Joan Didion’s obituaries are brimming with accolades the 87-year-old undeniably earned over the many decades her career as a novelist, essayist, and journalist spanned. Soon after the great California writer passed away on December 23, the New York Times commended the “‘New Journalist’ Who Explored Culture and Chaos,” the Associated Press called her a “peerless prose stylist,” while the New Yorker declared, “No country but America could have produced Joan Didion. And no other country would have tolerated her.” In his own moving tribute to Didion in the San Francisco Examiner, Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and publisher of the independent nonprofit book publisher Heyday, writes,
“Joan’s death at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the landscape of California letters. There really was no one like her. She was, in a way, the least Californian of our state’s writers, if by ‘Californian’ we mean ever-sunny, full of optimism, wed to the conceit that history is weightless. Didion cast an unsparing eye on everything she examined. Her aesthetic, perhaps shaped as much by her early stint as a writer for William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative National Review as it was by the desiccated temperament of her Yankee forebears, was chilly, unforgiving, hard.”
On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Wasserman joins host Robert Scheer to talk about the larger-than-life writer they both greatly admired, but also the flesh-and-bones woman they both knew personally. Wasserman turns his keen literary eye on Didion’s “forensic ability to deconstruct a sentence, and to understand the vernacular of power and the patois of ordinary people,” revealing that he has a “very mixed view of Joan’s work.” Scheer, meanwhile, shares his own memories of a fellow journalist–one with whom he traveled through the years as they covered epoch-defining stories–who was “generous and thoughtful, and accessible,” and also a “helluva lot of fun.”
The two Californians bring a West coast perspective to the discussion of Didion, who was not only born in the state capital of Sacramento, but, according to Scheer, embodied the “quintessential Californian.” Wasserman also examines Didion’s political shift leftward, which, as he writes in his tribute, led her to always want, “as she once remarked admiringly of former Ramparts editor Robert Scheer’s journalism, to know who does the screwing and who gets screwed.” Listen to the full conversation between Wasserman and Scheer as the two bring Didion to life with their memories and a nuanced analysis of the indelible mark she’s left on American letters and lives.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and I always say the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, maybe it’ll be both of us, because Steve Wasserman, my guest, was the book editor of the Los Angeles Times and was a big editor at Farrar, Straus and Random House, and is now the publisher of Heyday Books.
And what we share in common, I think—a number of things, but one is our respect for Joan Didion, who passed away this last week. And, I don’t know, I just was thinking—Steve wrote a terrific piece for the San Francisco Examiner remembering Joan. And I just had the feeling that somehow with the obits, we’re hearing a lot about the New York experience and so forth, but we knew Joan as the quintessential—I can’t speak for you, but I felt she was the quintessential Californian. And she resisted the appeal of New York, except when she had to be there.
And so let’s just talk about that: the significance of Joan Didion. I know when we were both at the L.A. Times and everything, she was a center, really, of intellectual life; she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, very different people, but a hell of a couple. And they just really were at the center of where Hollywood meets politics meets dissent meets radicalism, the best of L.A. So take it from there, Steve, and your memory of Joan Didion. That’s really what I’m interested in here, is bringing her to life.
SW: Well, I think Joan occupied a singular position in the firmament of California letters. And she was the envy of people in Hollywood, because she had street cred in the precincts of Manhattan. She was almost alone, along with her husband John Gregory Dunne, able to be a regular contributor to the rarefied offices of the New York Review of Books. She was anointed “Saint Joan,” virtually, by Bob Silvers, the longtime and original editor of the New York Review of Books, who had a more than 50-year run until he died a couple of years ago. And Joan was regarded with tremendous envy.
And she seemed personally impenetrable. I mean, she was a kind of—she was a gamine, quiet, almost painfully shy person, given to oracular pronunciamentos when she was interviewed. Often she was one of the worst interviewees that it was possible to imagine. I remember a radio show when she was promoting one of her books in San Francisco, and the poor interlocutor had asked her a very lengthy question about the nature of her writing and what she had to say in this book. And there was one of those deathly pauses on air, where there’s just dead air, and the question fell into this Grand Canyon-like chasm.
