Before I had any idea of who she was, I had seen Joan Didion on the stairs of the four-story Manhattan walkup where we both lived.
It was a creaky old building that had somehow not been demolished when the structures all around it had been leveled for a succession of apartment structures, in the high-fashion style imitative of Paris and London. Those buildings had elevators, parking in a courtyard, and doormen in fancy uniforms.
Our brave little structure had none of these.
Just six small one-bedroom apartments, with cramped bay windows facing a wide avenue to the west. Traffic was pretty sparse, as Park Avenue disappeared a few blocks north, replaced by narrower streets bisected by train tracks that emerged from a long tunnel leading to Grand Central station.
The passenger trains that rumbled by, far into the night, didn’t stop near where we lived, at 95th Street. They continued several more miles to their first station at 125th Street. Parallel subway lines meanwhile made ten stops in what were then modest working class neighborhoods, where most people lived in walk-up buildings like ours.
New Yorkers, notoriously, can live for years, even for generations, without knowing, or even speaking to, their neighbors. Joan was my upstairs neighbor; I had never spoken to her.
Until an early morning one wintry day when I heard a strange noise outside our apartment door. It sounded like sobbing and crying. In fact it was sobbing and crying. And a faint woman’s voice mumbling something like, “look what he did to me…please…no more…”
I unfastened our apartment door’s chain locks, and there was Joan Didion, sitting on the stairs, a handkerchief at her face, blood dripping slowly. Suddenly a man descended. I’d seen him, in fact them, before. We’d never spoken, just moved aside to let each other pass. This time he talked inaudibly to her, took her arm, and they moved slowly upwards,
I had gone inside to get some paper towels. And there I was, with them dangling uselessly. So I wiped up the blood, went inside, and put the evidence (I couldn’t have thought of it as such) to burn in our fireplace, along with piles of other paper.
In those pre-recycling days you could choose burning or “the garbage,” as everything was called. But using a fireplace added tons of soot to New York’s air, so much that after taking a morning shower you could be sure that with a few minutes outdoors, or even a few hours indoors, your skin would grow a blackish-gray layer.
“Did you hear that last night?” I asked my roommates when they woke up. “Yeah,” one of them said. “He beats her up all the time. We tried to talk to him. But he’s big and she never calls the cops…”
The man was Noel Parmentel. Still alive today, at 94, he doesn’t seem to have written anything in years. But at one point he was a sparkling lodestar in the ever-shifting cosmos of New York based writers, who specialized in venom and shape-shifting. Few were as combustible as Parmentel, who could be counted on to spew venom at the “left” as well as the “right.” It now takes a lot of energy and time to even try to unpack Leo Straus, Alexander Cockburn, William F. Buckley Jr., Christopher Hitchens, Norman Mailer, and countless other non bold-face names.
You had to unpack them, however, if you were to have a “career” in writing or editing. And the price of admission to the unpackers club was the possession of a penis.
Joan Didion didn’t (as far as most of us knew) have one. So in her mi-twenties, already with a young lifetime of eclectic reading, some brilliant college essays, and a serious curiosity about art and politics, she worked as a caption writer for a major magazine, “Vogue.”
She was also beautiful. And flirtatious. For people in the Parmentel crowd, “arm candy” mattered a lot. Who you showed up with at parties and bars was important (less so who you left with, if you left at all.)
Didion’s first books had trouble getting finished, and then getting published. But “we” (I was a very junior editorial assistant at Random House) noticed. And read them. Mostly so we could answer questions at editorial meetings about whether we thought a writer was worth pursuing. And how much he (usually) or she (rarely) would cost.
“Run River” found a publisher when Didion was 27. She had also (via the Parmentel cosmos) found a life partner, one of “our crowd” of Manhattan creatures, John Gregory Dunne. They had a deep bond, which extended into their writing, which they often shared in drafts and discussions. And they had an adopted daughter, born when Joan was 31. A gifted, troubled child, Quintana, had a very difficult life, with talented, wealthy but highly eccentric parents.
Much of Didion’s life was well-known as she lived it. She saw to that in her writing; no matter what the ostensible subject, a lot of what she wrote was her very personal reactions to the experience. (Necessary corrections and elaborations on her trajectory are explored thoroughly in Tracey Daugherty’s 2016 biography, “The Last Love Song.”)
That the then Joan Didion would someday pass into the canon, and be recognized as the great literary figure she now is, would have seemed as unlikely as would have been the election of a Black President in our lifetime.
Only once in our subsequent lives did we run across each other for more than a smile and a nod. It happened on the beach in Malibu, where I was taking a sea-shell hunting walk with my 8-year old daughter. I recognized her immediately as she came towards us, then she paused to see what my daughter, who smiled and showed some sea glass to the stranger.
I said something like, “Hi, I recognize you, you’re Joan Didion, right?”
She must have said yes. “I’m Larry Bensky, I was your downstairs neighbor at 1215 Park Avenue.”
Wordless stare. Then she moved on, as my child continued with her treasured pail and shovel. It crossed my mind to bring up Parmentel. But that seemed (and still seems) a crazy reach. So I didn’t.
Here’s how Daugherty’s biography deals with what I barely glimpsed:
“The writer Dan Wakefield described Parmentel as ‘the most politically incorrect person imaginable.’ He made a fine art of the ethnic insult, and dined out on his reputation for outrageousness. In print, he savaged the right in the pages of The Nation, then would turn around and do the same to the left in National Review.”* He was also Didion’s lover and friend in her early New York days. Parmentel is the man she stays up all night with in ‘Goodbye to All That.’ According to Parmentel, she wanted to marry him and have his babies, but he wasn’t having it. Instead, he introduced her to her future husband, though Daugherty makes Dunne sound kind of like a rebound: ‘She imagined being done with Parmentel, saying to him from now on they’d just be buddies … She thought of men she suspected of wanting her, men who liked her. Greg Dunne.’ To make matters more awkward, a character in Parmentel’s likeness crops up in three of her novels — Run River, Play It As It Lays, and A Book of Common Prayer. In that last book, which came out in 1977, 14 years after her first fictional portrayal of him, Parmentel felt that his likeness to the character Warren Bogart, the drunk, abusive ex-husband of the main character, constituted ‘a hostile act by an old friend.’ He even consulted a lawyer about filing a defamation lawsuit.”
Didion and Dunne parlayed her role as Vogue’s film critic (she had been promoted from picture caption writer) to a fling as scriptwriters, which is where they started seeing megabucks fly by in the golden years of the silver screen. Many of which escaped the clutches of the often minimally talented (but maximally agented) “stars.”
Screenwriting was seen as a way to get the money to live while writing other things.
Dunne broke through with his non-fiction chronicle that read like fiction, “The Studio,” in 1969, still the best chronicle of Hollywoodism that we have.
Didion began swimming in less rarified, story-drenched waters with her essays on the 60’s, collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in 1968, which quickly sold everywhere. They were very bankable, and like people of modest means before and since, began to spend their windfalls as fast as they could. Many houses and apartments. Lots of luxury travel. Cars.
The best way to get to know Didion quickly and pretty thoroughly is the 2017 documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.” (Netflix) I watched it and dipped into “Slouching….” at the same time.
You’ll find an astonishing prescience linked to a gripping prosody. Not enough (what would be?) to make you forget the ghastly things going on everywhere. But enough to engage you, and make you reflect. Which is all Joan Didion, who now cannot add to it, could have asked for as a legacy.
(Larry Bensky can be reached at: LBensky@igc.org.)