Joan Didion’s Priceless Sunglasses

At her memorial service, someone described Joan Didion as a rune: mysterious, remote, and indecipherable. All great writers are mysteries, but Didion’s mysteries seemed particularly tantalizing because her writing seemed so simple, so clear. And she herself seemed so proximate, so accessible, through the tangible world of objects. Her own things were celebrated but familiar—the big sunglasses, the cashmere sweaters, the Corvette Stingray. These were things that we all understood, even if we couldn’t all afford them.

The things she owned and the way she used them were important. For Didion, style was not surface but essence. Glamour was to be embraced because it had power. This was both interesting and confusing, because it is risky for a woman to present herself as both beauty and brain. Beauty doesn’t challenge men, but intelligence does. (The mother of Marina Warner, the beautiful and brilliant English cultural historian, used to ask her, “Why do you keep disagreeing with men? They don’t like it, you know.”) Women who are admired as beauties risk dismissal as brains. But Didion was both. It was non-negotiable: it was impossible to dismiss her words, and it was impossible to ignore her looks. Like her words, they were spare, elegant, and arresting.

In a Paris Review interview, Didion discusses style. “I don’t want to differentiate between style and sensibility, by the way. Again, your style is your sensibility.” Your style is your sensibility. Every writer knows that style is crucial—the way you set words down on the page, the look and the rhythm and the sound of them. When Didion was asked about her influence, the source of her style, she replied:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked.
When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn
how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A
few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread “A
Farewell to Arms” and fell right back into those sentences. I mean
they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear
water over granite, no sinkholes.

Very direct sentences. Smooth rivers, clear water over granite. Hemingway invented this kind of writing. He cast off the nineteenth century, with its leisurely divagations. His style was telegraphic, concise and direct, founded in journalism. He showed us the possibilities, in fiction, of those short, direct sentences. Those smooth rivers.

Didion’s sentences, though, are hers alone. They are hypnotic in their elegance. About grammar, she says, “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. . . . The arrangement of the words matters.” The arrangement is crucial. Style is character; it is sensibility. If style is vividly present in Didion’s writing, it is as vividly present in her own life. Her clothes, her accoutrements, the things with which she surrounds herself, are part of this project. We know, from decades of photographs, that her possessions are chosen for shape and color, for personal and cultural meaning. Separate from her, these objects would serve as talismanic evidence of her presence.

A collection of these possessions—lamps, sofas, tables, china, silver, napkins, art, books, and an enchanting suite of writing memorabilia—will be sold in two hundred and twenty-four lots on Wednesday, at the Stair Galleries, an auction house in Hudson, New York. (The proceeds of the sale will go to Parkinson’s research and the Sacramento Historical Society.) The public is welcome. Now is the chance to own an object that Joan Didion chose for herself, something reflecting her glamour.

The things are displayed in two contiguous spaces, one arranged like Didion’s living room in her New York apartment. The furniture is simple and comfortable—two small facing sofas, upholstered in white; slipper chairs in bright flowery prints. One sofa is flanked by stout ceramic elephants that serve as drinks tables. It’s pleasant and conventional, not grand. No marble, no glitter.

Instead, there’s a pleasant sense of comfort and cleanliness, and a beguiling emphasis on writing. So many things reflect the writing life: a Renaissance Revival writing table, a small tambour George III writing desk. A big, handsome oak partners desk. An American faux-bamboo-and-pine writing table, an American Victorian spinet writing desk. One area is set up like an office, with two more writing tables, and a typewriter on each. A big dictionary is spread open on a low stand. There are small, charming objects related to writing: a handsome horn-handled magnifying glass. An antique painted wooden document box. A miniature music box shaped like a mad typewriter, keys flying into the air.

And there are the sunglasses, those twentieth-century icons that both conceal and celebrate the wearer. The impenetrable black gaze that simultaneously declares “You may not know me” and “You must notice me.” Didion wore them all the time. If style is character, sunglasses are bedrock. Lot 5 in the sale is a pair of big Celine Faux Tortoiseshells. The estimate was set at four hundred to eight hundred dollars, but by Monday the bidding had reached five thousand five hundred. (They sold today for twenty-seven thousand dollars.) Here is Didion’s own inscrutable gaze, available to you.

But, really, aren’t we here for the books? Because this is where Didion’s mind lived. In a writing area, one whole wall is filled with bookshelves, physical evidence of Didion’s work. There are many copies of Hemingway, of course. Smooth water over granite: this is where these two minds connected, through these volumes. It’s the way all readers and writers connect; we connected to Didion in this way. It’s odd to see the places where she connected to others. There are shelves of books by Roth and Updike. Didion seems to own every Updike work in hardcover, including the early novels “The Centaur” and “Of the Farm.” It seems she loved him from the start, but came late to Roth. His famous early books are here only in paperback: “Goodbye, Columbus,” “Letting Go,” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” After that, Didion bought hardcovers.

Didion has a good collection of art, though it seems more like a conversation than a collection. Many of these artists lived in California, and some were Didion’s friends, like Ed Ruscha and Jennifer Bartlett. There is a large Richard Diebenkorn lithograph, and photographs by Patti Smith and Annie Liebovitz. Yet the art, impressive though it is, may be less interesting to her readers than the anonymous objects. These art works have their own discrete existence, separate from Didion. In a museum, or on someone else’s walls, these will become works by the artist, not works owned by the writer. But the big open dictionary, the Random House unabridged, will always be unique as the one which Didion leafed through after her husband’s death.

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