And finally this very small voice spoke, and she said very sternly and very rigorously to her questioner, she said: Well, what you need to understand is that I devoted every ounce of whatever talents I have into the writing of the book. I really worked very hard on those sentences. And if I had anything more to say, I would have put it into the book. So I can only really recommend that your listeners read the book. I really don’t have anything more to add—
RS: OK, OK, OK, Steve—yes, yes, let me interrupt—
SW: —no, no, I’ve got to say, all the laudatory obituaries that have come out—and they’re all true, up to a point. I have a very mixed view of Joan’s work, and I think there is a chilly, unhappy lack of empathy at the heart of a lot of it. And that she had a stone—she had a—how to put it? She had an entomologist’s eye, capable of examining with the most microscopic precision, and the gift of extraordinary narrative detail. But often, the essence of the California story often would elude her. And it gave her some very considerable chops with which to examine the conceits of California without buying into them. Because she had a dark view of the underbelly which was too often not seen by people who were eager to promote what they mistook for California’s sunny optimism and ever-prosperous future. She didn’t buy into that.
RS: Well, let me—OK. And it’s probably all true, everything you’re saying. That’s not the Joan Didion I remember. [Laughs] And I sort of promised myself I wouldn’t—you know, this was going to be your show. But let me just say, I just thought she was a great spirit. And yes, she was big into Hollywood, and she and John, they did a lot of good work and they were popular and so forth. I just thought she was very accessible, very down-to-earth, and I thought in her range of people she liked and really got along with, it was quite a range.
And in terms of her relation to California, let’s go back to the beginning. Because what I admired about Joan from when I first met her—and yeah, I’d heard she had been a conservative in the National Review, and Bill Buckley, and John Dunne was of course at Time magazine and all that. But when she talked to me about growing up in Sacramento, and her writing about it—and I ended up living in Sacramento for a couple of years. And I love California; I ran away from New York. And I just loved her feeling for California. And you know, for ordinary people—Including, yes, the white people that she grew up with in post-World War II Sacramento, and the pickup trucks running around to find something to put an addition on to the house. That reminded me of a number of my relatives in Long Island, New York; you know, making little additions to their Levittown homes when they were permitted to do so.
And—I don’t know, I traveled with Joan; I covered events with her. We went to at least one Republican convention in Texas together. And I just found her to have a great sense of humor. I thought—to take issue with one thing you said, I thought she loved California, and I think she loved its variety, its spunk. And certainly when I spent time with her and with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, it was all kind of a celebration of California. Yes, the quality that you describe where she didn’t take prisoners, and she was quite direct, was for me as a journalist very refreshing, actually—a role model. Because she, you know, really could see through a lot of pretense and challenge it. But will you at least concede she was a hell of a lot of fun to be around?
SW: Ah, I found her at the dinner parties that I had on the Upper West Side in the mid-eighties, when she would come to dinner, I found her to be a charming and companionable and wonderful conversationalist, and particularly when we would talk about more intimate family matters. And she was very keen and very interested to talk about all kinds of personal matters. But I think we’re here to celebrate less the person than the work, because it is the work she will be remembered for.
And what’s been extraordinary is the outpouring of public and critical—ah, I would say maybe even “grief” is not too strong a word for it. She is being widely hailed as perhaps this country’s greatest essayist of the 20th century, and the first quarter of the 21st century. And I think her work is both at once romantic and jaundiced, elegiac and cold-eyed, and that her pieces did help to define the state—or, more accurately, the places that she wrote about best, which was the Central Valley and Los Angeles. And I think she is an indispensable writer, and her defenestration of the plaster saints of Bob Woodward, whose writings she really took to task for their clunkiness—she did a remarkably compelling takedown of him in the pages of the New York Review.
But I do—I would agree that she was keen to explore the California that was America’s America: the place of endless reinvention, a place that was a magnet for peoples the world over who sought an escape from history and a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility. And she was probably our greatest chronicler of its discontents, and of the sorrows often unacknowledged that attached themselves to that exploration and that trajectory.
RS: Well, that’s a very important observation, because I have felt in Joan’s—in her writing, but personally, and as I say, hanging out with her, going and covering events, and we had a lot of contact—and with her husband; I don’t want to leave him out there, John Gregory Dunne was a great reporter and a terrific writer. And they really were a couple. They, you know—yes, there was tragedy in their family, and people have talked about it, particularly with their daughter and so forth. But you know, the fact is, they were kick-ass people, and yet there was respect. Maybe not for famous people and big politicians, but I found that particularly Joan had a lot of respect for the people she grew up with, and the people who struggled in life, and that the California dream was not for everyone.
And when she—like you said, correctly, when she showed a lot of interest in how ordinary people lived, it was out of a sense that for all of her fame and everything, she identified with so-called ordinary people. She understood what they were going through, and she basically, you know, understood how the system was screwing them over. I mean, to use a quote that I felt in your piece [Laughs] you attributed to her, but she was attributing it to me. That’s the bond I felt with her. I certainly, you know, did not have her respect for grammar and her skill or anything else, but I don’t know, just traveling around with her, being at the house, and particularly again with her husband, there was a—dare I say it, an almost Sandburg, Carl Sandburg respect and love of the common person.
