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Why Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne Are One of History’s Greatest Couples

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Few things are as challenging as dating an artist. And when there are two in one relationship, that challenge multiplies by a factor of 10.

I’m speaking from hard-earned firsthand experience. A stubborn writer myself, I’ve dated all stripes of male artist: novelists, writer-directors, a painter, a sculptor, more than one creator of a TV show. And in each case there has been that unavoidable, essential clash: the struggle, while giving birth to the latest meisterwerk, to make room for that singular person you would rather not live without. It’s a locked wrestling match between the beast that gives meaning to your life and that other human who keeps showing up expecting attention. Sharing your life can seem impossible while pitching yourself headfirst into often painfully insular work; and, anyway, the oversize creative ego is defined by a fierce independence. Can you hold onto that vital stuff, the spirit that feeds you, while living in sync with someone else?

I’m convinced that all the answers lie in the 40-year marriage of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. They had it figured out. Their pairing, at least from a distance, looks like a miracle: two renowned, equally neurotic writers joined in mutual adoration and deep respect for each other’s work. Across decades of essays and features and novels and screenplays, they were each other’s closest literary confidante, each other’s first, most trusted reader and editor. Fierce equals, friends called them “the Didion-Dunnes.”

They travelled together constantly, at least in their younger years — the sketchier the location the better — following each other on assignment, sometimes for weeks at a time, both scrawling notes all the while. It sounds to me like stone-cold bliss.

Didion and Dunne first met in New York in the ‘50s, while he was a writer for Time and she was a young editor at Vogue. He was a strapping and outspoken Connecticutian from a wealthy Irish-Catholic family while she was small, bird-like, and whisper-quiet, a fifth-generation California girl. They struck up a quick friendship, and, after a few years, finally fell in love while talking over the manuscript of her first book. Because what, for a writer (or any kind of artist), is more intoxicating than someone who so thoroughly understands what you’re trying to do, the piece of yourself you’re determined to push out into the world?

Somehow it didn’t matter much that Didion, a lightning bolt of New Journalism, made her name first (it wasn’t until the ‘80s that Dunne’s reputation caught up). Until then, as a friend of theirs put it, Dunne had been happy to play “the ideal writer’s wife.” A New York Times profile from that time retells a story circulated by their friends in which Dunne announces, “Ran into Jesus today… He loves Joan’s work!”

They had the same appetite for pushing themselves — as when, on their first day in El Salvador, Dunne took Didion on an excursion to the body dump. Whenever in a new town, they made sure to visit the courthouse, for kicks and inspiration. Neither shied away from Experience with a capital E — and sharing those experiences made them no less heroic. They could be together while each kept their independent sense of self and mind. When they actually collaborated — on screenplays from The Panic in Needle Park to the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born (which printed them money) — it was to earn the financial freedom for each to return to their own writing.

Neither seemed to feel reduced by the other’s accomplishments, as sometimes happens between artists, naturally competitive. Instead, they enlarged each other. They shared it all. The work was in the air between them; their leisure time was happily spent mapping out new projects. I remember reading that they kept personalized notepads around the house, at various checkpoints, in case an idea should strike, the apartment populated by his-and-hers fragments of future great ideas. Over dinners at home, they’d talk about each other’s latest books — eight bestsellers between them. Just as they travelled so well together, they also understood how to be narcissists and recluses (read: writers) alongside one another. “We understand each other’s self-absorption,” Dunne said in an interview. “That’s the only way we can survive.”

Along with everything else, they also had in common the angst so endemic to their profession, paired with the requisite desire to catalogue every anxiety. He wrote a thinly fictional account of his struggles with infidelity; she wrote of her own marital doubts, her migraines, and her crippling bouts of depression. By the early ‘80s they’d been christened in the media as “the First Family of Angst.” But, you know, the angst worked for them. As one critic wrote, “For depressed people they certainly laugh a lot.”

The couple had married, back in 1964, at a Spanish mission in San Juan Bautista, California, the one where Kim Novak falls from the bell tower in Vertigo. Didion wore black glasses throughout the ceremony and, famously frail, cried through the whole thing. But all that emotion was, at the same time, tempered by something cooler: a conspiratorial spirit. “As we walked down the aisle we promised each other that we could get out of this next week and not wait until death did us part,” Dunne later wrote. Even in subscribing to something as traditional as marriage — this was before the counterculture, after all — they found a way to inject it with a shared sense of freedom, a secret scheme only they were in on. Their partnership was not a done deal, a static thing. It was always, as Didion put it, “an improvisation.” They seemed to approach each other as they approached their work: always looking closely, always taking note. Maybe that was their answer.

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