I first traveled to California the summer after I graduated from college. I wanted to give Los Angeles a trial run because I had an idea about writing for television, because the weather seemed ideal, and because Joan Didion had made it seem so interesting. Perhaps if she had written about Minneapolis, or St. Louis, I would have opted for one of those places. But Didion's landscape was California, northern and southern: Born and raised in Sacramento, she moved to Los Angeles as an adult.
It was Los Angeles that she wrote about in "The White Album," the titular essay from her 1979 collection of essays. Didion was an insider who wrote as an outsider, from a detached, journalistic perspective. She wrote of sitting in on a Doors recording session, counting dials on the control board to combat boredom, of having Roman Polanski spill wine on her at a Bel-Air dinner party, of hosting Janis Joplin in her home, of the trials of making dining reservations for rock musicians: "First we wanted a table for twelve, fourteen at the most, although there might be six more, or eight more, or eleven more: there would never be one or two more, because music people did not travel in groups of one or two." She met Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton and interviewed Linda Kasabian; she even chose the dress that Kasabian would wear to testify at the Manson trial. Still, Didion always remained apart, somehow, an observer rather than a participant. Taken with the idea of narrative, how we make stories out of disparate events, and what happens when we are no longer able to tell ourselves sensible stories, Didionwove, in the late '60s and early '70s, a "California narrative" of deterioration.
I wanted to see the Los Angeles Didion wrote about, not the glitzy, unreal Hollywood of glamour and movie stars, but the underneath, the "invisible city" where 22-year-olds take out full-page ads in Variety and dream of becoming famous. I wanted to see the water-starved Los Angeles, the place where rock stars waste hours in air-conditioned studios and ordinary people have swimming pools. I wanted to see the state that defined the national zeitgeist, if only for a moment, in the late '60s.
While in Los Angeles, I lived, oddly enough, on Franklin Avenue, the same street in Hollywood where Didion had lived, but in other ways my newcomer's life was nothing like hers. My first disappointment was the weather: As summer gave way to autumn, I found I missed the change of seasons. Though I am sure native Angelenos have some time-telling device, some way to mark the days and seasons and years, I did not. The string of sunny days seemed endless, and I feared I would one day wake up to find that I was 60 years old, that years had passed and I had accomplished nothing.
The people were also disappointing. I saw celebrities and artists only from afar, and the executives and assistants with whom I dealt in my job as the assistant to a television vice president were far less interesting. Motivated by the predictable twin demons of greed and ego, they dined in fancy restaurants, drove expensive cars, and seemed blissfully devoid of self-awareness.
Then there was the rain. The rain didn't come. Instead, there were drought alerts. And when the rain did come, traffic slowed to a crawl with drivers unsure of how to handle wet roads. But mostly it didn't come. The omnipresent sun, along with salesgirls' vapid cheeriness, made my tendency toward feeling gloomy seem terribly inappropriate, and so, deprived of depression, surrounded by blonde women in pastel suits, I took to wearing black and drinking coffee far more often than I ever had in New York. And then, of course, there were the Santa Ana winds, which blew like bus exhaust in my face and into my home.
In "Holy Water," her obsessive, mesmerizing paean to that rarest of California elements, Didion writes, "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way." By the time I had learned about mud slides and brushfires and lived through my first earthquake, I came to realize that California living takes ruggedness, a pioneering spirit, and a healthy dollop of denial, none of which I felt I had in even short supply. Having lived in Los Angeles in "only the most temporary way," I returned home to New York City.
I soon learned that Didion had moved back to New York as well (she had lived there for a time in the early '60s). And while I enjoyed reading her perceptive, shrewd account of the "New York narrative" in various publications, I missed those letters from Los Angeles that I had found in her books and in The New Yorker, those insider's looks at a faraway city.Gail Jaitin