The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

by Tracy Daugherty


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In The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty, the critically acclaimed author of Hiding Man (a New Yorker and New York Times Notable book) and Just One Catch, and subject of the hit documentary The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix delves deep into the life of distinguished American author and journalist Joan Didion in this, the first printed biography published about her life.

Joan Didion lived a life in the public and private eye with her late husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she met while the two were working in New York City when Didion was at Vogue and Dunne was writing for Time. They became wildly successful writing partners when they moved to Los Angeles and co-wrote screenplays and adaptations together.

Didion is well-known for her literary journalistic style in both fiction and non-fiction. Some of her most-notable work includes Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Run River, and The Year of Magical Thinking, a National Book Award winner and shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. It dealt with the grief surrounding Didion after the loss of her husband and daughter. Daugherty takes readers on a journey back through time, following a young Didion in Sacramento through to her adult life as a writer interviewing those who know and knew her personally, while maintaining a respectful distance from the reclusive literary great.

The Last Love Song reads like fiction; lifelong fans, and readers learning about Didion for the first time will be enthralled with this impressive tribute.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250010025
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/25/2015
Pages: 752
Product dimensions: 9.40(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

TRACY DAUGHERTY is the New York Times bestselling author of published novels, short story collections, and a book of personal essays. His biographies of Donald Barthelme, Hiding Man, Joseph Heller, Just One Catch, and Joan Didion, The Last Love Song, received rave reviews. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently, he is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Love Song

A Biography of Joan Didion

By Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Tracy Daugherty
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7740-5


Writers used to choose their pasts, before literary tradition began to erode in our culture. The Great Dead with whom writers would speak were invited to sit or snuggle beneath the bedcovers. Didion was a writer early. If, as a child, she did not yet know her companions, she tracked amenable traits and rhythms. She was born into a cultural atmosphere layered with Virginia Woolf (though she never warmed to her) — A Room of One's Own was published six years before Didion's first good cry; with Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms; with George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, both arriving a scant few months before Didion opened her eyes for the first time; and with movies, America's fifth-largest industry then, associated with Didion's native California ever since Carl Laemmle established Universal Studios on a former chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

At least, years later, this was the air Didion decided to breathe.

Her actual inheritance from both her mother and father was the wagon-train mentality of pioneers moving west until there was nowhere else to move: a view insisting that you left your dead where they fell, just as you left your past behind you, and wasted no days grieving, because by the time you've dried your dirty tears, some wind-borne calamity would have blasted the parcel you'd sought to claim. This was the romantic take on her inheritance Didion would spend a lifetime wrestling and debunking, though never to her total satisfaction. In California, girls of her era — she was born on December 5, 1934 — learned of the Donner Party debacle, one of the state's foundational stories, from a volume entitled History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra, by a former teacher and attorney named C. F. McGlashan. It was first published in 1879 — before California's legends "hardened," according to the foreword of an edition printed when Didion was six. In fact, McGlashan was already glazing the legends. "I am haunted by the cannibalism of the Donner Party," Didion told Alfred Kazin in 1970, but McGlashan's account, one of the first narratives she was likely to know of the forty-odd people who perished in a Sierra snowstorm in 1846, "leaves much to be desired," said George and Bliss Hinkle in their foreword to the 1940 edition of McGlashan's book: "Its language is saturated with sentiment, and great stretches of the narrative are written in the pressed-flower-and-keepsake style of a young lady's album of the period."

McGlashan's sentimentality sweetened other twists on the tale, such as Julia Cooley Altrocchi's Snow Covered Wagons: A Pioneer Epic, published when Didion was two, and loved by girls her age as they came to be young readers. Altrocchi felt the story was "too important a part of western American history not to be set down in other forms — Why not write it down in verse?" In a preface to her book-length poem, she wrote, "I have made every effort to be accurate with all events and all people. Future research may shift the pattern here and there, but I believe that the design is essentially correct." Readers like Didion, an impressionable young descendant of one of the Donners' fellow travelers, were Altrocchi's ideal audience:

Foster has eaten the half-finished heart of Antonio ...
It is no longer the flesh of mortals,
It is the flesh of a God-given beast
Roasting in the fire!

In time, Didion would reveal, both as a child writer and as a young professional, that what haunted her about the cannibalism of the Donner Party was not just the drama and despair of the story but also the fact that the story could be told "in other forms." It could be stylized. She may not have understood this concept as a girl, but she experienced its power. This is clear in the calm presentation of disasters coloring some of her earliest paragraphs. Eventually, she outgrew the sentimentality of writers like McGlashan and Altrocchi, but the tropes of the Donner tale, approached through a mythic veil, would never leave her. Beauty could be wrested from the apocalypse, and always in the middle of the storm, a courageous, moral person resisted (often by recording) the events.

