Goodbye to All That: Joan Didion Estate Hits the Auction Block

People are paying top dollar to get their hands of things that were in Joan Didion’s hands—books, art, dishwater, furniture and more
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The auctioning off of legendary journalist and novelist Joan Didion’s personal effects began at online auction house Bidsquare on Wednesday.

The Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking author, whose work both explored and became intrinsically woven into the cultural fabric of 60s and 70s California, died in December at age 87. The live auction, titled, “An American Icon: Property from the Collection of Joan Didion,” saw bidders putting in offers on her antique furniture, art, desk ornaments, typewriters, and books.

For a writer who used her words sparingly, it was an unreal experience to digitally sift through her unwieldy worldly possessions. A pair of her iconic oversized sunglasses—faux tortoiseshells by French fashion house Celine—went for $27,000.

“They’re non-prescription, so you could wear them proudly anywhere,” Bidsquare vouchsafed to potential buyers before the bidding began, as Vogue reports. The author, an unlikely style icon, was so fond of wearing oversized sunglasses that she starred in an ad campaign for Celine in 2015.

If you don’t have that kind of cash, Lot 487, containing three pairs of sunglasses, including Bottega Veneta, had a top bid of $4,250 last we looked.

Obviously, Didion had plenty of books. Lot 118, containing the works of women poets (Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton seem to be chief among them), sold for $7,000. Similar book lots, such as one featuring books by John Berryman and poet Robert Lowell, sold for $5,500. And, even though his reputation and legacy have seen a massive and perhaps well-deserved reversal of fortune in recent years, a large lot of Philip Roth books sold for $4,250. Could be Joan was a fan, could also be she was just interested in studying the devolution of a person to a garbage person and the impact on their writing.

But forget books—a much-coveted collection of 13 blank notebooks sold for $11,000, as, whimsically, a “group of shells and beach pebbles” that decorated the fireplace mantle in Didion’s home, sold for $7,000. And two of her IBM electric typewriters went for $5,500 and $6,000.

What about art? An etching by Robert Rauschenberg called “L.A. Flakes—11,000” sold for $27,000. While that one shows impeccable taste, a very un-Didion etching of a kitten nestled in bedsheets, called Guido Gruenwald: Sleeping Kitten, sold for $9,500.

Although the writer ended her life in New York, she was born in Sacramento and spent a significant amount of her life in California. One of her most famous essays, “Goodbye to All That,” is about the decision to move from New York to California. She described taking a friend to a party in New York where she had promised him “new faces.” Apparently, however, “the last time where he had been taken to a party where he had been promised ‘new faces,’ there had been fifteen people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men.”

Didion married writer John Donne in New York in 1964. They promptly moved to Los Angeles and stayed there for twenty years. “She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more,” according to The New Yorker. “Their [Saturday Evening] Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well.”

Didion wrote the acclaimed Slouching Towards Bethlehem 1968, a collection of magazine pieces about California, and in 1970 the novel Play It As It Lays, whose female protagonist’s story begins as she is recovering from a nervous breakdown in a hospital in Los Angeles.

An auction of Didion’s effects is fitting, as the writer had a close and exacting relationship to her things. She kept a travel list taped inside her closet door in Malibu for years so that she could quickly pack whenever she needed to leave for an assignment. The list was printed in her 1979 collection of nonfiction, The White Album, where she analyzed it at length.

“Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture,” Didion wrote. “It should be clear that this was a list made by someone who prized control, yearned after momentum, someone determined to play her role as if she had the script, heard her cues, knew the narrative.”

One of Didion’s lists truly illustrated her belief in getting right down to the essential marrow of things.

To Pack and Wear:

  • 2 skirts
  • 2 jerseys or leotards
  • 1 pullover sweater
  • 2 pair shoes
  • stockings
  • bra
  • nightgown
  • robe
  • slippers
  • cigarettes
  • bourbon

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