Joan Didion, the storied author and New Journalism icon best known for books like Play It as It Lays, The White Album, and The Year of Magical Thinking, died Thursday, The New York Times reports. She was 87.
Didion died at her home in Manhattan after a battle with Parkinson’s disease, a spokesperson for her publisher, Knopf, confirmed. “Didion was one of the country’s most trenchant writers and astute observers,” the statement read. “Her best-selling works of fiction, commentary, and memoir have received numerous honors and are considered modern classics.”
Didion was a prolific and multifaceted writer, as well regarded for her novels, memoirs, and screenplays as her essays, cultural criticism, and investigative reporting. Early in her career, she was the go-to chronicler of California at its countercultural peak, and managed to create a new genre of essay — the “I’m Leaving New York City” essay — with her celebrated 1967 piece, “Goodbye to All That.” With her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Didion wrote screenplays for films like The Panic in Needle Park, the 1976 adaptation of A Star Is Born, and an adaptation of her own novel, Play It as It Lays.
In her extensive political reporting, she covered everything from the civil war in El Salvador to U.S. political campaigns; and as a critic she investigated the way media shaped perceptions of major events (she published one of the earliest challenges to the guilty verdict in the Central Park Five case, which was later overturned). In 2005, Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir chronicling her life and grief after Dunne’s sudden death in 2003, as well as her daughter Quintana’s eventually fatal illness.
Didion was born on Dec. 5, 1934 in Sacramento, California. Her family had lived in the state for five generations, descended from settlers who’d abandoned the doomed Donner party and took a safer route — a fitting biographical detail for a writer who would go on to expertly capture the never-ending allure, promise, and underlying chaos of the Golden State.
“I grew up in a dangerous landscape,” Didion told The Paris Review in 1978. “I think people are more affected than they know by landscapes and weather. Sacramento was a very extreme place. It was very flat, flatter than most people can imagine, and I still favor flat horizons. The weather in Sacramento was as extreme as the landscape. There were two rivers, and these rivers would flood in the winter and run dry in the summer. Winter was cold rain and tulle fog. Summer was 100 degrees, 105 degrees, 110 degrees. Those extremes affect the way you deal with the world. It so happens that if you’re a writer the extremes show up. They don’t if you sell insurance.”
Didion studied English at the University of California, Berkeley, and in her senior year she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue. Rather than take the prize trip to Paris, she went to New York to take a job at the magazine instead and quickly moved from a promotional copywriter to an associate features editor. Along with her work for Vogue, Didion contributed to several other magazines and published her first novel, Run, River, in 1963. After her stint in New York — during which she met and married Dunne — Didion returned to California, and started garnering attention for her pieces in Life and The Saturday Evening Post.
Part of the New Journalism movement, Didion’s reporting incorporated literary elements, balancing her meticulous observations about the world with deeply personal anecdotes. Her dispatches on the glitz, idealism, and sordid edges of 1960s California were eventually collected into her acclaimed 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
In 1970, Didion published her second novel, Play It as It Lays, about a struggling young actress trying to make it in Hollywood while grappling with a host of personal demons. Maybe not-so-coincidentally, the new decade also found Didion and Dunne making their own forays into Hollywood with screenwriting: The Panic in Needle Park — about a group of heroin addicts in New York City — was an early starring turn for Al Pacino, while their adaptation of A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, was a box-office smash.
Didion’s reporting and fiction grew increasingly political over the decade as well. Her 1977 novel, A Book of Common Prayer, was set in a Central American country in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval; a few years later, she was reporting from El Salvador on the country’s civil war. Her 1984 novel, Democracy, told the story of a senator and a CIA agent at the end of the Vietnam war, while her work about the Cuban exile community in Miami became her 1987 book, Miami. Though she eventually moved away from more traditional political reporting, politics — and the way they were disseminated and interpreted via mass media — remained central to the criticism and essays she wrote that later appeared in books like After Henry and Political Fictions.
In the new millennium, Didion remained ever fascinated with the history and present of California, which she returned to again 2003’s Where I Was From. In 2017’s South and West, she paired more observations about her childhood in California with pieces based on old notes she took during a trip with Dunne through the Deep South in the Seventies.
But one of her most acclaimed works was The Year of Magical Thinking, which was adapted into a play in 2007. In 2011, Didion published a companion book, Blue Nights, in which she discussed the death of her daughter, as well as parenting and aging. Both works were immensely personal, and in a 2012 conversation with the author Sloane Crosley at the New York Public Library, Didion reflected on how the memoirs echoed some of the earliest, personal writing she did for Vogue.
“[A] lot of people read these pieces and for the first time people would come to me for life advice, and I hated it,” she said. “I mean, I had — I quit writing those pieces because I couldn’t take this Miss Lonelyhearts role, and I hadn’t written anything that got that kind of response until Magical Thinking in between all these years; and [with] Magical Thinking suddenly people were speaking to me in airports, and usually they had some really terrible thing that had happened, and I learned simply to — that I didn’t have to take it so personally. You know, I learned that I could talk to them without taking it personally, so I didn’t have to stop writing.”