Joan Didion’s belongings put up for auction
Did you know Joan Didion kept the tortoiseshell Celine sunglasses she wore for the brand’s viral 2015 ad campaign?
That she had nine surfaces to write on, including desks, writing tables, and trestle tables? That she sometimes cooked with a “Maybe broccoli doesn’t like you either” apron and owned a piece of art that said, in upside-down black letters, “PAY ATTENTION MOTHER FUCKERS”? (Ha! It was an exhibition poster for a Bruce Nauman exhibition, but stay.)
When she died, aged 87 at the end of last year, she had at least 38 blank notebooks waiting to be filled. One of them, you may be surprised to learn that this paragon of Good Taste had a Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice, so you can pretend you’re writing The Great Canon Novel when you doodle pedestrian sightings. Much more Nancy Meyers heroin (or Nora Ephron anti-heroin) than you might expect from the posh, famous author of books like Play it as it is.
Speaking of Meyers and Ephron: Didion had two white slipcovered sofas and a club chair, with plush needlepoint pillows. She had a wonderful rolling pin. And she was supposedly famous for her jambalaya.
These are the types of items that are available in a Nov. 16 auction titled An American Icon: Property from the Collection of Joan Didion, hosted by Hudson, New York’s Stair Galleries. (The auction house has been planning the auction since they first viewed the apartment Didion shared with husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003; proceeds will be donated to patient care and research in Movement Disorders from Columbia University, as well as a Fellowship for Women in Literature in Didion’s hometown of Sacramento.) The catalog, released earlier this week, is a didionism in itself: a clinical and clear account of the things Didion possessed – distributed in office objects, kitchen utensils, fine kitchen accessories, books and works of art – and what a team of experts thinks it might be worth it. It has the psychological potential of its famous packing list with less ominous feeling; plus the inspiring zest of biography, the kind of material she would have sought out for herself in pursuit of a story. What can these objects, many of which are playful, colorful, well-made and soft, tell us about this woman whose fame weighed so high? Among the monogrammed white napkins, works by Californian artists like Richard Diebenkorn and Ed Ruscha, and expensive china sets, the textures of her dinners and afternoons spent working and thinking come to life. For a woman who was known to write with cold detachment, this is one of the warmest portraits of her ever painted.
We live in a world that has vilified things. We are suffocated by stories of hoarders and statistics about how we can’t stop buying clothes and furniture; Marie Kondo asserted that the contemporary ideal is a life sparsely populated with objects. (In fact, his credo that we only own things that elicit joy isn’t necessarily minimalist, though minimalists have co-opted it. Minimalism, after all, remains the dominant aesthetic of our time.) is why these images of the Kardashians’ oddly organized pantries hold us so captive.)
Praise for Didion, especially by young women over the past decade, has come as social media has begun to flatten our personalities into well-framed product presentation. Perhaps the anti-thing attitude and the birth of the influencer, someone who finds and creates meaning through things, are related phenomena.
So the treatment of Didion’s icon status, his digital polish, was met with skepticism. (I remember an early influencer culture, the sorely underrated movie Ingrid goes west, Didion’s books were the chosen literature of empty-headed I-am-my-stuff Instagram celebrity Elizabeth Olsen.) It’s not Didion’s talent that’s in question, of course, but the way in which it is appreciated: as an aesthetic figure, almost as an object itself. As a character, as a substitute for basic good taste, even if her own taste was far stranger, deeper and richer than the cruel platitude of contemporary female consumerism allowed.
Didion’s auction suggests a gentle realization of all this and even an attempt to elevate the quality of fetishization of Didion’s artifacts to the writer herself. Her books are bundled into attractive selections and tied with white twine. (Many are grouped by author or subject; smarter grouping combines uncorrected evidence from Emily Dickinson’s biography of Cynthia Griffin Wolf with that of Sylvia Plath The glass bell and The Oxford Marriage Book.) A book plate – “From the Library of Joan Didion” – has been added by the gallery to each book to facilitate bragging rights.
The auction also declares Didion’s unusual and special relationship with things, a relationship we could learn from. Things are treasures. His collection of seashells hurts a bit; you can imagine him strolling down a nearly empty beach, rounding them up over the years. Each shell is the memory of a walk taken with a longtime friend, of imagined ideas and shared sorrows. It’s not just that seeing Didion’s stuff makes you romantic – the pieces are evocative. She gives meaning to her possessions, but seeing her possessions all laid out for us suggests that there was something in those objects that she was awakening or releasing with her tasteful mind. A handful of his favorite books are estimated to sell for between $800 and $1,200, and I regret to inform the aforementioned skeptics among us that I would not be surprised if his Celine sunglasses sell for this much, or even more, than the lot of his favorite books. And really, what’s wrong with that? Seeing them ghostly, disembodied, they’re just… so…cool. A cold center, a shield against the world. How could a woman or a person who loves literature, even casually, resist the lure of such a piece of jewelry?
Women have always been known to us through their business. (Men, too—the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is filled with lyrics scribbled on napkins and stage clothes and guitars of spectacular provenance—but they still seem less criticized.) Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have set records selling Bunny Mellon and Jackie Kennedy Onassis collections and even Princess Diana’s dresses; things that are simply beautiful are made legendary by the eye of their possessor. The same is often true here; when else would a stash of old oversized glasses owned by an octogenarian command over $300? But the eye and the aura are something beautiful, endowing all those things of the mind with the most incredible and skillfully lived life. She was a woman who appreciated a well-made towel; a fabulous Cy Twombley; a warm meal around a pretty table served to refined people in beautiful Limoges porcelain. She was a woman who knew how to love things.
Rachel Tashjian is fashion news director at Harper’s Bazaar, working across print and digital platforms. Previously she was QGfirst fashion critic of, and worked as associate editor of GARAGE and as a writer at vanity lounge. She has written for publications such as Reading forum and art forumand is the creator of the invitation-only newsletter, Opulent Tips.