There is a picture of Joan Didion I have always loved. She was a small, physically unimposing woman, and most of her pictures capture that fragility: Here on her deck in Malibu with her husband, John Gregory Dunne and her daughter, Quintana Roo. Here perfectly still in a t-shirt and printed skirt, shoulder-length hair and enormous sunglasses, arms folded behind her back. Here impossibly old and skinny, hair clipped back on one side, those sunglasses still on, large hands clasped together just next to her chin, wooly sweater pushed up to her elbows.
In a 2011 interview, Didion talked about how her size was, for a time, an advantage:
“[P]eople just simply didn’t take me seriously because I was so small. So if they weren’t taking me seriously, they weren’t threatened in any way by me. So they would tend to loosen up, you know, in ways that they might not have loosened up if I’d been a really big person.” Joanie (in my mind, we have the kind of relationship where I call her “Joanie”) was always looking for a revolution, but no one would have ever pegged her for the type. She was a really ruthless writer, but she looked like she belonged at a tea on the Upper East Side. She could fit in there, but she was more at home asking quiet questions of the people who ran the world.
Her physical frailty is especially ironic in light of the fact that she has survived both her husband and her daughter. The narrative arc of her life was, much like her writing, startling and unexpected. Someone with Didion’s small bones wasn’t meant to bear the weight of being left alone in the world, but the world deals the hand that it deals and the grief and fear have burrowed themselves into her marrow now.
Didion’s physical fragility, though, belies the kind of writerly strength that has placed her in the American literary canon. You don’t get to be a great reporter, credited with being a founding member of New Journalism, if you’re a sentimental oaf. But her indirectness as a writer–her sentences frequently trail off or twist into new concepts, the Jamesian influence at work–is also one of her greatest strengths as an observer: “I like to sit around and watch people do what they do.”
So, the photo. I love it because Didion is absolutely, unabashedly its center. There is no sense that we are waiting with her for the shutter to close so we can move on to more important things. Joan is there, with her car–a 1969 yellow Sting Ray Corvette–wherever there is. Her home? But no, the captions say the pictures were taken in Hollywood, and she never lived in Hollywood. The picture, part of a series taken by Julian Wasser for Time Magazine, could have been taken outside of southern California. When Wasser did the shoot back in 1972, Didion was not yet synonymous with California, in a way she’ll never be synonymous with New York City, even though that’s where she now makes her home. But in retrospect, the pictures had to be there. Didion without California is a very different Didion. Same thing goes for California without Didion.
Anyways, the picture. It’s black and white, so you can’t tell the Corvette is yellow. The front left wheel well is the largest thing in the picture, as if the car is about to drive off on its own. Behind the car is a two-car garage, perhaps abandoned, with medium-sized oak trees on either side. As your eye moves down the car, from the wheel, you see the word “Stingray” spelled out in an elegant silver cursive on its side. There are four gill-like indentations on the car underneath the “Stingray,” but the fourth one is blocked by the right leg of a woman. The woman is Joan Didion. She wears a dress–a long, clingy dress made of T-shirt material, long-skirted and long-sleeved. These sleeves are pushed up, too, to just underneath her elbows, but her arms do not fold behind her or hang at her sides. This is active Joanie. Her left hand, raised to elbow height, is curled and still. Her right hand, slightly higher, looks to be shaking a bit, as if putting out the match she just used to light her cigarette. A puff of smoke obscures the bottom half of her face, and her eyes, already narrow, are almost completely shut. The lines of the car continue behind her–T-top, dip in the door–but you can hardly pay attention to anything else once you’ve gotten to the woman. She looks anything but small. She looks like an old movie star, glamorous and self-assured, barely aware of the camera. In almost all of her other photographs at that age–just under 40–she looked bored. Here, she looks alive.
It’s not wanting to be like Joanie that drives me to admire her, although I wouldn’t mind learning some of her tricks. It’s the thing itself, the thing of her, the writing and trying and living as a woman in a world dominated by men, the strict routines and discipline, the moment of glamour in a life otherwise marked by its slightness. It’s her need not to say “Look at me!” but, “Here is the world, and here is what you should know, and here is my part in it as I understand it.”