movement of the 1960s, capturing in prose the state’s growing counterculture movement that would soon influence the nation,” the message from the governor’s office read.

“She was peerless in her capacity to write about life, loss, love and society — easily the best living writer in California. Her ability to put the tapestry of California and the times into words made her a treasure for her generation and generations to come. While we mourn this great loss, Californians can celebrate Joan’s tremendous contributions to the arts through her work. California belonged to Joan Didion; we cherish her memory.”

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Bestselling author Roxane Gay was among the first to pay tribute to the prolific writer and social critic, whose acclaimed novels, essays, memoirs and screenplays captured and critiqued American culture through smart, poignant prose.

“RIP Joan Didion,” tweeted Gay, who counts Didion’s seminal “Play It as It Lays” among her favorite novels.

“Another staggering loss.”

Also on Twitter, singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers quoted an excerpt from “Goodbye to All That,” an essay featured in Didion’s 1968 collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:

“although it did occur to me to call the desk and ask that the air conditioner be turned off, I never called, because I did not know how much to tip whoever might come—was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.”

“RIP Joan,” Bridgers added.

Another musician, Maggie Rogers, said she always keeps a book of Didion essays in her backpack.

“she reminds me how to see. how to be with the world. how to feel it. how to know it bc i feel it,” Rogers tweeted. “may the writer gods greet you as you take your great place in the sky.”

Many saluted Didion by using her own cherished words — both written and spoken.

One of them was Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, who chronicled her life in a 2017 documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.”

Dunne paid tribute to his aunt by quoting her 1961 essay in Vogue on self-respect, in which she wrote: “People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character.”

“As her nephew, I was fortunate enough to witness firsthand Joan’s character, her self-respect, her certain toughness,” Dunne said in a Friday statement. “These qualities are ones I admire and have tried to learn from all my life. Her voice was that of a writer who saw things as they were before most of us. She wrote about grief to find out what she felt, but ended up giving hope and meaning to those who needed it most. Now I find myself in grief, which I share with so many others who are also mourning this great loss.”

Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay shared Didion’s response to an interviewer from literary magazine the Paris Review who asked the essayist why she believed writing “is a hostile act”:

“It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture,” Didion said in 1977.

“Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

Didion bridged the world of Hollywood, journalism and literature in a career that arced most brilliantly in the realms of social criticism and memoir.

Oscar-nominated actor Jessica Chastain — who declared she would be “seizing the moment & celebrating Joan Didion today” — posted a powerful passage from the author’s address to the UC Riverside’s graduating class of 1975:

“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package,” Didion said during her commencement speech.

“I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment.”

The celebrated prose stylist, novelist and screenwriter who chronicled American culture and consciousness died Dec. 23 at 87.

Meanwhile, a number of media figures resurfaced a defiant excerpt from the preface of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” that offered some valued insight into Didion’s perception of her journalistic purpose:

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrustive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” Didion mused.

“And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

Several conveyed their prolonged grief after visionary writers Didion, Eve Babitz and bell hooks all died this month.

“We knew it was coming but not today lord…deaths [in] 2021 have been so rude to black artists specifically,” tweeted Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris. “Too much mourning for our heroes and our visionaries. And I know Miss Joan Didion wasnt black but ask almost ANY black lit girl and they’ll tell u she felt it.”

“Joan never felt the need to ‘protect’ her intellect by appearing dreadfully serious at all times bc she knew that her talent was undeniable and those who doubted it would doubt no matter what she did,” he added.

Actor Rob Delaney recalled the comfort he found in Didion’s writing around the time his son was receiving chemotherapy treatment for “the cancer that would ultimately kill him” and a “very close friend” of his died by suicide.

“Shortly afterward I read [Didion’s 2005 memoir] The Year of Magical Thinking & was thrilled, electrified that someone else had gone through 2 nightmares at once & written about it,” Delaney tweeted.

“Deepest gratitude to Joan Didion for how she helped me during a brutal, dark time. And that’s not even her best book! If you’ve yet to discover her, today’s a good day to do so.”

See how others are celebrating Didion’s extraordinary life and career below.

Staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.


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