On a visit once to her family’s home in the corner of California where she grew up, Joan Didion opened a drawer crammed full of her old things and took an inventory.
“A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen,” she wrote in her essay, “On Going Home.” “A letter of rejection from The Nation … Three teacups hand-painted with cabbage roses and signed ‘E.M.,’ my grandmother’s initials.”
She felt moved to take stock because during the visit she had been “paralyzed” by meeting her past “at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard.”
Now the past (in the form of furniture, artwork and books) of this legendary writer and style icon, who died last year at age 87, is going up for auction, and the stir the estate sale has created could not be bigger.
“We have not had this kind of interest before,” said Lisa Thomas, director of the Fine Arts Department at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, which is handling the auction. “She was an icon in several different arenas; a literary personality, a documentarian of American culture at significant points in our history and a personal style icon. I think that’s why her reach is so big.”
Fans of the author who penned such seminal essay collections 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 Hemingway hardbacks, not to mention a rattan chair where she often sat when photographers came to take her portrait.
The live auction will take place on Nov. 16 but online bidding has begun, and Thomas says not a single lot has failed to attract bids – even when it consists of blank writing notebooks Didion didn’t get around to using or books available at most bookstores. One lot of 13 journals had reached $2,500 in bidding at press time.
“The blank notebooks have taken on a life of their own,” Thomas said.
And like the many books on the block that Didion owned, the notebooks will go home 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 is significantly more enthusiasm for the Didion belongings, which belies economics.
“The intrinsic value is not huge but what we’re seeing already with bidding online, things are way outbidding what their innate value is,” Thomas said. “People want an object that came from her home, that she touched and used and that represents her.”
Among the items likely to sell for the highest price are artworks by Richard Diebenkorn and Edward Ruscha, which at press time had already reached $28,000 and $11,000 in pre-auction bidding. There are also photos by Patti Smith and Annie Liebovitz, as well as an iconic portrait of Didion posing in front of her Corvette Stingray.
Didion, who was born in 1934, wrote essays, fiction and movie scripts. She was the rare woman included in the pack of writers known under the moniker the New Journalism, a movement that included Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, and which was characterized by bold, immersive, personal writing combined with nonfiction reporting.
The hubbub created by the auction may reflect Didion’s ties to both coasts, which emerged in her writing. A native Californian who attended Berkeley, she wrote memorably and presciently about her home state. Her 1970 novel, “Play It As It Lays,” features a Hollywood actress grappling with the ennui of modern life against a backdrop of the arid, unforgiving Mojave Desert. She also famously wrote about hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and the Santa Ana winds.
“Didion never forgot she was a Westerner,” wrote Tracy Daugherty, in his 2015 biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song.” “In the Sacramento Valley of her childhood, rattlesnakes were common. They were part and parcel of the paradise her ancestors yearned for.”
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 city that saw her clothes and her signature sunglasses as connoting an inimitable style. Indeed, the items up for sale at the auction come from the New York apartment where she spent her final years.
In an essay about her time in Manhattan called “Goodbye to All That,” she wrote, “Now when New York comes back to me it comes in hallucinatory flashes,” adding she wore two perfumes when she lived in New York and now “the slightest trace of either can short-circuit my connections for the rest of the day.”
Those geographic bonds make her particularly attractive to the legions of writers and readers in both places.
“I always keep her books on the shelf, within reach,” Tess Taylor, a poet, critic and native Californian, told CNN.
Taylor, who wrote about Didion for CNN Opinion last year after her death, said certain public figures have a kind of “charisma” that people want to be close to them – and to their belongings.
“We feel this way about artists,” Taylor said in an interview. “Whatever they hold and touch is kind of sacred.”
Taylor said her personal belongings – including auction lots of period cookbooks and her favorite novels – provide “windows into a mindset, into a time.” And they represent a woman many aspiring writers idolized, absorbing her words as instructions, and the photographic portraits as models for being. As Didion said during a talk entitled “Why I Write,” she defined herself not as “a ‘good’ writer or a ‘bad’ writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”
She was the subject of a 2017 documentary called “The Center Will Not Hold,” directed by her nephew, the actor Griffin Dunne, whose father, author and TV personality Dominick Dunne, was Didion’s brother-in-law.
Long before succumbing to Parkinson’s last December, Didion had witnessed the harrowing death of her husband as well as her daughter, and her memoirs on grief, including “The Year of Magical Thinking,” became bibles for the bereaved.
In that essay about sifting through old things at her family’s California homestead that helped launch her glittering literary career, Didion eventually shuts the drawer.
“There is no … solution for letters of rejection from The Nation and teacups hand-painted in 1900,” Didion wrote in “On Going Home.”
But there will be a solution for the IBM electric typewriter she’d kept on filing cabinets in her home office in New York – some lucky literary fan will soon have it, embodying one of many ways that Joan Didion and her aura will live on.