On a recent Saturday, I joined a minor yet devout pilgrimage to make contact with a late American icon. Taking a morning train from New York City to Hudson, I walked up the hill from the station and down Warren Street to the Stair Galleries auction house. Inside, I traced my finger over an oak and walnut desk, hesitantly, as if my touch might soil something. I caught my reflection in a series of mirrors. I stared at sofas and hardcover books as I would fine art. In the course of a day, I paid a double homage to the singular writer by spending an afternoon with her belongings, and by leaving New York and returning again.
When the auction of Joan Didion’s possessions, to be held this week, was announced in August, the press coverage thrummed with ecstatic anticipation. Fans were encouraged to “Drop Everything!” for “a chance to come as close as possible to the famed writer.” There was no one quite like Didion, the critic and novelist who embodied California style and New York precision—and now her devotees could see, perhaps even own, a pair of her legendary sunglasses. In October, the New York Times published a selection of items from the auction, noting that, for some fans, “buying something—anything—from Ms. Didion’s estate amounts to owning a piece of her life.” Among the items included, the Times notes in a very loud parenthetical, is the drop-leaf dining table at which Didion’s husband, John Dunne, died of a heart attack in 2003. Crassly, an image of the table with the estimated price to own this piece of Didion’s life is included immediately below. (It is predicted to sell for $1,000–$1,500).
Also for sale: Joan Didion’s copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty; her china sets printed with fish and flowers; an apron that says, “Maybe broccoli doesn’t like you either”; a bundle of prescription glasses; furniture, some of which appears child-sized. There are books grouped by author or subject: “Bush, Clinton and the Iraq War,” a sturdy survey of Hemingway. Then there is the art collection, beyond reach for most of the Didion fans who will travel to Hudson: the paintings, prints, and photographs by Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Rauschenberg, Vija Celmins, Patti Smith, Annie Leibovitz, and other major names, some estimated to sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Scrolling through the inventory list, I stopped at a pair of Le Creuset and Dansk bakeware. They were white—one with a yellow bottom, both with brown grease stains—and professionally photographed against an infinity white backdrop. This is the stuff of wedding registries, meant to last decades; the pair would cost close to $600 new. Here the estimated sale price was $150–$300: stoop sale prices. “Condition: expected wear from use,” the listing notes, somewhat comically, adding that it is to be “sold ‘as is,’” as though Joan Didion’s detritus, the remnants from her cooking, weren’t the point.
I admit that before the bidding began, I had a little daydream about serving from one of Didion’s pans at a dinner party. I could picture placing the Dutch oven down on the kitchen table, as if it belonged there with me. But when the bidding opened, the prices quickly climbed to $500, then $900, then to $2,000. I let my dream go.
“What we’re talking about anthropologically is contagion magic,” Arthur Fournier, a broker of archival material and rare books, tells me, lifting his copy of The Golden Bough, James George Frazer’s canonical text from 1890, into the Zoom frame as a means of citation. The concept of sympathetic or contagion magic is that an object might bear traces of those who come into contact with it; in this case, the belief that Didion’s paperweights and trash bins might hold some mark, some residual energy, of the writer. Fournier is quick to condemn Frazer’s framing of this magic as primitive and points to “a long chain of unbroken belief in civilizations all over the world” that objects might hold some “intimate proximity, which is soulful and spiritual.”
Fournier has built his career on helping estate executors place archives. To honor a subject like Didion, Fournier says, their materials “ought to stay together in as original a constellation as possible,” and collections should be housed in “forever places,” capable of preserving the materials in climate-controlled storage, staffed by professionals, for “as long as there is a Western civilization in North America.” He laughs and adds, “that might also be a kind of magical thinking.” Importantly, these spaces will also “activate” the materials, making them available to researchers and the public, yielding new knowledge.
This applies primarily to materials with informational value—like manuscripts and correspondence, some of which, in Didion’s case, is already housed at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley—not the “chattel estate” like that sold in the Stair auction. There is precedent, Fournier tells me, of selling duplicates or other material that archives won’t be interested in on a private market, to recoup some of the losses of selling or donating the research materials to libraries, or else to raise money for charity: proceeds of the Stair Galleries auction will go toward Parkinson’s research and scholarships for women in Sacramento.