SW: I would agree with that. I think—I misremembered, by the way, the quote that I solicited when I was publisher of Hill & Wang, when in 1988 we brought out your wonderful collection of journalism, Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death: Essays on the Pornography of Power. I at that time reached out to Joan to see if she would be kind enough to bat our way some nice sentence of praise, and she plucked out a marvelous passage in your own introduction in which you had written that you wanted, in any story, to know who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing. And she enrolled that quote in her blurb, which read: “I want in any story to know who’s getting screwed and who’s doing the screwing” is the way Robert Scheer explains his method, and in this series of brilliant takes, he tells us exactly that, and that this is a perfectly wonderful book by one of the best reporters of our time.
I believe she seized on that very succinct credo of yours as an act of ventriloquism. Because she, too, in her various essays and her writings, wanted to know—was keen to know—who did the screwing, who got screwed. And that is true of her piece which pulled the lid off of the hoax of the Central Park [Five], who were accused of terrible things. Her pieces were about the dignity and traumas of ordinary people. And she was one of these rare writers who often mistook her personal predicament for a general condition. But it’s a testimony to her radar and her antennae that she was very often right.
And her forensic ability to deconstruct a sentence, and to understand the vernacular of power and the patois of ordinary people—how they spoke, how bureaucracies created idioms that constrained and imprisoned people and concealed the modalities of power—in that sense, she was a true student of Orwell’s imperishable essay about the use and abuse of the English language. She could diagram a sentence like nobody’s business. And understand something important at the root of the culture, and how the cultural politics and power shaped a particular place and episode in the affairs of ordinary lives.
RS: Yeah, and again—the reason I wanted to do this—and I’m not objecting to what anybody else has written about her and her work, and I’ll leave it to people who perhaps are more literary than I am, and you are one of them, to describe it. But what I loved about Joan Didion was her journalism. And I think her journalism started with, again, what is supposed to be the ordinary person, and the scenes of her growing up in Sacramento, trying to understand the people around her. Now, admittedly, they were more white than people of color, and they came from a certain working-class background of the postwar period, and so forth. But she treated them, the so-called ordinary folk, with a respect that she did not exhibit when she was talking about powerful people, or well-established people, or wealthy people.
And you know, even though—and I’m saying this having had my political disagreements with her at different points in her life—the fact of the matter is, you know, she was a genuine populist in the best sense of the word, for all of her erudite knowledge and skill. And I have to bring in her husband, John Gregory Dunne. When you were at their house, you didn’t really feel that just stars were coming, or that it was just about gossip about famous people. It was about, you know, again, the ordinary stuff of life: what somebody said at the delicatessen, or some news item. And when I worked with her as a journalist, side-by-side covering things—I don’t know, I never felt like she was one of the snobs or the elites or the Harvard people, you know? I just felt like she was that person from Sacramento. I don’t know, maybe I invented this, but I felt extremely comfortable, whether we were following Reagan around, or whatever. I just felt she was a kindred soul.
SW: Well, that may be. I think some of that work is best read in her collection called Where I Was From, which, you know, was an extended meditation on California’s history, including her family’s history. There are some very lovely and romantic reminiscences of Sacramento’s old governor’s mansion, of her family’s tarnished silver; you know, of how the stories and landmarks of the Western migration, the Donner Party’s ordeal in the Sierras, became embedded in her memory. I mean, she was, after all, a sixth-generation Californian. But from the vantage point of today, the bigger story of Los Angeles really was not the subject of her work, and perhaps eluded her. I mean, she is one of those great chroniclers of the California literature that runs in a straight line from Nathanael West to Joan, and it’s the literature of Anglo unease with race and sunshine in a ruined utopia. And she understood what was beginning to crumble about that utopia.
And newer writers are coming to the fore, and for all the inspiration they’re taking from Joan’s methodology—which could be perhaps called a pointillist approach to examining one’s reality—is that, you know, the literature is no longer in California going to be like the South’s literature of Faulkner’s remembered guilt, or the East Coast’s literature of transgression and assimilation, or even the American West’s literature of isolation by nature’s indifference. The best of the literature to come is likely to be tragic, because it’s going to be written by people who are gathered around a hearth baking chapati, and men whispering in Spanish. And that will be a literature that will cure what Joan rightly described, or explored, as a kind of willful amnesia about California. And, ah, that is going to be a literature that will not be written for the comfortable; it might even be redemptive.
