Born: December 5, 1934;

Died: December 23, 2021.

WHEN Joan Didion, who has died aged 87, was a teenager she read Ernest Hemingway, typing out his stories “to learn how the sentences work”. Hemingway’s prose, Didion believed, was a model worth emulating: “Very direct sentences,” she told the Paris Review, “smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.” For her, as for him, the overture to a book determined what followed.

“Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one,” starts her novel Run River. “We tell our stories in order to live,” is the gateway to The White Album, a collection of essays. “The centre was not holding,” opens Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she atomised the counter-culture of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

California, home of the movies, drug-addled hippies, puppy-fat groupies, homicidal housewives, hope and hopelessness, dreams dashed and realised – mostly dashed – was her beat. Didion, Joyce Carol Oates said, has “a memorable voice, partly eulogistic, partly despairing, always in control.”

In Where I Was From (2003), she related the story of her own family, starting with her great-great-great-great-great grandmother in Virginia in 1766 and ending with the death of her mother in Monterey in 2001, two weeks shy of her ninety-first birthday. Recalling her own upbringing in The Golden State, Didion wrote, “We lived in dark houses and favoured, a preference so definite that it passed as a test of character, copper and brass that had darkened and greened...To this day I am put off by highly polished silver: it looks ‘new’.”

She died as a result of Parkinson's disease, her publisher Knopf said. "Didion was one of the country's most trenchant writers and astute observers," a statement said. "Her best-selling works of fiction, commentary and memoir have received numerous honours and are considered modern classics."

She was born in Sacramento in 1934, the elder of two children of Eduene Jerrett and Frank Reese Didion. Her mother worked as an assistant librarian while her father, who was prone to drink, depression and gambling, was for a while an insurance salesman. She attended public school and thereafter majored in English at the University of California at Berkeley, of whose literary magazine she was editor. She had what she called a “harsh Protestant ethic” which made her want to write books that were perfect.

In 1955, following in the footsteps of Sylvia Plath, she was selected by Mademoiselle magazine to be a guest fiction editor. A year later, she was offered a job at Vogue in New York though it was several years before she contributed her first signed piece – ‘Jealousy: Is It a Curable Disease?’. Run River, set among the ranch families of her native Sacramento Valley, appeared in 1963. Reviews were mixed and sales disappointing.

She married fellow writer and journalist John Gregory Dunne in 1964 and began to produce the kind of long-form pieces that would become her hallmark.

Slouching to Bethlehem (1968) included portraits of an ageing and ailing John Wayne on the set of his 165th movie and the Los Angeles wedding industry, an account of a court case involving Joan Baez – “a personality before she was entirely a person” – and a riff on Howard Hughes, “the last private man”. Didion took the role of a recorder, showing not telling, soaking up dialogue and reproducing it as if in a novel.

Unusually for a reporter, she disliked asking questions, relying on her interviewees to fill the silence. Everything was germane; the weather, what people are wearing, who says what to whom, what people eat and how. Virtually from the moment she could write she kept a notebook, in part as an aide memoir but principally to remind her of how she felt a particular time, to what end she could not predict. “What,” she once asked herself, “is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook?”

In 1969, she and Dunne adopted a baby girl, whom they named Quintana. The following year, she published her second novel, Play It As It Lays, which was well-received and nominated for a National Book Award. With her husband, she co-wrote the screenplay of The Panic In Needle Park, starring Al Pacino and Kitty Winn. More screenplays followed, many of which were stillborn, but they were always secondary to her own work. In 1972, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a consequence of her temporary blindness several years earlier. Invariably, photographs show her wearing dark, outsized glasses.

Alternating novels with collections of essays, books now began to appear at regular intervals: A Book of Common Prayer (1977), The White Album (1979), Democracy (1984), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992). Revered for her ability unsentimentally to capture the mood of America, she was also derided as a “neurasthenic Cher”. In 2003, Dunne died of a heart attack. Two years later, Quintana died, too, of acute pancreatitis. Both losses formed the core of her memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, which received the National Book Award for Non-Fiction and was adapted for stage by David Hare with Vanessa Redgrave portraying Didion. In 2013, at a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal.

Mining her oeuvre and her country’s chaotic past, Didion’s valedictory titles were South and West (2017), excerpts from her notebook, and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021), which comprised previously uncollected essays. In the former, she recalled a trip to New Orleans where the air was fetid with sex and death and where rotting bananas harboured tarantulas and nature could not be tamed by tarmac and concrete. Many years earlier, Didion asked herself the question that all writers must eventually ask themselves: why did she write? “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking,” she replied, “what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Alan Taylor