When research materials are placed, and the remains are sold to the public, Fournier says, “everybody wins.” He’s not against fandom. Joan Didion was a meaningful figure to so many people, especially writers. There were private memorials after her death late last year, but the exhibition of the items, and their eventual sale, is a chance for fans to pay their respects, “ritualizing their grief collectively.”
I ask what he thinks will become of the materials after the auction. “They’re going to be stories that people get to tell,” Fournier says. “Maybe some of those stories will become tall tales. Maybe some of the objects will be lost.” But this is all right, in a way. They are where a writer might reasonably want them: “with your acolytes, or those who want to dream on you.”
In Hudson, I meet with Lisa Thomas, the fine arts specialist at Stair, who details the curation process of the sale. An archivist, hired by the family, walked through Didion’s Upper East Side apartment first. Everything “germane to the literary career” of Didion was collected, including manuscripts, correspondence, and any books with annotations or personalized dedications—though it hasn’t yet been announced who will accession this collection. Then, last spring, Thomas toured the apartment herself to select the materials for the auction. Thomas has been in the industry for thirty years, but she says entering the apartment on East 71st Street gave her goosebumps. “I couldn’t calm down in her space,” she tells me, pushing her glasses further back over her forehead, her nails painted to match her all blue outfit.
This is the busiest day so far, she says—I count twenty people around the room. It’s a Saturday, and there have just been two more articles published about the auction. “A lot of people are coming here as if it were a museum exhibition,” she says, and seems sincerely pleased. “So many people admire her, idolize her. . . . We elevate the lives of writers, musicians, and artists for expressing the ideas we all have.” She feels that the materials in the auction allow fans a different kind of human connection by encountering possessions that were “personal and meant things to her,” from family heirlooms to desk drawer ephemera. Thomas mentions the sets of blank notebooks specifically, how writers might be drawn to them as a potential “talisman for them to have on their own desks,” the blankness representing possibility for their own writing.
When she says this, I look around the two connected showrooms again, which have been painted a warm blue. I had expected a crowd of young women writers from the city, but I spot only one of the famous Lit Hub Joan Didion tote bags; the majority of visitors are graying couples and mother-daughter pairs. One older woman in purple tortoiseshell glasses interrupts Thomas’s tribute to the notebooks, their testament to Didion’s identity as an observer, to agree: she used to see Didion and Dunne in Central Park, “looking up, just looking!” Another woman tells me later that she once saw Didion being pushed in a wheelchair, that she could recognize the writer even with her winter hat on. Everyone addresses Didion and Dunne, and their daughter Quintana, by their first names. “That’s the table where John died,” I hear whispered repeatedly.
Thomas walks me through the small crowd to the adjoining room, noting that the furniture is arranged to mimic a living room and an office. Smaller objects and dishware have been placed behind glass. The Le Creuset cookware, Thomas tells me, has been washed, while the cashmere throws have not: “Those are straight from the hall closet.” The family is still deciding what to do with the clothes, “but they’re tiny; maybe they could fit you,” she says brightly, in the way women speak fiction to each other. I’m almost five inches taller than Didion at her tallest, and not nearly so small.
I ask Thomas about the low price estimates, which have already ballooned tremendously, just a few days into the two-week bidding period: the current bid for a desk clock originally estimated to sell for $100–$200 is $2,100; the three sets of blank notebooks, estimated to go for only a few hundred, are set to go for more than $1,000 each. Thomas says some predictions, like the prices of the paintings, were easier because there is so much precedent in the art market. But when it comes to the other possessions, the auction house can only list what the items are “intrinsically worth.” Stair sells oak tables like the one Didion used as her desk often, usually for a few hundred dollars; the bid on Didion’s quickly surpassed $2,000.
“It’s not standard practice,” Thomas says, to try to estimate the monetary value of the items once owned by Didion. How can they? I think back to Arthur Fournier’s descriptions of contagion magic. What is the market price of magic?
For those of us without thousands to spend on blank notebooks or hurricane lamps, there is hope for an encounter with Didion: the auction is, of course, for items culled from the second pass of the apartment; the materials that best capture her reading, drafting, and writing create a loud absence in the blue showrooms.