RS: Well, but you just described Joan. I mean, look—I mean, Joan didn’t buy into the East Coast; let’s begin with that. She didn’t buy into the Hollywood depiction of reality. I mean, she was clear as could be about Ronald Reagan’s failings, but of William Buckley’s as well. And she knew that these currents were deep. She knew the left-out were asserting themselves. And in fact the quote, the credit she gave me, I think, was intended to mean that we, you know, didn’t see things so differently. You know, I was this kid from the Bronx [Laughs] and you know, drawn to some of the lights. But I wasn’t alone. I mean, as I recall, she was very caustic about the pretenses of power, whether it came from the Ivy League or it came from the Hollywood mythology about American greatness.
SW: Oh yeah, no, I don’t mean to suggest that she wasn’t deeply skeptical and couldn’t, with the best of them, perform a kind of autopsy on how power works, how it talks about itself, the conceits with which they swaddle or conceal the work that they do. But it should also be said that she was a practitioner in—and I think she would concede this point herself—in a direct line from—she stood on the shoulders of people like Carey McWilliams, who got there first. I mean, I remember that John Dunne and Joan Didion—and I think you were there, too—and Henry Weinstein of the L.A. Times, in 1979 we all gathered at the old Union Station in Los Angeles to fete Carey McWilliams on some great anniversary of—perhaps it was his death, actually. It may have been a meeting and a gathering held to honor Carey McWilliams. And John Gregory Dunne wrote the program notes, which were quite extensive, and it really was a tip of the hat to the great work that he had done a generation and more before, which really laid out the road map for them.
RS: Well, that—now we are coming together. [Laughs]
SW: Well, I don’t want to—
RS: No, we can end this on a mutual celebration. Because I can’t think of anyone who has been involved with California whose writing I admire personally more than Carey McWilliams. You know, he wrote about what was happening in the fields, the agriculture; he wrote about race, he wrote about everything. And I think this is really—and he was very much writing out of California rather than the East Coast.
And I think if there was a refreshing snobbishness, if you like, to the Didion-Dunne household that we got to enjoy in California, it was that you didn’t need the East Coast snobs. And they didn’t really get it. And yes, you could hang out with some of them, but you know, there was an energy in California, and a ferment, and there was a radicalism—I mean, don’t forget, they went through the Black Panthers, and they went through a lot of movements. They went through the farm workers, and so forth. And I always felt that, you know, there was a great deal of respect for that energy.
And the only point I would pick with you is I don’t think she had this extreme white-person bias that is being suggested. I think it is true that she admired the way people were living in the postwar period, which was a period of optimism and energy and so forth. But I thought—and, you know, again, for John Dunne, who could have been a cynical Time magazine kind of guy—I felt they understood the currents, and actually found they were refreshing, the currents for change.
SW: Well, I beg to differ. I think if you read Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, when she went to cover the Haight-Ashbury scene in 1967, it was all about puncturing what she regarded, with a kind of near-contempt, the self-delusory quality of these utopian longings. And John’s own Catholicism put the kibosh on any notion that there was, about these—ah, that there was a new day dawning.
And she dipped her pen, very often, into what has to be described as a self-important ennui which infected too many of her pieces. And I felt that her rhetoric too often drifted from the stylized to the mannered, and there was something about the brittle quality of those sentences which invested too many things—whether it was paying the phone bill, spending the night in a motel—with a kind of portentousness that approached the apocalyptic. And I thought that enfeebled much of her work, but that weakness and vulnerability is barely noticed by most readers, who are simply dazzled by the consummate craft that she brought to bear on what feels like perfectly formed sentences.
And as I tried to suggest in my piece in the San Francisco Examiner, while admiring her but without embracing the hagiography that has so beclouded our immediate reception of her work, that she often had her thumb on the scale, but her talent was such that you didn’t even read it, notice it, while she was pressing in on those sentences.
RS: Well, as we bring this to a conclusion—and we’ve got a good five minutes—this is very reassuring to me, because I was afraid that we’d be too much in agreement. And—[Laughs]
SW: Well, I never want to be too much in agreement.
RS: Yeah, and so let me just say, I understand what you’re saying, Steve. Clearly, the woman was a brilliant writer, and clearly owned the language. And it’s interesting, because when I would ask her about it—you know, after all, I had my own learning differences; I studied engineering because I couldn’t write an essay in high school. [Laughter] I was flunking English all the time, you know. And I felt very comfortable with her. And I didn’t mind her reading my stuff, you know, and commenting on it, and I never once heard her [Laughs] make a grammatical criticism.
