Our Joan Didion
Hometown honors celebrated writer
By Gary Delsohn
Joan Didion, the trailblazing Sacramento-born writer who died a year ago, is getting her due in her hometown.
Didion, 87, was one of her generation’s most celebrated writers. But except for a white mansion with a wrap-around front porch at 2000 22nd St., there are few visible signs she ever lived here.
The reasons aren’t clear. Sacramento has always been skittish about boasting on its celebrities, and a number of Didion fans believe she never cared for the place.
They point to comments made in her writing and elsewhere—“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento,” for instance—and how she couldn’t wait to flee after graduation from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1952.
But many ambitious young people feel constrained by their hometowns. There is ample evidence she cared deeply for the city and its surroundings.
After moving to Los Angeles and New York, she regularly returned to Sacramento to finish her books. She wrote, “My family had come to Sacramento in the 19th Century… . It formed everything I ever think or ever do or am.”
Now some residents are determined to show the world Sacramento will always love Joan Didion.
There will be two striking statues of her on display, one at the city’s central library Downtown, another at Sacramento City College, where she took classes before moving to UC Berkeley. Sac City will establish a permanent writing scholarship in her name.
This is happening primarily thanks to former public relations man Maurice Read and Gregg Lukenbill, a longtime associate of Read who brought the Kings to town.
Read and Didion were pals at Sac City and kept in touch. One keepsake: a letter Didion sent March 17, 1987, after she read a magazine profile that mentioned the suicide of Read’s daughter.
“I just sat here and cried—how could it have been, how could it be, how must it have been and how must it be still,” Didion wrote to Read.
She went on to talk about deaths in her own family, including the suicide of Stephen Dunne, youngest brother of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.
“It is the hardest, almost impossible kind of death to deal with, to think about. We have had a lot of deaths in the family, even a murder… and none stay as raw as suicide. All I can say is that I’m sorry I didn’t know at the time, and I send you my love.”
Read has fond memories of his friendship. Nights studying at the library. Driving out to the country and drinking beer with Didion and friends. Joan stayed in the car, fearful of snakes. “Every so often we’d go over, she’d roll down the window, and she’d take a sip of beer,” Read recalls.
Troubled that his old friend wasn’t properly celebrated here, Read enlisted history lover Lukenbill, vice president and driving force behind the Sacramento Historical Society. They began to raise money. It poured in quickly, more than $100,000 in 60 days.
Support came from County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy and Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, the Sacramento Historical Society, Griffin Dunne, Angelo and Sofia Tsakopoulos, U.S. Rep. Ami Bera, members of the Didion family, Matt Bult and the Thiebaud Foundation, the Burnett and Mimi Miller family, Mark Friedman, Marci Friedman, Sotiris and Matina Kolokotronis, the Susan McClatchy Foundation, Phyllis Hammer, Dave Luchetti, Joe Gibson and Ruth Rosenberg, Sandra Bauer and Tom Naygrow.
Lisa Reinertson, a Northern California sculptor, was commissioned to create two life-sized statues of Didion. Lukenbill approached Kings ownership and came away with $10,000 and use of Golden 1 Center for a Didion celebration and November unveiling. Her birthday, Dec. 5, is Joan Didion Day in Sacramento.
Here’s Read with more potential news: “A felicitous result of our efforts has been to attract the attention of Joan and John Gregory Dunne’s heirs. They had recently started a search to find a home for the papers and archives of their famous relatives. When they saw the enthusiastic community response to Sacramento’s celebration of Joan, they quickly included Sacramento as a possible site for the Didion/Dunne papers.”
City officials, Read says, are exploring the purchase of the old U.S. Post Office at Ninth and I streets. It could house the Didion/Dunne papers plus Sacramento’s extensive and unique collection of historic documents, photographs, maps and artifacts, material now crammed into a substandard building prone to flooding.
Whether this happens remains to be seen, but I have long been a Joan Didion fan and love this story. I like Lukenbill’s explanation of why she is the perfect ambassador for the city, its history and aspirations.
“She was a fifth generation Sacramentan, if you can believe that,” he says. “And she was hell-bent on accuracy and the truth. In the world we’re living in now, where brainwashing with social media is the norm, how is she not the perfect person to represent this city?”
Gary Delsohn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.