As a slightly older reader, analyzing and not just absorbing pioneer stories, she learned further fine points of craft. She speaks of what she learned in her 2003 book, Where I Was From, ostensibly a meditation on California history. As she grew older, but while she was still a girl, she says, she turned from popular accounts of wagon-train crossings to primary sources, the diaries and journals of the pioneers themselves, including those of some of her ancestors. Death and rebirth, she saw, and redemption, were essential themes in the crossing myth: The old life must wither before a new one can begin. That she now understood this as a literary conceit did not alter the fact that she had also swallowed it as an almost biological truth about living. Further, she became aware of what she later called "a problematic elision or inflation, a narrative flaw, a problem with point of view" in the pioneers' autobiographies. She quotes a written account by the son of her great-great-great-grandmother Nancy Hardin Cornwall; he is relating the moment his grandfather left his mother to make the trek across the continent: "'Just ready to go, he entered his mother's parlor. She went out with him to his horse to say the last words and to see him depart. She told him that she would never again see him in this world.'" A precocious young reader, Didion began to wonder who was witnessing these incidents. From whose angle were these stories being told? In Where I Was From, she wrote, "[T]he actual observer, or camera eye, is often hard to locate," yet "the gravity of the decisive break demands narrative. Conflicting details must be resolved." Yes, and as an older writer, Didion would work hard to resolve conflicting details, but initially she was drawn by mystery, as children are: the mystery of the missing center, the dizziness of disjunctions, the off-kilter quality of not quite knowing what's going on while realizing it's "decisive." Elision, first encountered in the pioneers' testimonies, would become one of Didion's early signatures. It would even extend to her grammar: Often, she'd withhold a subject or verb until the end of a sentence, keeping the reader in suspense, suggesting that meaning — or resolving conflicting details — was not the point so much as worrying the music and rhythm of memory.

And always, there was the romance at the heart of the stories! In 1968, when she wrote in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem that "writers are always selling somebody out," what was it but a restatement of the pioneer family's stoicism in the face of decisive breaks? You leave your dead behind (you may even have to kill them yourself) in order to move on. When she told the story of the mother who left her child to die on Interstate 5 near the last Bakersfield exit, what was it but a crossing tale like The Grapes of Wrath: abandoning the weak one in the family, expecting her traces to be covered by wheel tracks?


Didion's first reader, her mother, Eduene Jerrett Didion, descended from Nancy Hardin Cornwall. Nancy followed the Donner-Reed Party west with her husband, Josephus Adamson Cornwall, a Presbyterian minister, whose refusal to abandon his books on the trail when travel got tricky often set his direction. It may have led him and his wife and children to split from the group at the Humboldt Sink in Nevada, hiking toward what is now Oregon's Willamette Valley. The family came from Arkansas, forerunners of the Arkies and Okies with whom Didion would attend school in the 1930s and 1940s; it would be an irony of history (and another puzzle for Didion to crack) that, during the Depression, descendants of the original immigrants would blame the newcomers for the region's decline.

When Josephus Cornwall married Nancy Hardin, he stood to inherit her father's land in Greenbrier, Arkansas, but he felt he had not earned the right to farm it. He'd never worked it. So, displaying the firm principles embedded in all the family stories Didion heard, he headed out on the old Oregon Trail with his wife and children. After splitting from the Donner-Reed Party, the family made its way to Applegate Creek in the Umpqua Valley, and Josephus built a small cabin there. That first snowy winter, they went without salt and bread but killed and ate forty-nine deer over a six-month span. In the flat, passive style of many family histories, composed dutifully by nonwriters (a style, conveying remoteness, depending on understatement, that Didion adopted to powerful effect), a genealogist named Diana Smith, writing for the Oregon Biographies Project, said of the Cornwalls' winter in the Umpqua Valley, "their supply of food becoming exhausted, they underwent intense suffering."

Three to four thousand Native Americans inhabited the area at the time, members of the Southern Molalla, Siuslaw, and the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua tribe. Smith wrote, "Indians would visit [the Cornwalls] and pry around the house and on one occasion the father showed them a trunk filled with books, and they did not then molest the other trunks, thinking, probably, that they were also filled with books, for which they had no use." Twice now, Josephus's passion for reading had probably saved the lives of his family.

* * *

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in an essay entitled "On Keeping a Notebook," Didion claimed her first earnest writing was done at the age of five, in a Big Five tablet given to her by her mother "with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts." Her mother, Sacramento's assistant city librarian before she married, always encouraged her daughter to read. Didion's first foray was in fiction, a story about a woman hallucinating her demise in an arctic freeze, only to wake and find that she was, in fact, burning to death in the Sahara: a child's twist on crossing harsh terrains, an early awareness of irony, "a certain predilection for the extreme which has dogged me into adult life," she said in the essay.