And in fact—she told this to other people, but I remember she once told me, in a very reassuring way, that she never studied grammar. She played—she did grammar by ear, you know, the way you would learn piano by ear, and not following the notes. And in my conversations with her—and this blurb that you elicited from her was quite flattering, after all; you know, she called me one of the best reporters of the time. And she knew that my spelling sucked, and I was not a big maven of grammar, and I didn’t speak that well. And I always felt like she was very supportive.
And when we—again, about the Haight-Ashbury, yeah. She would be death on anybody who had illusions about progress, and instant progress and, you know, happy—yes, and there was something absurd about the old Haight-Ashbury, and there was something absurd about revolutionary zeal on the left and so forth, or on the right, for that matter. But I must say, I’ve been around grammar snobs [Laughs], and I’ve been around people who really stress those qualities. And as a budding writer and as a journalist, I found the two of them to be incredibly supportive, and not just in my case, but when I would bring people around; we would be talking to other people I knew—I just never found the snobbishness. I just didn’t experience it. Now, maybe it was there; maybe you don’t think it’s snobbishness. But I just didn’t—I mean, they would tell such great stories about people they’d run into or encountered. And—anyway, I just want to put that out there.
SW: Well, you know, in the reign of, what was it, like the sixteenth century, Louie XIV, there was a great chronicler of the gossip at the court, the duc de Saint-Simon, who wrote everything down he heard at those lavish parties and ballroom dances. And his chronicling of the higher gossip is one of the more enlightening and revelatory works that we have on a bygone age. And the Didion-Dunnes were ever-alert to the higher gossip, and they knew that comments made offhand at otherwise unchronicled dinner parties, whether in Hollywood or Brentwood or on the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side, this was the oxygen that made possible an understanding of one’s times.
And they were chroniclers of this; they knew it was important, [that] the way that people talked was a window on an entire world. And the work that she did in writing all these things, as beautifully composed and [unclear] witnessed as she did—she chronicled dreamers, failures, entrepreneurs, ever-alert to how individuals seek to make sense of their lives under the rubric of a dream. The California dream, in particular. And she understood that that dream might be bait-and-switch, but the price of the con, she understood, was ever in doubt. And that was at the heart of her work, and the best of it will endure for as long as people care about the English language, or about the nature of America, and the future and past and present of the Golden State.
RS: Yeah, but hopefully they’ll also care about the content of journalism, of writing, in terms of its relation to power—
SW: Well, inescapably.
RS: —of speaking truth to power. And I must say, she and her husband John Gregory Dunne had a kick-ass attitude towards power. And that quote you have [Laughs] where she describes my own work—they applied it to a whole bunch of other people. I don’t know whether it was Leslie Abramson and Tim Rutten who were there quite a bit. There was just, you know, the people that they—you know, even—and I shouldn’t say “even,” but people like Stanley Sheinbaum and others in town. You know, they just seemed to enjoy people who were uncomfortable with the status quo and uncomfortable with settled power. And they were challenging that.
And Joan, I felt—I don’t know, I guess at this moment I just want to pay tribute and thanks for the support she gave me, which was substantial. I just never felt a bit of that intellectual snobbishness, almost, that gets attributed to her. I just felt she had a kick-ass intellect, and that she applied it very effectively to the sanctimonious—and, yes, very often liberal— courtiers to big power.
SW: Well, I completely agree. I mean, you do not have in me someone who believed she was a snob. That was not my experience personally; I found her very generous. And nor did I find in her writing a tincture of snobbishness. I think she was interested in the world, she was interested in understanding how it worked, and she was interested to name names and tell stories, and pierce the veil of conceits that had so swaddled people’s understanding, whether ordinary people, of power, or the way the powerful exact tribute and demands and constrain the life chances of ordinary people. She was very interested in that, and devoted an entire life to chronicling it.
RS: Well, that’s a good common point we can agree on. [Laughs] And, no, I think—look, frankly I think to know Joan was to love her. My own view. I just thought there was something incredibly generous and thoughtful—and accessible. Accessible. And you know, like when I read about her, I just don’t think the woman was—she was the opposite of pretentious. That’s all I want to say. And really cared about people’s stories, which is after all what good journalism—you know, having your listening ears open. I always felt, when I was with her covering stories, she always had her listening ears open. And that to my mind was her great gift.
But I want to thank you, Steve, for joining me in this. And Heyday Books, of which Steve is the publisher, is deserving of a lot of credit for great journalism. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these shows and trying to get them on the air right. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who lines up all these guests. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the introduction. Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. And in this case—I always thank the JWK Foundation in the name of Jean Stein, who was a very, very good, close friend, fellow writer to Joan Didion. And actually many of the hours I spent, particularly in New York, with Joan Didion were with Jean Stein. I want to evoke her memory along with this tribute, basically intended as a tribute, to Joan Didion. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.