Joan Didion’s Seashells and Cookbooks

Group of shells & pebbles.
Available at auction, November 2022

Many of us writers are collectors, passionate seekers of objects, material and earthly, that bring us joy and evoke our imagination.

I’ve been in a deep Joan Didion hole this week, recovering from a fall of loss. I sought solace in a day trip to Malibu where I sat on the coastline, eating a fish taco, thinking about what brought our family so far away from home to chase a California dream that never quite materialized. I turned off my map and drove through parts of this beach community I hadn’t ever explored until I found an empty lot and an even emptier beach and parked my car.

There is something healing to me about Malibu, a natural radiance it exudes, that brings me calm. In just a few minutes, the sound of the Pacific works to ease my mind and the troubles of the world temporarily fade. I can hear stories in my head. I can feel at peace. I like to walk along the shoreline looking for small memorable shells and pebbles, pieces of nature to commemorate the day. I try to be mindful of what I take and then keep it on my desk to gaze at while I paint.

Lately while I have been painting, my mind has been wandering to Joan Didion, but also her contemporaries, Carolyn See, who was my long time writing teacher in my late teens and early 20s, and Eve Babitz, who I knew briefly around the same time and even went clubbing with on a few occasions. (Eve was awesome.) By the time I met Carolyn and Eve, they were both on the other side of 50, middle-aged but sharp, wise and worldly. Neither explicitly told me that the female writer’s life was extremely difficult, but I gleaned it from our time spent together. They both seemed to have other jobs than as fiction writers. Carolyn taught, Eve was a journalist. Money, I knew could be a challenge. While both were constantly represented as Joan’s peers, neither had the deep pockets. On more than 1 occasion, Carolyn told me about the million dollars Joan got paid to write a script with marvel and a perhaps a bit of envy. Joan, while near, had attained another level of success, even if in my opinion the quality of her writing was consistent with the work of her peers.

I had loved Joan’s work since the summer of 1993 when I lived in Berkeley in a servant’s apartment of a Julia Morgan house, a convenient literary sublet from my friend Dave, who went to Cal. This summer was an especially relevant one for me. It was the summer I devoured all of Didion’s California work, often on the treadmill of a YMCA gym, and the summer I discovered indie rock and met all my original friends in tech. It was the summer I realized I liked kitchens and cooking, because my apartment didn’t have one and so I was forced to go out to eat all the time. It was the summer I think I started to understand I was not going to support myself as a writer, but that there was opportunity in music tech.

So many of my friends grew up wanting to write like Salinger, or Bret Easton Ellis, whose prose style I idolized. But that summer I realized I aspired to be a Didion, but with some twist…a Didion of music, but with interactivity and film. And I wouldn’t be poor! I would leave fiction writing behind and embed myself with musicians and their stories and I could live this mixed media dream. But these “dreams” are complicated, especially if you have limited means and the need to work to support oneself at a young age. And so 30 years later, I can’t say that idea ever really happened, at least not in the way I imagined it to be. I didn’t want to struggle endlessly like my parents, always living in fear. But I did manage to embed my life with musicians and artists and I’m still here, even during a particularly broken fall of death and other tragedies, where for the first time in almost 30 years I want to write.

Standing on the Malibu beach Tuesday, I thought of Joan and regretted that I never tried to meet her. I thought about it during the time that I gave to her Kickstarter to finish her doc. I tried to think if there was a natural way to intersect, but nothing arrived. What would I have said? “I drive freeways fast to buy donuts on the far edges of the city and think of you telling me to speed up and I press the gas?”

“I lived so close to Cielo for so long and would avoid even driving on the street to honor the dead, your words ringing in my ears?”

“When I finally went to Cielo, I took my whole family and we toured Jim Goldstein’s Lautner one crisp November day, and I wondered how we wound up embracing this majesty of facade and when we left who we were behind.”

So it was in these thoughts that yesterday we went to the Hammer to see the Hilton Als show on Joan. A show filled with so much art from artists I admire, Diane Arbus and Bettye Saar, William Eggleston and Felix Gonzalez Torres, a show that left me asking even more questions than before I saw it. A show where amongst all the artwork, I was fixated on a Western Union telegram from Sharon Tate next to a series of pregnant candids of hers with no wall text. “If you know, you know,” I could imagine Joan stating. I welled up and took a shot.

As I wandered around the galleries, I thought, “Who was Joan really?” Even amongst all this art and ephemera, I felt I knew less than before. Like so much of the work, Joan was layered and complex. Maybe who she was everyone knew from her work, but something was missing to me. Was she funny, I wondered? Part of me really wanted to know.

It wasn’t until this morning, when my friend Linus posted a link to the upcoming Stair auction of Joan’s estate that I got my answer. Indeed she was…but maybe she was more witty.

From Didion’s lot of baking aprons

Looking through the collection of objects including her much loved burnt Dutch oven, I connected with a much more human side of Joan, one that sought solace in cooking , entertaining and reading about food, more than I imagined. And in this digital museum of her life, all up for bidding, I felt closer to her spirit than I did in the art museum. Maybe that’s the challenge of mounting shows around celebrity. Ultimately, it’s our basic humanity where we find the most connection with our heroes and heroines. I bid on the Dutch oven and her weathered yellow baking dish and screenshot the library of cookbooks, and smiled seeing the Marcella Hazan one in there.

Joan’s Dansk baking dish
Joan’s French and Italian cookbooks

And in zooming in on the screenshots of the cookbook collection, now all categorized to go to new homes, I smiled, put my pen down on my desk and went downstairs to go burn some water.

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