Want a piece of Joan Didion?

Joan Didion in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in 1967 © Corbis/Getty Images

A catalog listing the possessions of Joan Didion’s collection, which will be auctioned on November 16, has sparked a wave of enthusiasm among didionophiles. Items from the sale, organized by the Stair Gallery in New York, can now be viewed at leisure.

The 224 courts reveal that Didion’s personal effects were as rigorously edited as his prose. They are also very stylish.

Items include a stack of his favorite books, including Hemingway’s A farewell to arms, Stories from Berlin by Christopher Isherwood and Joyce Carol Oates’ Wonderland; her IBM Wheelwriter 5 typewriter (estimate between $800 and $1,200), the oversized faux tortoiseshell sunglasses she wore to star in the 2015 Celine campaign photographed by Juergen Teller (estimate between $400 and $800 $); office ephemera, including a box of Pilot Precise v7 pens and paperclips ($200-$400) and a stack of 13 blank notebooks ($100-$200). For those who like to cherish his domestic life, there are silver cutlery, monogrammed napkins, Le Creuset saucepans and a set of five aprons including one bearing the wisdom “Maybe broccoli doesn’t like you either” ($200-$400).

A dozen books in two stacks

The November 16 auction of Didion’s belongings includes some of her books © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

There is art, by friends, including works by Ed Ruscha, Sam Francis, Brice Marden, Vija Celmins and Richard Diebenkorn. And portraits, including those made by Julian Wasser for Time magazine, in 1968, which show Didion in flip-flops and smoking near his Stingray Corvette outside his California home (estimate $1,500-$3,000).

Going through the lots, even the most mundane listed objects are infused with the vapor of iconography. Perhaps more than most other personalities of the 20th century, Joan Didion brings out the simpering fangirl in even the most murderous people. “He is a true writer,” Patti Smith wrote following Didion’s death in December 2021. “Farewell brave sister, master of pain and ink.” The two women were close friends, which should come as no surprise since Didion was friends with all the cool people of the era: the sale includes two photos of Smith; a photo of chocolate bunnies and another of Hermann Hesse’s typewriter.

A pair of closed up sunglasses taken against a plain background

A pair of Céline faux tortoiseshell sunglasses included in the sale © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

It is more difficult to put your finger on what triggers such ardor. Of course, she is appreciated for her singular writing style and her ruthless cultural criticism. But while she was a prolific writer, she wasn’t an accessible fiction writer, and she didn’t exactly knock out bestsellers. In interviews, her personality was sharp, bold and cool – traits that stood out in a culture where women were generally brought up to be people-pleasing and placid.

In many ways, Didion represents a perfectly innocuous “tough guy”: her appeal was to be so massively ambitious. She was also an enigma. A punchy feminist in possession of slogan aprons with a soft spot for Spode tableware. A good wife, married for 40 years to writer John Gregory Dunne, but resisted becoming too womanly. Based on the 2017 documentary The center will not hold, Didion slept late in the morning while Dunne did all the chores and went on the run to school. She would then get up, drink a Coca-Cola and start working.

She is loved because she knew her own mind and made no apologies for being decisive. She is loved for her brand of personal style which combines hipster and tough career woman. She is loved for a packing list – “2 skirts, 2 singlets or leotards, 1 sweater. . . cigarettes, bourbon. . . Tampax” – recorded in his closet between 1979 and 2014, and still endlessly regurgitated on social media. More controversial, she is appreciated for her thinness and her figure as lean as her syntax.

Didion was cunning in limiting her public image to a number of very neat portraits. Compared to the current source of Googleable images, Didion did few sessions to speak of, and each one was carefully staged for maximum impact. In her essay ‘Why I Write’, she talks very openly about her preoccupation with ‘imagery’ as a . . . “the kind of detail that caught my attention”. She brought the same super-vigilance to her own image: like a modern influencer, she had a keen awareness of how to telegraph her brand’s message. The images unfailingly capture her looking sophisticated, smoldering and a little aloof.

To that end, the sale of the estate allows us a tiny bit more access to her private life than the bits and pieces she shared during her lifetime. Fans will recognize the large Victorian-style rattan armchair in which she was photographed, a little uncomfortable, reading to Quintana Roo, her daughter: it is offered for an estimated price between 500 and 700 dollars, with pillows, seat cushion and “scattered spots”. . But it’s the trinkets that offer more shards of personal color: scuffed white pans all stained with use, amber-handled office scissors, beach shells and pebbles (estimate $100-$200), and many pairs of hurricane lamps purchased to counter power outages in California. Each small object seems to reveal one more fragment of her daily life than her beautifully furnished shelves.

As with any auction, November’s sale will further scatter Didion’s legend: one in which she still lives in a cash-tinged state of bohemian privilege, skewering cultural tropes and downing Coca-Colas. The woman so long on a pedestal finally becomes accessible. Everyone wanted cool Didion. Now they can own it.

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