Joan Didion first grabbed my attention in 1970 with the publication of her second novel, Play It As It Lays. Hypnotized by its glamour, mesmerized by its prose, I’ve ravened through her oeuvre ever since. So it was with more than a passing interest that I picked up Tracy Daugherty’s unauthorized biography of Didion, The Last Love Song (August 2015). I started it and couldn’t stop, finishing its 728 pages (including notes and index) in a fit of rabid enthusiasm and hardly a water break.
I took away three verities that enabled Didion to develop the most impressive literary career yet achieved by an American woman: an enormous talent; a tireless work ethic (a legacy of her pioneer forebears) driven by wild ambition, and an ability to make the right friends.
In his preface, Daugherty, who has also published biographies of Joseph Heller and Donald Barthelme (not to mention four novels and four story collections), offers his belief that literary biography is pointless if it does “not seek to grasp what was said and why in a certain time. Unavoidably this approach [makes] the biographer an elegist, writing lamentations.” (xii)
Though hampered by Didion’s refusal to cooperate and the similar refusal of her closest friends, Daugherty nevertheless grasps “what was said and why” during key periods of Didion’s long productive writing life. He digs deftly into the details of Didion’s early years as the privileged daughter of a prominent Sacramento family, her difficult first years in Manhattan, her marriage to writer John Gregory Dunne, their parenting of Quintana Roo, their only child, their family life in Malibu and Brentwood and their second decampment to New York where Didion still resides. In doing so, Daugherty makes visible the lived experiences that are the support beams of Didion’s unique vision.
Active for over half a century, Didion, now 80, began her career in the late 1950s at Vogue, writing photo captions, a demanding discipline, which, Daugherty asserts, helped her to define her taut crystalline prose style. As prolific as she was ambitious, she went on to write for both slick and highbrow magazines and newspapers. (For several years in the 1960s, she and Dunne supported themselves in a West Coast lifestyle by publishing regularly with Esquire and the now-defunct Saturday Evening Post.)
Daugherty’s account of Didion’s early years in Manhattan, and then, with Dunne, in Los Angeles, are a primer on how to become a famous writer. He shows that Didion, from the start, knew how to make friends, and knew which friends to make. Key to her early success was her relationship with Noel Parmentel, a celebrated if controversial New York writer who introduced the young Joan to Manhattan’s literati. Parmentel tells Dougherty how, when Joan was devastated by her first rejections, he called in favors from his network, resulting in Didion’s first piece in Esquire and the publication of her first novel, Run River, by Ivan Obelensky. Uninterested in marrying her himself, Parmentel introduced Joan to Dunne, a Princeton graduate and writer at Time magazine, who was himself a tireless networker. Dunne would become not just her beloved husband, but also the determined purveyor of their brand.
So intertwined were Dunne and Didion that a huge chunk of the book is almost a dual biography. Dunne was their money manager, and the more hands-on parent. These glimpses into their personal lives and finances – both were elitists, lovers of the good life – chart how a talented, ambitious couple of literary artists made their way in the ferocious arena of Hollywood filmmaking.
It was Dunne’s brother Dominick, at the time a film producer, who opened Hollywood’s doors to the young couple. Eventually the pair wrote five produced screenplays, including The Panic in Needle Park, and making most of their money from the Barbra Streisand remake of A Star is Born. A significant side narrative recounts the ever-volatile relationship between John Gregory and his brother Dominick and how their fortunes, and their roles in the family evolved, through the many hardships and tragedies the family endured despite the seeming allure of their lives.
Daugherty’s The Last Love Song is not exactly either a lamentation or an elegy, though no future literary writers will experience the commercial success of Didion and Dunne in mainstream magazines. Rather, it is a poignant, insightful, beautifully written meditation on the lives of a pre-eminent literary couple and of a writer, Didion, whose expression of the Zeigeist remains unparalleled.
Richly satisfying on its own, The Last Love Song sent me back to both writers’ books: Didion’s Where I was From, Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking; Dunne’s Quintana and Friends, Monster, and Harp which I’ve read again with deeper pleasure and greater understanding.
Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell
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