Acclaimed American writer Joan Didion, an essayist and novelist who rose to prominence in the 1960s, has died at age 87, her publisher confirmed to CNN on Thursday.
“We are deeply saddened to report that Joan Didion died earlier this morning at her home in New York due to complications from Parkinson’s disease,” said Paul Bogaards, a publicity executive at A. A. Knopf, in a statement.
Didion was a leading figure of the New Journalism movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and she began her career with articles in Life magazine and other publications, capturing the unrest of American life in the postwar era. During her prolific career, she published multiple volumes of essays, nonfiction books, memoirs, novels and screenplays.
She was known for her distinctive prose, and rose to fame with essay collections such as 1968’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and 1979’s “The White Album.” Her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005. In 2013, former President Barack Obama awarded Didion the National Humanities Medal in the East Room of the White House, calling her “one of our sharpest and most respected observers of American politics and culture.”
Former President Obama honored Didion with the 2012 National Humanities Medal at the White House. Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
A Sacramento native, Didion moved to New York after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, where she began working for Vogue, according to Bogaards.
While rising through the ranks at the fashion magazine, Didion met and married John Gregory Dunne, a journalist at Time with whom she’d collaborate on screenplays including “The Panic in Needle Park,” known for Al Pacino’s breakthrough performance, and the 1976 version of “A Star is Born,” starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
Author Joan Didion in her Upper East Side apartment in New York. Credit: Neville Elder/Corbis Entertainment/Corbis/Getty Images
Didion moved back and forth between California and New York during her career, and both states served as inspiration for her writings. Her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” on why she was leaving New York, became an enduring influence on the essay format. The following year, she published “Slouching Through Bethlehem,” primarily set in California, which solidified her status as a keen chronicler of the intimate and the everyday.
“The White Album,” too, provided cutting insight into her home state, with its cooly removed yet searing depictions of West Coast counterculture, the Manson murders and the quick-shifting political landscape. The title essay was in 2013 named one of the 10 most important essays since 1950 by Publishers Weekly and begins with one of Didion’s best-known lines: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Didion’s writing style and fashion sense has been endlessly emulated. Credit: Janet Fries/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Didion was known for her effortless, minimal personal style as well as her incisive writings, and her fashion choices — long-sleeve knitwear, oversized sunglasses and shift dresses — have been extensively written about. At 80 years old, Didion was tapped by Phoebe Philo, who then helmed the French fashion house Céline, to star in a number of ads for the brand, photographed by Juergen Teller.
Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne in 1972. Credit: Frank Edwards/Archive Photos/Getty Images
In 2017, she reflected on her career and personal losses in the Netflix documentary “The Center Will not Hold,” directed by her nephew Griffin Dune. In it, she described how writing has always been a tool for her, saying, “I have always found that if I examine something, it’s less scary.”
“We are not idealized wild things,” she wrote. “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”
This story has been updated with additional details about Didion’s life and reaction to her death.
Joan Didion, famed American essayist and novelist, has died