NEW YORK (TBEN) – Joan Didion’s precision with words reached even to words she could never hear, such as the one used during a small private service this spring at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
“She left very clear directions as to what she wanted to do on that shift,” said the Very Rev. Patrick Malloy Wednesday evening, at the start of a memorial tribute at the cathedral. “She wanted it to be very short and she specified the texts she wanted us to use, all from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which is what you would expect from an Episcopalian who wrote a book called ‘A Book of Common Prayer ‘. ‘”
The lyrics she chose were “remarkably stern,” Malloy explained, and they were not from the contemporary edition of the Book of Common Prayer, but from an older, more ornate print. It was Didion’s way of reminding everyone that the sounds of the words and their rhythm meant as much as the words themselves.
A master of rhythm and of the meaning of the unsaid, Didion was remembered on Wednesday as an inspiring and intrepid writer and valued, demanding and sometimes eccentric friend, the kind who didn’t like to talk on the phone unless asked if who is serving chocolate souffles at a kid’s birthday party because she didn’t know how to bake a cake.
Hundreds were presented with programs and laminated hand-held fans as they entered the cathedral on a summer late afternoon — the first day of fall — where the scale of the building was too large to cost the air conditioning. Carl Bernstein, Donna Tartt and Fran Lebowitz were among those in attendance, along with family members, friends and editors and other colleagues from The New Yorker and its latest publishing house, Penguin Random House.
Didion, who died last December at age 87, left no immediate family behind: Her husband, co-author and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne died in 2003, followed less than two years later by their only child, Quintana Roo. But the speakers spanned much of her life, from Sacramento and Malibu in California to the Upper Side East of Manhattan, from her years as a child already preoccupied with language to her heyday as an extraordinarily astute observer of contemporary society to her time as an elder sage and prototype for younger authors.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, here in his capacity as a contemporary and a resident of Sacramento, remembered Didion as a close friend of his older sister Nancy and a frequent dinner guest. She was a gifted and ‘pensive’ girl, cerebral for her age, who ‘think and write and think and write, all over again’. Former California governor Jerry Brown also shared Sacramento memories and of Didion as a college friend of his sister’s through a recorded video feed.
“She and Joan smoked together and talked about the novels they read,” he said. “Years later, my sister’s most vivid memory was of Joan coming down for breakfast in a pink chenille robe, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking cigarettes.”
Calvin Trillin was reading from Didion’s scathing coverage of the 1988 political conventions, when she famously commented that in high school she preferred to be around people hanging out at gas stations—a setting otherwise not invoked at a ceremony. which was more populated by tales of parties, literary crafts and the Rolling Stones.
Vanessa Redgrave, her white hair tied back and further covered by a dark fedora, read from Didion’s famous grief memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which Redgrave had performed onstage years ago while Didion at each show. sat in the wings. .
Didion’s longtime friend and co-author Susanna Moore has distilled decades of conversation into some of Didion’s aphorisms: “Evil is the absence of seriousness.” “Crazy is never interesting.” “I would drop this whole idea of knowing the truth.” Actor Susan Traylor, a childhood friend of Roo, said she was homesick when she spent Christmas in Hawaii with the Didions.
“Without raising the issue, she (Joan Didion) reached out and stroked my head,” Traylor recalled. “What you need to know is that your mom told me she let you miss Christmas at home because she thought it would be good for you to know that you could do without her.” And I was fine.”
The show began with reflections on the Book of Common Prayer and ended in secular writings, with Patti Smith performing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” Backed by Tony Shanahan on acoustic guitar, Smith sang with a piercing, steady clip, as if mimicking the cadence of Didion’s prose.
Toll for the tormented whose wounds cannot be cared for
For the countless confused, accused, abused, tense and worse
And for every hanged person in the whole wide universe
And we stared at the bells of freedom that flashed
Smith repeated the last line, but changed “we” to “them”. She ended with a single spoken word: “Joan.”