Two plain couches covered in white slipcovers greet visitors walking into the Stair Galleries auction space in Hudson, NY. Despite their unassuming looks, the couches once resided in the living room of Joan Didion, a renowned American writer. Across the room, a pair of iconic dark Celine sunglasses emanates an aura of cool aloofness—Didion’s signature attitude.
On Nov. 16, the sunglasses and pair of couches sold for $27,000 and $9,000, respectively, in an auction of Didion’s personal items. The auction, titled “An American Icon: Property from the Collection of Joan Didion,” featured 224 items including household objects, furniture, fine art, prints and books. The $1,920,700 raised in total by the auction will be donated to causes supporting research and care for Parkinson’s Disease in New York and Sacramento City College’s scholarship for women writers, according to the Stair Galleries website.
Didion grew up in Sacramento, CA, before moving to New York at the end of her life, and passed away last December from complications related to Parkinson’s Disease. The collection reflects her California roots that followed her from Sacramento to Manhattan, according to Stair Galleries fine arts specialist Lisa Thomas.
“California was so much a part of her that when she came to New York, I think she wanted to bring that sort of light, bright shimmer of the California coastline to her New York apartment,” Thomas said. “The white slipcovers, the floral upholstery—the apartment was light and bright. I think that reflected the California in her and she wanted to live in that sort of space.”
The collection was open to the public during the first two weeks of November, drawing an enormous response, according to Thomas.
“It’s been a bit of a pilgrimage for people who want to come and see (the collection) in person and feel the aura of Joan Didion in the space,” Thomas said. “It’s been overwhelming for some people. We’ve had some people moved to tears, and everybody has been pretty emotional about it.”
Didion’s work spoke to readers across generations, ranging from those who grew up in California in the ’60s and ’70s to a younger generation who knew her as a style icon and a strong female figure in the male-dominated New Journalism literary movement.
Though much of her writing is non-fiction, Didion’s subjective commentary and distinctly perceptive personality shine through. Never the center of attention but seemingly omnipresent, her ever-critical yet open-minded voice brings to life the realities of America’s cultural epicenters in the mid-20th century. Through her writing, Didion preserved the unsettled energy present during a time of societal tumult and constant change in America for future generations to read about.
Reading her work now invokes a kind of bittersweet nostalgia for a time before we were alive, distinct from that of other New Journalism authors. The rose-colored tint that many authors paint the hippie movement in is wiped away by Didion’s cynicism. Unlike other New Journalism authors—for example, Eve Babitz’s obsession with men, or Hunter S. Thompson’s drug usage and misogyny—Didion perceptively captures the world in a manner clouded only by a lens of relatable anxiety. Didion’s sense of self that shines through her essays makes her writing read like the journal of a close friend who observes every moment with a remarkably keen eye.
“It’s very emotional for people,” Thomas said. “When you revere an idealized artist, like a writer, you become sort of emotionally attached to the books and the person. I think a lot of the interest has come from that.”
The auction provided an opportunity for fans of Didion to get a glimpse of what lies behind her famously shy, standoffish public persona.
“I think it reveals another side to her than a lot of people were aware of,” Thomas said. The items in the collection look more like something you would see in your grandmother’s living room than what one might expect from an acclaimed member of the intellectual elite. “When you see her personal belongings, and how they looked in her apartment in her personal space, you get the sense of her personal side—more relaxed, a sense of humor.”
All of the furnishings and items in the apartment setup are humble and cozy, revealing Didion’s down-to-earth character. Although it is difficult to know what famous people are like in everyday life, seeing Didion’s home gives visitors insight into the personal side that laid behind her public persona.
When curating the collection and display, each item was carefully selected to peel back a layer of Didion’s story, according to Thomas. The kitchen items—Le Creuset cookware, a kitchen table and chairs, Santa Catalina cookbooks—reveal Didion’s love for cooking; the items used for entertaining guests—porcelain, silver—show her affinity for entertaining. Viewers walking through the staged living room can easily imagine Didion perched in the rattan chair with a book.
“We wanted to…choose items from the collection that we could weave together to tell her story about who she was, where she was from, what was important to her and how she lived in her personal space,” Thomas said.
The space also features many famous pieces of art, including works by Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, Jennifer Bartlett and Cy Twombly. Julian Wasser’s recognizable photographs of Didion and her Stingray were hung next to Annie Liebovitz’s portrait of Didion and her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. On a desk corner, two Patti Smith prints inscribed to Didion leaned against the wall. They sold for a combined $45,000.
The dining room table where Didion’s husband, Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack one evening during dinner is particularly evocative. Didion writes about Dunne’s death in “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Seeing the table in material form, rather than on paper, reminds viewers of Didion’s life that existed outside the pages of her writing.
Thomas’ personal favorite piece from the collection, a Vija Celmins print titled “Ocean Surface,” pairs well with Didion’s essay, “Holy Water,” relaying the importance of water to Didion. The image shows just the surface of the ocean; everything beneath is concealed.
“It kind of represents what we saw of Joan Didion as a public persona, which was the surface of the ocean and then…there’s so much going on below the sea that we never know about,” Thomas said. “I feel like that really encapsulates who Joan Didion was.”
Although anyone who never met Didion during her life never will, viewing Didion’s collection—the photographs, the furniture, the sunglasses— makes the mystery that shrouds every famous figure slightly less mysterious: a dip below the surface of Didion’s outer image.