Sunday, November 10, 2019

Quiet Days in Malibu

Joan Didion (1934–2021)
From Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s

A ball of fire leaps over a home during the 1978 “Mandeville Canyon” fire in Malibu, California, that destroyed more than 80 homes. The house pictured here escaped major damage due the efforts of firefighters parked in the driveway. Photograph by George Rose. Getty Images.
“The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself,” Joan Didion wrote in her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been living in Los Angeles since 1964, moving there when life in New York began to overwhelm her and her anxiety became so debilitating she had a hard time leaving home. They agreed to move to California for a recuperative visit of six or seven months—and ended up staying for twenty-three years, during which Didion wrote the essays and novels that would make her famous. For her first standout piece she traveled to Mexico to the set of the 1965 Western film The Sons of Katie Elder. The resulting article for The Saturday Evening Post, “John Wayne: A Love Story,” provided her with a template she would often use in the future, framing her reporting through a personal, even autobiographical, lens.

During the 1960s Dunne and Didion moved from home to home in the western Los Angeles area—from the Palos Verdes peninsula to West Los Angeles to Hollywood. “This house on Franklin Avenue was rented,” Didion later described their rundown mansion in Hollywood, “and paint peeled inside and out, and pipes broke and window sashes crumbled and the tennis court had not been rolled since 1933, but the rooms were many and high-ceilinged and, during the five years that I lived there, even the rather sinistral inertia of the neighborhood tended to suggest that I should live in the house indefinitely.”

Headquartering in this dilapidated rental, Didion traveled throughout California and, alternating with Dunne, wrote the “Points West” column in every other issue for the biweekly Saturday Evening Post. She also signed a two-book deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, receiving an advance of $6,000 each for a nonfiction book about “the LSD life in California” and for a novel. In September 1967 the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which gathered her impressions of the new hippie community in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, appeared as the Post’s cover story. Didion decided she couldn’t expand the essay into a book, so—at the suggestion of her editor—she instead began to gather and revise her previously published pieces. The collection, with its celebrated title essay, was published to much acclaim and brisk sales, and Time magazine sent Julian Wasser to photograph Didion. In now-iconic images, she is seen smoking alongside her Corvette Stingray outside the home on Franklin Avenue. A few years ago, when she was asked what she thought of that Time profile, she responded, “I don’t remember the article. I remember the pictures.”

In 1971, the year after Didion published her best-selling novel Play It As It Lays, she and Dunne, with their adopted five-year-old daughter Quintana Roo, moved to a house 132 steps above the ocean, on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, where they lived for seven years. (A profile in People magazine noted, “It can only tickle their tingling sense of irony that it was a gambling den in the late 1940s.”) The house was in a state of disrepair so they contracted for renovations with a local carpenter named Harrison Ford. “I think I became their carpenter for the same reason I became their friend,” Ford said in a recent documentary. “It’s that I was out of my depth, kind of. I didn’t know where I was going, how I got there.”

After Didion and Dunne had lived in the house a few years, Susan Braudy, then a contributor to Ms. magazine, dropped by for an interview. “This place was a mess,” Didion told her. Dunne chimed in, “We said, why did we buy it? The floors were covered with green wall-to-wall, and the walls were covered—” and Didion concluded “with that awful prefabricated plywood with fake wood marks and separations.” As Braudy recently recalled, “They were like the left and right hands of a pianist. Didion supplied delicate melody, while Dunne surged on with mighty supporting chords. . . . Their conversation was a two-person monologue.”

In 1978, Didion and Dunne sold the beach home and move inland, to Brentwood Park, their home for a decade before they moved back to New York. During her years in Malibu, Didion wrote most of the essays that she would include in her 1979 collection, The White Album, with its famous opening line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She made substantial revisions to the texts from the original periodicals, and in a few cases she expanded them significantly. The concluding essay, “Quiet Days in Malibu,” combines two pieces written for Esquire in 1976 that showcase the beach community not through the lives of its celebrity residents but rather through profiles of the lifeguards on the beach and the manager of a local orchid farm. The essay in the book ends with a coda describing yet another monstrous fire caused by “the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana” that haunts Los Angeles to this day.

Parts of the above introduction have been adapted from David Ulin’s “Chronology” and “Notes on the Text” in the just-published collection, Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s.

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In a way it seems the most idiosyncratic of beach communities, twenty-seven miles of coastline with no hotel, no passable restaurant, nothing to attract the traveler’s dollar. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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