She also said a desire to write tends to bloom in "lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss." She doubted her daughter, Quintana, not yet two when Didion published "On Keeping a Notebook," would ever take up writing because "she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up." This was a false glimpse of Quintana, as Didion surely knew even this early in her daughter's childhood. We will meet Quintana later. For now, the point is that Didion was already establishing her own frailty, a frailty that began in the cradle and led almost immediately to a need to write. To underscore the point, she distinguished her anxious, isolated self from her "sensible" mother and her "accepting" child (knowing, also, that her mother would read the essay and that Quintana might read it someday, too).

Clearly, Western pioneer myths, as well as family journals and diaries, were among Didion's first models of story craft. It's also clear that tales of courage in life's wild storms piqued her imagination. Her perception of her audience is less plain. When we hear that her mother supported her scribbling, we picture a welcoming reader, someone the writer would like to please, someone with whom she felt comfortable sharing her thoughts. Thirty-five years later, once Eduene was dead, Didion revealed that one of her mother's most common utterances — on any subject — was "What difference does it make?" She rarely dusted the house or made the beds because "they just get slept in again." Though she was "passionately opinionated on a number of points," she seemed to believe in nothing. So, in fact, Didion's first reader was removed, passive, and depressed; uninterested, perhaps often unresponsive. A tough audience. Possibly she got this way because of her own pioneer inheritance — as a girl in the upper Sacramento Valley (she was born in Tehama in 1910), she had witnessed her share of frontier justice, corpses swinging from tall trees in front of the courthouse. But the trigger for Eduene's temperament is less important than Didion's attempt to engage it with the notebook she'd received from the woman. A "certain predilection for the extreme": What else could reach a person for whom nothing mattered? How else to record events for a woman who doubted anything was worth recording?

Eduene is often an unspoken presence in Didion's prose. For example, in 1979, in a review of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, a novel whose concerns include the lives of desert women, Didion wrote, "The authentic Western voice ... is one heard often in life but only rarely in literature, the reason being that to truly know the West is to lack all will to write it down." It is easy to see her mother's listless shadow in the bones of that sentence (and to ponder the irony of her mother's gift of a notebook). There is a "vast emptiness at the center of Western experience," Didion wrote, "a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting." Mailer's take on Western females impressed Didion with its dead-on accuracy: The women in the book are strong, depressed, unwilling to invest too much in words. They are "surprised by very little. They do not on the whole believe that events can be influenced. A kind of desolate wind seems to blow through the lives of these women."

As the daughter of such a woman, Didion may have felt hers was "one of those lives," so prevalent in the West, "in which the narrative would yield no further meaning." In the notebook essay, claiming impairment, she presented herself as the weak one in the family, the one discarded on the trail, perhaps seeing herself through her mother's eyes. Yet she was also the survivor, the journalist, the one who noted the loss. "I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be," she wrote near the end of the essay. And: in describing others, we attempt to trace ourselves. The "presentiment of loss" afflicting writers (and the children of Western mothers) is the sharp awareness of impending change and death, as clear as the color of day or the cold blue of an empty medicine bottle tossed from a covered wagon. The abandonment of the weak is the shedding of our own skin. So we leave our mark along the trail, though it makes little difference to those who come after us. A bent twig. A circle of rocks. A word in the sand. This is where I was from.

* * *

Didion never forgot she was a Westerner, never lost sight of her birthright's grammar and its relationship to a particular worldview. In the Sacramento Valley of her childhood, rattlesnakes were common. They were part and parcel of the paradise her ancestors yearned for. So it was that she learned to equate facts with objects on the ground, and proper behavior — ethics, morality — with their placement. In this world, abstractions got you killed. You always kept a snake in your line of sight so it couldn't surprise you. As a girl, Didion translated this advice to writing. Don't dither and overlook the facts. If you miss them, the facts will rise up and bite you. If you see a rattlesnake, kill it so it won't harm others. This, Didion's grandfather (a former Sierra miner) taught her, was the "code of the West." For her, it became a code of language: Nail the specifics. Imprecise expression was not just sloppy; it was harmful.


Snakes slithered around the Didion family cemetery when Didion was a girl but rarely ventured near the tombstones until she was a teen and vandals began ruining the graves, an activity that reached alarming proportions in the early 1980s, when someone dug up and stole a skull. The Matthew Kilgore Cemetery, east of Sacramento in Rancho Cordova, which became a rocket-manufacturing community for Aerojet General following World War II, was named after Didion's great-great-great-grandfather. He left Ohio and settled in Sacramento in 1855. From him was descended Ethel Mira Reese, who gave birth to Didion's father, Frank, on January 1, 1908. Two hundred and forty-five graves pocked the land near the American River Grange, among pyracantha, oleander, and wild blackberries, on what had once been Matthew Kilgore's 154-acre farm.


Excerpted from The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty. Copyright © 2015 Tracy Daugherty. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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