We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: A Tribute to Joan Didion

In a bit of a departure for me, today I’d like to focus on womenswear, through a tribute to arguably our most glamorous living woman writer, Ms. Joan Didion.

Ms. Didion also happens to be my favorite writer, and I just wrote about her Boston appearance in support of her devastating Blue Nights for the Boston Phoenix.

Blue Nights concerns the death of her daughter, Quintana. If you’ve been paying attention, Ms. Didion, who won a National Book Award for her last book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was also recently widowed. That book concerns the year following her husband’s death. Tragically, her daughter died at 39, just before the book was published. The amount of grief she’s endured is palpable, and a difficult thing to bear witness to.

“Blue Nights” is about a lot of things but mostly it is about aging and grief. Seeing Ms. Didion at First Parish Church last night was heartbreaking, mostly because she seemed a little lost. Always an aesthete, she was perhaps most excited when discussing her favorite dresses, a heartening fact given the writer’s oft-discussed love of Chanel and post-War ’60s glam.

Though now residing back in New York, Ms. Didion IS Hollywood, a whip-smart, reed-thin California native who always looks like a million bucks. (Even last night, when she commented that she was sure she was no longer fashionable, she looked dashing in a purple scarf and oversized eyeglasses.)

She left her heart in LA, a fact she refers to regularly in her work. And was there ever a more California girl than Joan Didion?

She has always been unapologetic in her embrace of Malibu, fast cars, pearls. But she’s a woman without religion, always willing to interrogate, to kill her darlings. Even her description of LA in Blue Nights isn’t all film sets and fancy picnics: she take great care to chronicle the anxiety of wild fires, the constant threat of rattlesnakes.

Though always stylish, Ms. Didion has never been a scenester. In fact, her clear-eyed, landmark essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” was an indictment of the darker side of the hippie era, the way that values can fall away when you add sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Ms. Didion is the epitome of style because her life is her own. Though tiny, she has never been bullied by other people’s interpretations. Her only allegiance is to truth. Whether exploring politics, crime, or culture, Ms. Didion has always been a straight-shooter, a rationalist in an age of savvy spinners. Her chronicle of the darker side of humanity has also, paradoxically, illuminated our best parts, too: our vulnerabilities, our compassion. Her truth is not “dispassionate,” as it’s so often called, but stripped of agenda. Hers is an examined life.

And we’re all that much better for her unflinching gaze.


About Thomas Page McBee

Gentleman first, always. James Dean is my patron saint, poet is my gender. More about me here: www.thomaspagemcbee.com


  1. Great post, Thomas! I just finished Blue Nights and have been thinking about Didion a lot. I wish I could see the photo she described of the women at Quintana’s christening wearing Chanel suits.

  2. Pingback: Joan Didion Quote « difficult degrees

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