Joan Didion, the revered author and essayist whose precise social and personal commentary in such classics as The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking made her a uniquely clear-eyed critic of turbulent times, has died at age 87. Didion's publisher Penguin Random House announced the author's death on Thursday. She died of complications from Parkinson's disease, per the AP. Along with Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, and Gay Talese, Didion reigned in the pantheon of "New Journalists" who emerged in the 1960s and wedded literary style to nonfiction reporting.
Tiny and frail even as a young woman, with large, sad eyes often hidden behind sunglasses and a soft, deliberate style of speaking, she was a novelist, playwright, and essayist who once observed that "I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." Or, as she more famously put it: "Writers are always selling somebody out." Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and other books became essential collections of literary journalism, with notable writings including her takedown of Hollywood politics in Good Citizens.
Didion was equally unsparing about her own struggles. She was diagnosed in her 30s with multiple sclerosis and around the same time suffered a breakdown and checked into a psychiatric clinic in Santa Monica, California, that diagnosed her worldview as "fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive." In her 70s, she reported on personal tragedy in the heartbreaking 2005 work, The Year of Magical Thinking, a narrative formed out of the chaos of grief that followed the death of her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne. It won a National Book Award, and she adapted it as a one-woman Broadway play that starred Vanessa Redgrave.
Dunne had collapsed in 2003 at their table and died of a heart attack even as their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, was gravely ill in a hospital. The memoir was a best-seller and a near-instant standard, the kind of work people would instinctively reach for after losing a loved one. Didion said she thought of the work as a testament of a specific time; tragically, Magical Thinking became dated in one sense shortly after it was published. Quintana died during the summer of 2005 at age 39 of acute pancreatitis. Didion wrote of her daughter’s death in 2011's Blue Nights.
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