- The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion
- Tracy Daugherty
- St. Martin’s Press
In 1968, during the same period Joan Didion was diagnosed at a Santa Monica, Calif., outpatient psychiatric clinic with "severe alienation" and "reality contact impairment," the writer was selected by Harper's Bazaar as one of 100 women "in touch with our times." It was the year the release of Slouching Towards Bethlehem solidified her literary success and, responding to a questionnaire the magazine provided, Didion told readers she did not feel she had ever made a significant choice.
"One day and one thing led to another," she said. "Pretty soon the pattern was set, irreversible."
The quote is an apt one to be included in Tracy Daugherty's The Last Love Song, the first ever full-scale biography of this iconic chronicler of the late 20th century. It is indeed a meaty documentation of one thing leading to another, both on a macro and micro scale – an attempt to invoke an evolving cultural climate that moulded arguably one of the greatest non-fiction writers of our time. Written without access to now 80-year-old Didion, the book is an ambitious project, blending both research and literary criticism, following the breadcrumbs Didion has coyly left through decades of memoir-infused writing. Didion is certainly an interesting paradox – most recently lauded for her open descriptions of grief in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, written after the loss of her husband and daughter in quick succession, she remains an indiscernible and aloof personality.
The Last Love Song is a valiant attempt to get close to a woman who has become notorious for her stylistic distance. It is also a deeply atmospheric book, conjuring a Steinbeck-esque vision of the California of Didion's childhood, bringing us into the disappointingly grey and boozy chill of the New York of her naive 20s, unveiling the more vicious side of a glamorous "earthquakes, parties and certain people" SoCal where she came into career success and motherhood and ending with the dark, impossible tragedy that marred her later life. Daugherty's skill as a fiction writer comes in handy here, and he follows Didion's lead in her belief that the smallest, most seemingly insignificant detail reveals a story. His research is so meticulous that he can tell us what Didion wore to certain magazine meetings in the 1950s, how she washed her hair daily and went to her magazine office job with it wet and that she bought her wedding dress (short, backless, white, silk) on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Yet throughout there is always a nagging sense that the real woman is always just out of reach, an enigma who has spent a lifetime telling (her version of) the plainest truth. Even when the book wanders into gauche tell-all territory, such as husband John Gregory Dunne's early penchant for sex workers and general infidelity, their overall marital antagonism, and Didion's very rumuored abortion, miscarriage and struggles with infertility, we don't get the sense that anything dramatic is being unveiled – Didion, as always, has razor-precision control over her own story. Even with the endless observations of her frailty, shyness and neurosis, she simply can't be conquered.
While the biography may fail in getting us any closer to a "truth" about Didion, it certainly does its job in recounting the time in which she wrote, offering a romantic view of the martini-soaked 1950s New York publishing world and the drug-fuelled ennui of 1960s movie-boom L.A. The literature and film cameos are numerous and amusing, with Norman Mailer calling Didion a "marvelous girl," a pregnant Sharon Tate ethereally appearing at a Hollywood party and Jim Morrison showing up drunk and late to a recording session. For the most part, Didion is the quiet, inscrutable sun as name-dropped players – John Wayne, Harrison Ford, Nancy Reagan, Janis Joplin, Tom Wolfe – orbit around her, the writer functioning less as the subject and more as a narrative tool necessary to depicting an era. Even when we are given flickers of true familiarity, such as her clipping baby-food ads and taping them by her bedside while longing for a child, we feel no closer to knowing her beyond the access she allows.
Throughout, Didion is the "fierce stylist" and "reluctant pop icon," a ferocious if quiet fighter with a near-absurd work ethic and merciless ambition. She garnered hard-won success in an era dominated by men, one off-putting review of Slouching Towards Bethlehem claiming, "journalism by women is the price the man's world pays for having disappointed them." Her signature detached intimacy makes her that rare writer who evolved into a larger-than-life hero, garnering a cultish following amongst a certain kind of young, burgeoning literary woman and beyond. (I admittedly procured a tattoo of a Didion quote in my 20s.) The book actually does her the most justice by failing to totally unmask her, at its best when it respectfully walks the boundary lines she herself has drawn.
As always, it's likely better not to fully know your heroes. While the hope would be that a biography of this (700-page) scale would humanize Joan Didion, pulling her from her god-like status and away from inscrutability, it actually only further mythologizes her life by submerging it in the most obvious kind of American nostalgia. No new ground is broken, but instead old dirt is artfully compiled and obsessively organized, making the book engaging if not revelatory. Perhaps, however, that's the best possible approach to Didion's life – one where we rely on her well-chiseled words to know her, and not someone else's.