California cool and Magical Thinking: Joan Didion at 86

Whether reporting from the trippy heart of 1960s counterculture or covering the trial of the Central Park Five, the legendary essayist brings a spirit of restless inquiry to all her writing

  • Read an exclusive extract from new essay collection Let Me Tell You What I Mean below

To think about Joan Didion, you have to confront two things before you get to the words: the pictures and the anecdotes. If you’re interested in certain aspects of the culture – American counterculture in the 1960s, California, female writers – the pictures are familiar, if not ingrained. There’s Didion in her long dress with long hair, smoking, leaning against her Corvette Stingray; standing up in its sunroof; lolling out of the driver’s window, in Julian Wasser’s 1968 shoot; inside, pictured with her daughter Quintana on her lap (her favourite of that day), or staring straight at the camera. Wasser remembers her as “a very easy person to talk to. No Hollywood affectations” – but the photographs themselves had such star quality that the fashion house Céline not only recreated one in its 2015 ad campaign, but also featured the then 80-year-old writer herself, in black sweater and enormous sunglasses.

And the stories: the parties at the same rented house, on Franklin Avenue, to which Janis Joplin might turn up, asking for a glass of brandy and Benedictine (musicians, Didion noted, never wanted ordinary drinks); the Malibu beach house she later lived in, where the carpenter was Harrison Ford; the first assignment the neophyte writer did for Vogue, a piece on self-respect that only came to her because the original journalist failed to deliver and they’d already put the strapline on the cover.

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