New York Public Library acquires Joan Didion's papers

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New York Public Library acquires Joan Didion's papers
In a photo provided by the New York Public Library shows, a1973 letter to Joan Didion from Tennessee Williams, with a dried-flower collage he inscribed to her. The joint archive of Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, includes manuscripts, photographs, letters, dinner party guest lists and other personal items. (The archives of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne/New York Public Library via The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- It was April 1957, and Joan Didion was writing to her family in California about her job as a copywriter at Vogue. “Work is dull and tedious,” she wrote, adding, “I can hardly wait to quit.”

Didion, 22 at the time and less than a year out of the University of California, Berkeley, also added her thoughts on a book she had recently read that lamented the conformism of her peers. “All anyone in this generation wants is security and group belonging,” she wrote, “and what will happen to the world if nobody is willing to risk that security to gain the big things?”

Inside the envelope, Didion tucked a magazine clipping showing a “little black dress” she had recently bought, which had proved “a smashing success.”

“It looks slightly different on me, because it is slightly too small for me,” she wrote, “wherein lies the success of it all.”

When Didion died in 2021 at age 87, the news set off an outpouring of tributes to a writer who fused penetrating insight and idiosyncratic personal voice, transcending ordinary literary fame to become a symbol of bicoastal chic and, with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, an ideal of intellectual-conjugal partnership.

Now, the New York Public Library has acquired Didion and Dunne’s joint personal literary archives. On Thursday, the library’s board approved the purchase of a trove of letters, photographs, manuscripts, family records and other material that traces the individual and collaborative work of one of postwar America’s most productive and glamorous literary couples.

The archive, which totals 240 linear feet of material, spans the whole of Didion’s life, starting with her birth in Sacramento, California, in 1934 (represented by a hospital record showing her mother’s thumbprint, along with the footprint of a just-born baby Joan).

There are research files for her classic essays of the 1960s and ’70s collected in “The White Album” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” as well as notes and drafts for “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” her memoirs about the deaths of her husband and daughter. The collection also includes drafts of the 26 screenplays that Didion and Dunne worked on together (including “The Panic in Needle Park” and the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born”), plus manuscripts and notes for Dunne’s books.

No, there are none of Didion’s signature sunglasses (a pair of which fetched $27,000 at auction last year). But there are datebooks, homemade cookbooks, dinner party menus and guest lists and other items that speak to the couple’s wide circle of friends in New York, Hollywood and beyond.

The archive “very much captures the significance and gravitas of their careers,” said Julie Golia, the library’s associate director of manuscripts, archives and rare books. “But it’s also deeply personal.”

The library — which also holds the papers of friends like Tom Wolfe and Jean Stein and the archive of The New York Review of Books, the couple’s longtime literary home — might seem the obvious place for Didion and Dunne’s papers. Still, when Golia and Declan Kiely, the library’s director of special collections and exhibitions, first saw the inventory (prepared by dealer Marsha Malinowski), they were uncertain what to expect.

The manuscripts for Didion’s first nine books, from the novel “Run River” (1963) to the essay collection “After Henry” (1992), were already at the University of California, Berkeley, where Didion placed them after she and Dunne moved to New York City in 1988.

But when Golia and Kiely made the first of three visits to the storage facility where the rest of Didion and Dunne’s papers were kept, they were floored by the depth and volume of the collection, and by how personal much of the material was.

“Our jaws were just hanging open,” Kiely said.

Their first visits coincided with an auction last year of Didion’s personal effects, whose runaway sale prices — $9,000 for a set of blank notebooks, $10,500 for some stained pots and pans — they watched with amazement. (Kiely said that the auction, which raised a total of $1.9 million for charitable causes, did not affect the price paid for the archive, which the library is not disclosing.)

The auction, Kiely added, “tells us a lot about the great fondness for Joan Didion — not just her work, but something about her authorial persona that people find both fascinating and seek to emulate.”

And the archive, Golia said, reflects Didion’s cultivated awareness of her self-presentation.

“With women writers, they are managing their own literary talents and also managing their images,” she said. “She was remarkably talented at both. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

The archive, Golia said, includes no personal diaries. But it does offer a rich vein of personal correspondence, including both family letters (more than 140 of them from her college and Vogue years) and correspondence with the couple’s wide circle of friends and colleagues, among them Richard Avedon, Helen Gurley Brown, Michael Crichton, Nora Ephron, Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, Diane Keaton, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Norman Lear, Jacqueline Onassis, Philip Roth and Charles Schulz.

There’s a “touching” correspondence, Golia said, with John Wayne (about whom Didion wrote the 1965 essay “John Wayne: A Love Song”) and missives from Tennessee Williams, including a dried-flower collage inscribed to her from 1973.

Williams “was someone who recognized Didion’s brilliance immediately, became quite enamored of and close to her,” Kiely said.

UC Berkeley’s 7.5 linear feet of material may include most of Didion’s manuscripts. But the real strength of the far larger collection headed for the New York Public Library “is the part of the iceberg that is below the surface: the research materials,” Golia said. “She had unbelievably robust research materials on every project.”

There’s a file labeled “Haight Ashbury 1967” (the subject of Didion’s classic essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). There are notes from Didion’s jailhouse interviews with Linda Kasabian, a former follower of Charles Manson, whom she wrote about in her essay “The White Album,” which began with the famous line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” (Didion bought the dress Kasabian wore on her first day on the witness stand in the trial in the murder of actress Sharon Tate.)

The collection also includes Didion’s annotated copies of the confessions made by the five young men convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger attack, which were later revealed to be false. Didion’s 1991 essay about the case in The New York Review of Books was prescient in the doubts it raised. “You can almost see her questioning it on the page,” Golia said of the marked-up confession.

And there is material from unrealized projects, like one relating to Israel and the Middle East that Didion began in 2014 but abandoned, Golia said.

Dunne first appears in the archive around 1964, the year of their marriage.

There are manuscripts and other materials relating to his dozen books, including the bestselling 1977 novel “True Confessions” and “Monster: Living off the Big Screen,” his 1997 account of the couple’s eight years (and 27 drafts) of work on the movie “Up Close and Personal.”

The archive also includes the extensive research for his journalistic projects, including letters he exchanged with the convicted killer of Brandon Teena, who Dunne wrote about in a 1997 New Yorker article that became the basis for the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.” (Almost every letter from the killer, Golia said, “mentions that he was reading a Didion book.”)

While there are no diaries, the collection includes Didion’s datebooks, which show detailed records of meetings, social engagements and research trips, as well as whole weeks where Didion (who wrote about her chronic migraines in her 1968 essay “In Bed”) put a diagonal slash through days at a time, adding a single word: “headache.”

And those parties?

“She was both poetic and military in her approach to dinner party planning,” Golia said. “It was clearly an experience. Everything was curated.” As for the cuisine, Golia said, “the first thing I noticed was that she had a real commitment to Chantilly cream.”

The archive includes condolence letters Didion received after the deaths of Dunne, in 2003, and their daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later. And there’s also the copy of “The Year of Magical Thinking” that she brought on book tour, with passages marked with Dunne’s embossed notecards (and sometimes annotated, Golia said, with revisions for future editions).

Kiely said the papers should be processed by early 2025, at which point the collection will be open without any restrictions to scholars, biographers and (like virtually all of its holdings) anyone else with a library card.

The library expects it to become one of its most heavily used collections. “I’m both looking forward to it,” Kiely said, with a laugh, “and slightly afraid.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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