Annabelle Dunne shares life lessons from her aunt Joan Didion – The Hollywood Reporter

When we lost Joan Didion last week, I found myself in new territory as I joined the mourning crowd for someone beloved on a grand scale. I am part of Joan’s large, messy Irish husband’s family. She is married to my uncle, John Gregory Dunne. I think most of us like her than than John, at one point or another. She was definitely less bewildered. We love Joan for all of the same reasons that her readers do. She is very much herself, on and off the page.

Her apartment in New York is like a church, where we come to feel like the best versions of ourselves. Joan is steadfast in her domestic traditions. Chinese takeaway food at Easter; ironing paisley napkins; A glass of fragrant Hawaiian Frangipani on the table before each Christmas, sent by close friend Susanna Moore from Honolulu. The grand, cavernous corridor is covered with photographs of John, Joan, their daughter Quintana and their many past lives: while on assignment in El Salvador, on set True confession, laughed on deck in Malibu at what Earl McGrath had just said. I have always respected the way Joan lived amid so many visual reminders of the people she loved and lost. Like a daily silent test of personal will and a reminder that no one escapes tragedy.

“The history of California is the history of wills grafted onto the landscape.” Nathan Heller wrote that about Cesar Chavez, but I always felt like Joan was going to say something about her hometown. Even though I was too young to be part of her Los Angeles life, it certainly was in my imagination. In 2012, my cousin, Griffin Dunne, and I convinced Joan (and her group of fiercely loyal friends) to let us make a documentary about her life. This is an allowance she may have questioned, as it took us more than 5 years to make Joan Didion: The center will not hold, but she never wavered from her quiet patience and generosity. When we finally finished it, I thought – stupidly – that I might have read everything she’d ever written about California.

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(LR) Producer Annabelle Dunne, producer Mary Recine, director Griffin Dunne and editor Ann Collins
Desiree Navarro / WireImage

What I didn’t realize was that some of her lines had to be experienced to make full sense. This is probably why her work took on a completely different meaning than those who spent time in the places she did. If, as it is said, scent is the most powerful reminder, then Joan’s words are equivalent to Malibu, to Franklin Avenue, to California. For the summer of 2020, I rented a small house on a large wasteland in Trancas, just a short drive from where John and Joan lived. I walk down to Nicholas Canyon beach every morning, brushing past coyotes. I drove through the canyons – with names like Solstice and Encinal – in their shifting light. I’ve seen Western Malibu, in many ways, still a red state, with Neptune’s Net bike gangs clogging the Pacific Coast highway on Sunday as a fight broke out. It was still Joan’s Malibu, where the hawks swarmed, and there was no rain for 30, 60, then 90 days. Where a highway runs through the California coast still can’t claim victory for man in the original order of things.

I am happy to pass these discoveries on to Joan, who has returned to New York and will smile and nod knowingly.

Joan is bigger than anything I can put into words. She and her world are a set of organizing principles. Everything I needed to learn about life, work and love was in it. She taught me countless things. The lesson I will learn is to always keep a part of yourself just for you.

Annabelle Dunne is Joan Didion’s niece and produced the 2017 Netflix documentary. Joan Didion: The center will not hold.

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