I ask Kate Donovan, the director of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, which holds all of Joan Didion’s literary archives thus far, about the more institutional afterlife of the writer’s other possessions. Donovan speaks lovingly about Didion’s long-standing relationship with the Bancroft Library: she’d held a student job there as an undergraduate, donated her early manuscripts and other papers to their special collections, and, in 2006, received their Hubert Howe Bancroft award. Her collections at Berkeley are “heavily used.” They include the manuscripts of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, among others, as well as some of Didion’s undergraduate work and a professor’s typewritten praise: “I believe you have truly remarkable abilities as a critic.” Donovan is complimentary of the auction; the curation of materials that illustrate so much about Didion as a person, but don’t belong in an archive, because they speak less to her writing process. “We wouldn’t collect a desk,” she says.
Bancroft seems the likely “forever place” of Didion’s remaining archives—but Donovan immediately becomes tight-lipped whenever I near the subject, declining to comment. Before an archive is officially placed, the potential recipients are often unable to speak publicly about the deal, and my suspicion is that this is the case here.
When I left Stair, realizing even the smallest of Didion’s artifacts had slipped beyond bids I could responsibly afford, it was a balm to my jealousy, knowing that the most important objects will likely be made available for viewing at a public institution in the years to come. I was willing to give up my desire for private property, knowing I could hold the manuscripts in my hands, and so could anyone who wanted to, without paying thousands of dollars to buy the right. I made a mental note, for the next time I’m in California, to visit Didion’s objects in their forever place.
Almost every person I spoke to about the auction believed Didion herself would have written a scathing account of the attendees, and the sale in general. I found myself watching people move through the artificial spaces like an Ikea showroom of the dead writer’s apartment, and I tried to see what Didion would see. Even Arthur Fournier, who spoke so earnestly about the merit of fandom, admitted to a cynical streak when it came to what he has termed “hip trophy syndrome.” I recounted this to the friend who’d accompanied me to Hudson, prompting us to speak somewhat bitterly about who might end up with the items we most wanted—the bakeware and Transformations by Anne Sexton, respectively. Of course they would be better off with us!
Still, even my own coveting of the bakeware is complicated if I’m willing to look at it closer. In a 2017 article titled “Why Joan Didion, at 82, Is Still a Beauty Icon,” Vogue reported that the writer’s “delicate five-foot frame is made up of eighty-something pounds, a result of her diet of Coca-Cola, salted almonds, soup, and cigarettes.” The article goes on to call Didion’s emaciated body “elegant,” and to echo Didion’s crediting of her success in part to her size. I find this reporting unspeakably irresponsible, glorifying what one might reasonably presume was an eating disorder. What then, does it mean, for fans of Didion to purchase the writer’s pots, pans, and serve ware? What haunts the ornate pink glass of the dessert plates? What trophy is this?
I would have liked to read Didion’s accounting of the auction. Though her troubles with food did seem to be one of few privacies she afforded herself, she must have had something to say about those more than willing to spend thousands for her and her husband’s oak, walnut, and maple desk; or eager to see the table at which her husband suffered his fatal heart attack.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion writes of eating dinner alone in the kitchen after Dunne’s death: “The dining room was too big and the table in the living room was where he had died.” Later, she recounts her attempt to deal with her late husband’s clothes. “It was part of what people did after a death, part of the ritual, some kind of duty,” she writes. She wanted to appear composed, but she couldn’t bear to part with his shoes. “I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.” This is the titular magical thinking that saturated Didion’s grief. She understood, of course, that an object’s market price had nothing to do with its value.
Now the same living room has been reassembled: her cashmere throw blanket casually draped over her couch, as if she could, at any moment, come back. The trash bins from her husband’s office are staged by her own desk; a condensing of reality, a dollhouse. Liberties have been taken.
Death fogs up the room in person; there is a certain stoic reverence, something much less sensational than the internet frenzy. The showrooms have the feeling of a wake. While the objects, perhaps, could be thought to radiate Didion’s presence, her absence is also felt in this make believe of intimacy: the dispersing ritual that comes after death. The items will never return to the Upper East Side apartment, will never again reside together, or belong to the Didion-Dunne family. “Let them become the photograph on the table,” Didion writes of the dead, in the final pages of her book on grief.
It seems to me that for those who had made the trip—the mother and school-aged daughter with matching tote bags, fawning over Guido Gruenwald’s painting of a sleeping kitten; my friend on her knees by the drop leaf table, identifying by water stains which ends Didion and Dunne must have sat at daily; those commenting, again and again, on the smallness of the sofa—owning was secondary to witnessing. We’d made a pilgrimage to say goodbye to a part of our collective history. These were stories we would get to tell ourselves. And we all know what Didion would say about that.