Joan Didion’s personal effects are sold in one of the most coveted estate sales of the year


Written by By Jeanne Bonner, CNN

During a visit to her family’s home in the corner of California where she grew up, Joan Didion opened a drawer stuffed with her old things and took inventory.

Book lovers and style buffs are in awe of personal items up for auction that once belonged to seminal essayist Joan Didion Credit: Stair galleries

“A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen,” she wrote in her essay, “On Going Home.” “A rejection letter from The Nation…Three tea cups hand painted with cabbage roses and signed ‘EM’, my grandmother’s initials.”

She felt moved to take stock as during the visit she had been “paralyzed” encountering her past “at every turn, at every corner, inside every closet”.

Literature enthusiasts have shown huge interest in Joan Didion's personal items available at auction

Literature enthusiasts have shown huge interest in Joan Didion’s personal items available at auction Credit: Stair galleries

Now the past (in the form of furniture, artwork and books) of this legendary writer and style icon, who died last year at 87, is up for auction, and the stir that sale real estate has created couldn’t be greater.

“We’ve never had this kind of interest before,” said Lisa Thomas, director of the fine arts department at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, which manages the auction. “She was an icon in many different fields; a literary personality, a documentarian of American culture at important times in our history, and an icon of personal style. I think that’s why her reach is so great.”

Fans of the author who wrote seminal collections of essays such as ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (which includes ‘On Going Home’) and ‘The White Album’ can bid on the oak library table where she wrote. , her silver candelabras and her collection of hardcover Hemingways, not to mention a rattan chair where she often sat when photographers came to photograph her.

The live auction will take place on November 16, but online bidding has begun, and Thomas says no lot has failed to attract bids – even when it comes to blank notebooks, Didion didn’t have time to use or books available at most bookstores. A batch of 13 journals had fetched $2,500 at auction at press time.

Many works of art that Didion owned were personal gifts from the artists.

Many works of art that Didion owned were personal gifts from the artists. Credit: Stair galleries

“The blank notebooks took on a life of their own,” Thomas said.

And like the many books on the block that Didion owned, the notebooks will return to the winning bidder with a bookplate stating they are from “The Library of Joan Didion”.

Stair Galleries has held auctions of personal items belonging to such notables as Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards and artist Helen Frankenthaler, not to mention Park Avenue socialites. But Thomas said there was a lot more enthusiasm for Didion’s possessions, which belies the economy.

“The intrinsic value isn’t huge, but what we’re already seeing with online auctions, things far exceed their innate value,” Thomas said. “People want an object that comes from her, that she has touched and used and that represents her.

Among the items likely to fetch the highest price are works by Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Ruscha, which at press time had already fetched $28,000 and $11,000 at pre-auction auctions. There are also photos of Patti Smith and Annie Liebovitz, as well as an iconic portrait of Didion posing in front of his Corvette Stingray.

Didion, born in 1934, wrote essays, fiction and film scripts. She was the rare woman included in the group of writers known by the moniker of New Journalism, a movement which included Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, and which was characterized by bold, immersive and personal writing combined with non-fiction reporting.

Didion was not only a revered writer, but was also considered a style icon whose signature sunglasses were widely copied.

Didion was not only a revered writer, but was also considered a style icon whose signature sunglasses were widely copied. Credit: Stair galleries

The brouhaha created by the auction may reflect Didion’s ties to both coasts, which emerged in his writings. A California native who attended Berkeley, she wrote memorable and prescient about her home state. Her 1970 novel, “Play It As It Lays,” features a Hollywood actress struggling with the boredom of modern life against the backdrop of the arid and unforgiving Mojave Desert. She has also written about the hippies of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and the winds of Santa Ana.

“Didion never forgot she was a Westerner,” wrote Tracy Daugherty, in her 2015 biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song.” “In the Sacramento Valley of his childhood, rattlesnakes were common. They were an integral part of the paradise his ancestors longed for.”

Among the items up for auction is a 19th-century desk built in California that Didion's parents had owned

Among the items up for auction is a 19th-century desk built in California that Didion’s parents had owned Credit: Stair galleries

Yet Didion also lived for many years in New York with her husband, John Gregory Dunne and daughter, Quintana Roo, and was embraced by a sophisticated fashion town that saw her signature clothes and sunglasses as evocative of a inimitable style. Indeed, the objects put up for auction come from the New York apartment where she spent her last years.

In an essay about her time in Manhattan titled “Goodbye to it all,” she wrote, “Now when New York comes back to me, it comes in hallucinatory flashes,” adding that she wore two perfumes when she was living in New York and now “the slightest trace of either can short out my connections for the rest of the day.”

The book groups from the House of Didion include several auction lots.  They will be provided with ex-libris saying:

The book groups from the House of Didion include several auction lots. They will be equipped with ex-libris indicating “From the library of Joan Didion” Credit: Stair galleries

These geographic ties make it particularly attractive to the legions of writers and readers from both places.

“I always keep his books on the shelf, close at hand,” Tess Taylor, a poet, critic and Californian, told CNN.

Taylor, who wrote about Didion for CNN Opinion last year after his death, said some public figures have a kind of “charisma” that people want to be close to them — and their possessions.

“We feel that for artists,” Taylor said in an interview. “Everything they hold and touch is in some way sacred.”

Taylor said her personal effects — including many vintage cookbooks and her favorite novels at auction — offer “windows into a state of mind, into an era.” And they depict a woman idolized by many aspiring writers, absorbing her words as instructions and the photographic portraits as models of being. As Didion said in a lecture entitled “Why I Write”, she did not define herself as “a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer, but simply a writer, a person whose most engrossed and passionate ones went on to arranging words on pieces of paper.”

Didion's blank notebooks have generated great interest among bidders, especially writers seeking

Didion’s blank notebooks have generated great interest among bidders, especially from writers who seek “the promise of the blank page,” said Lisa Thomas of Stair Galleries.
Credit: Stair galleries

She was the subject of a 2017 documentary called ‘The Center Will Not Hold’, directed by her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne, whose father, author and TV personality Dominick Dunne was brother-in-law by Didion.

Long before succumbing to Parkinson’s disease last December, Didion had witnessed the horrific deaths of her husband as well as her daughter, and her memoirs of bereavement, including “The Year of Magical Thinking”, have become Bibles for the bereaved.

In this essay about sorting out old things at her family’s California estate that helped launch her glittering literary career, Didion ends up closing the drawer.

“There is no…fix for The Nation’s rejection letters and hand-painted teacups in 1900,” Didion wrote in “On Going Home.”

But there will be a solution for the IBM electric typewriter she had kept in filing cabinets in her New York home office – one lucky literary fan will soon have it, embodying one of the many ways Joan Didion and his aura will live. .


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