The memorial of Joan Didion was an evening of wonder

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive,” actress Vanessa Redgrave said Wednesday night, speaking from the pulpit at St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she was accompanied by her son-in-law, movie star Liam Neeson. “We try to keep them alive to keep them with us.”

The words Mrs. Redgrave are saying are not her own. They belonged to Joan Didion, a writer of small stature but of towering stature, even before that. her death last December at the age of 87has become an idea like a human being – not only a literary icon but also a beacon of opulent intellectuals, who in 2015 appeared in a Celine campaign.

The church was filled to hold a memorial service in her honor, organized by her publisher Knopf and by her editor there, Shelley Wanger.

Among those in attendance were writers Fran Lebowitz and Donna Tartt, photographers Annie Leibovitz and Brigitte Lacombe, actors Bob Balaban and Anjelica Huston, director Greta Gerwig, and many of her civilian fans, people who have lined up outside. It was the kind of crowd that Miss Didion would most likely appreciate. She is an acute chronicler of power; within is its own state form.

During her nearly 70-year career, Didion has written about almost every aspect of American life: presidential campaigns, tarot readers, murders, rock ‘n’ roll, civil rights and grief.

But the overarching theme of her work is decay — about our politics, the environment, our truth, our intellectualism. The eulogy reflects that concern.

The first speech came from Father Patrick Malloy, who described Didion’s detailed instructions on how to handle the small funeral that took place shortly after her death.

The directives regarding keeping things “very brief” and reading passages from the Book of Common Prayer are among the most “dull.”

“She doesn’t believe in a god of her own,” he said. “But she believed in a god like geology. You know it exists, and you know it affects your life, but basically, it doesn’t know you or really care about you. And that’s not a really surprising thing for someone who has suffered through the things in life that she has suffered.”

This includes the 2003 death of her husband Didion, writer John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack, followed less than two years later by the death of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, at the age of 39. then, Miss Didion received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. (Miss Redgrave appeared in the theatrical version of “Five Miracle Mindsets,” Miss Didion’s bestselling book about the aftermath of loss.)

Inside the damp church, organizers dressed in black hand out fans with Edna St. Vincent Millay for the guest. (The memorial service was delayed, at least in part, because the Cathedral was not open for large gatherings at the time of Mrs. Didion’s death.) In front of the church, a screen projected an image of Mrs. Didion. throughout her life: with her husband, with Barack and Michelle Obama when she received the 2012 National Medal of Humanities, with Miss Redgrave at a rehearsal for the “Year of Magical Thinking”.

One of the photos was taken by Ms. Leibovitz, a reporter asked her. “Some,” she said.

Many of the speakers who follow Malloy are writers – among them Hilton Als, Calvin Trillin, Jia Tolentino, David Remnick and Susanna Moore – but also have a handful of personal friends (Susan Traylor, who grew up in Malibu with Ms. Didion’s daughter), relative (her grandson is Griffin Dunne, who directed a 2018 documentary about Didion, for Netflix), a former governor (Jerry Brown speaks on video) and even a former Supreme Court justice (Anthony Kennedy, who grew up with Miss Didion in Sacramento).

As Mr. Kennedy said, his sister was Mrs. Didion’s best childhood friend.

“She came to our house all the time after school and stayed for dinner and often overnight,” he said.

Miss Didion always carries a notebook. She wanted to jot down her notes about the conversation at home, so she could improve her conversation skills, he said, adding that she wrote for the high school newspaper.

Mr. Brown, speaking via video, also has a personal connection to Ms. Didion. His sister had been her life partner in Berkeley, where Miss Didion was famous for having a large entrance in the morning, coming down the stairs of the schoolgirl’s house “wearing a pink chenille coat”, a cigarette in hand. medicine.

Mr. Als said Didion taught him “that family is always part of the story, along with the place, and that it’s the writer’s job to confront the horror, the beauty, the mediocrity and the truth of life.” both.”

He then quoted her 1966 essay “Notes from a Native Daughter.”

“What happened in New York and Washington and abroad doesn’t seem to have affected Sacramento at all,” he read. “I remember being taken to meet a very old woman, a widow of a rancher, who was reminiscing (favorite mode of conversation in Sacramento) about the son of some of his contemporaries. she. She said: ‘Boy Johnston never did so much. My mother objected: Alva Johnston, she said, won a Pulitzer Prize while he was working for The New York Times. The hostess looked at us nonchalantly. “He never accounted for anything in Sacramento.”

Miss Traylor, her daughter’s childhood friend, talked about how Miss Didion would pull Quintana and Miss Traylor close to sing to them with tears in her eyes. She also recalls how Miss Didion made chocolate soup for them at parties and taught everyone how to eat them. (“I don’t know how to make a birthday cake, I know how to make a chocolate cake,” Miss Didion then explained.)

Tolentino, a young generation essayist and New Yorker staff writer, says she hadn’t read Miss Didion until she was 20, but immediately realized that “through other people’s accounts, I read her all my life.”

At a memorial, where many eulogy came from writers who were paid a lot of money to complete sentences, it was a little surprising that guests spent so much time debating. See who has the best post.

But the funniest, according to many, belonged to Miss Moore, who vividly recalled some of Didion’s words, among them, “Whatever you do, you’ll both regret it.” and “evil is a lack of seriousness. “

The person came after a dinner Miss Didion organized. Among the guests, Ms. Moore said, was Bianca Jagger, who ignited Didion’s contempt by picking up magazines from the coffee table and reading one after another.

Later, other guests called back to a reporter the advice Miss Didion had given them.

Editor Joan Juliet Buck described a conversation she had with Miss Didion, who told her how to deal with a stalker: “Go on Carlyle.” Didion’s niece Annabelle Dunne reported that her aunt advised: “Don’t forget to give birth. It’s easy to forget.”

Mr. Remnick began his speech with skepticism about delivering it: “How do you say someone in her day was the leading enemy of cliché and boxed falsehood?” he asked, before going on to praise the “authority of tone” and the way she leads by example.

“When Joan passed away just before Christmas, it was hard to take the news as a shock,” he said. “However, many readers and many writers took the news of Joan’s death as devastating. The reason is obvious. Is there an essayist who is more popular with young readers and writers today? “

The only person he could think of was “probably James Baldwin.”

“There are many things about Didion that one might disagree with personally, politically, aesthetically,” he said, reading from a Essay by Zadie Smith About Miss Didion was published in The New Yorker. “I will never love the Doors,” it continued, referring to her book “The White Album,” in which Miss Didion explains her admiration for the way their music asserts that “Love is sex and sex is death and there is salvation. ” (Not Doors playing inside the church, but Patti Smith, who sang Bob Dylan’s ballad “Chimes of Freedom.”)

“The X-acto knife in her prose” is something many people try to imitate, Mr. Remnick said. “I wish you all the best of luck. She is inimitable.”

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