Lest any reader open The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion, hoping for dirt, “Let me lay it out. There is the biographer who promises explanations by threatening to reveal a subject’s secrets, who promises to dish. I am not that biographer.”
Given that Didion refused to cooperate with Daugherty, he hasn’t much choice about dishing. Instead, he’s thrown back on the existing literature, much of it penned by Didion herself, the author’s papers, housed at the Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and the very few sources willing to grant interviews. He fills in the gaps with literary critique and a jumble of unsubstantiated assertions, all couched in language bizarrely mimicking Didion’s terse literary style.
Beginning with Didion’s Sacramento, California, childhood, Daugherty works hard to establish the morose child in an even unhappier household. Anyone familiar with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I Was From, The Year of Magical Thinking, or Blue Nights won’t find anything new here: Didion’s father, Frank, was a depressive with alcoholic tendencies. Didion’s mother, Eduene, did not dust her home, make the beds, or polish her silver. When pressed about these traits, or much else, Eduene was apt to respond: “What difference does it make”, making her the unwitting inspiration for a Didionesque tribe of affectless female characters.
Didion emerged from this family undersized and overperforming, heartbroken when Stanford rejected her application. She instead attended the University of California, Berkeley, majoring in English. In 1955, she won Mademoiselle’s fiction guest editor slot, a position Sylvia Plath held before her and would scathingly immortalize in The Bell Jar.
Thus began Didion’s ascent. She returned to California long enough to finish her degree, then landed a job at Vogue working under famed editor Allene Talmey. Writer Noel Parmentel was an early mentor, lover, and editor. He was also a matchmaker, introducing her to John Gregory Dunne.
At night, a homesick Didion “sat on one of my apartment’s two chairs and set the Olivetti on the other and wrote myself a California river.” The result, Run River was published when Didion was 26 years old.
Reviewing the drafts in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Daugherty remarks, “The rough drafts of what became Run River, archived now in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, confirm Didion’s perception that her ambitions outstrip her abilities, though the book is hardly the failure she later considered it to be.”
Didion was 29 when she married John Gregory Dunne. Descriptions of their wedding hew closely to those in The Year of Magical Thinking, right down to the couple fleeing their honeymoon suite, “bored”, for the Beverly Hills Hotel.
The couple moved to California, hoping to break into screenwriting. Daugherty documents their outwardly glossy life: the large homes, visiting stars, a smorgasbord of drugs. Despite hiring two private investigators, he is unable to garner new information about Quintana Roo Dunne, the couple’s adopted daughter, or her birth family. Nor can Daugherty shed light on the couple’s possible infertility, instead scouring their respective writing for answers.
Readers able to wade through the assumptions and grandiose statements find a yeoman researcher motivated by genuine admiration for his subject. But the effort is significant. As The Last Love Sing moves into the ‘80, ‘90s and 00s, long passages explain historical events like the O.J. Simpson trial and Abu Ghraib. Dominick Dunne, Didion’s brother-in-law, is afforded great deal of space; Didion’s brother Jim is scarcely mentioned. Assumptions pile up; the prose is a continued irritant.
When film critic Pauline Kael gives Didion a poor review, Daugherty writes, “You can have your damn solidarity, your movement, Didion must have thought, You old mongoose.”
When Roman Polanski’s spills red wine on Didion’s wedding dress (worn to a party years later), “The red stain seems portentous. “
As for Dennis Hopper, “His photographic skills may well have exceeded his talents as an actor. ”
The relentless use of a single line or couplet, set apart from the main text, is meant convey emotional import. Instead, overuse topples this stylistic trick into the ridiculous.
“Still. The call of California.”
“Blood and champagne.”
“Cause and effect. Narrative. Playing out the hand.”
If the compassionate reader learns anything from The Last Love Song, it isn’t about Didion’s legendary frailty or her inscrutability. It isn’t the myth of a wide-skied California traversed by a lone John Wayne on horseback. It isn’t the singular writing or the gorgeous homes teetering over foggy cliffs. It’s how many people in Didion’s life are dead. Her husband. Her daughter. Her brother-in-law, his wife, and their daughter. Her nephew’s wife. Natasha Richardson, who married in Didion’s apartment. Now over 80, Didion is entirely alone.
When Daugherty observes Didion is still alive “at this writing”, the reader realizes The Last Love Song is only the first in a volley of critical bone-sifting, theorizing, and misguided academic analysis. For those who love the prose and prefer encountering those resident rhythms directly, there’s an honest horror in that.