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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

The Last Love Song

BOOK: The Last Love Song
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Photos

Copyright Page

 

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Making a book is the lighting of a candle.

This candle burns in memory of

Jo Anne Daugherty

Robert Homler

Christina Ward

 

Acknowledgments

Kit Ward, Colleen Mohyde, and Michael Homler made this book possible. My admiration for them extends well beyond their professional skills. Until the very end, Kit sacrificed her time for others, and Colleen and Michael stepped up with grace and fortitude during moments of great difficulty.

Ted Leeson and Marjorie Sandor taught me to write better sentences. They are not responsible for the embarrassments that remain on the page. Elizabeth Wyckoff was an indispensable researcher. Keith Scribner enthusiastically shared his ideas on the American dream with me. Jon Lewis was a fine companion through the filmic and historical back alleys of Los Angeles. Kerry Ahearn keeps alerting me to the whereabouts of the Dead Father—a way of finding true north. I am grateful to the staffs of the Bancroft Library, the New York Public Library, the UCLA Library, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and the libraries at Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, and Texas State University for their help. Laura Wyss and Elizabeth Seramur conducted the photo research and editing. Dinah Lenney and Lyle Wilen made marvelous tour guides. The St. Martin's team, particularly Lauren Jablonski (tireless!), Carol Edwards, Meg Drislane, Amelie Littell, Steve Snider, Steven Seighman, Yolanda Pluguez, Dori Weintraub, Ivan Lett, Jessica Lawrence, Emily Walters, as well as William McNaull and Eric Rayman on the legal team, handled the book with extraordinary care during the copyediting and production process.

I am grateful to the creative writing students at Oregon State University. For nearly three decades, they have energized me with their vitality and curiosity.

For his help with this book and for care and feeding, I am beholden to Tim Steele. I dearly miss him.

Below are some of the people who were kind enough to share their memories and thoughts, or point me in helpful directions. Any misunderstandings or errors of interpretation are mine, not theirs. For their extra generosity, I'd like to acknowledge Noel Parmentel, Rosa Rasiel, Dan Wakefield, Eve Babitz, Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Josh and Foumi Greenfeld, Shirley Streshinsky, and Sean Day Michael. Their insights and stories were crucial to my understanding of the narrative. For permission to print previously unpublished material, my thanks to Philip and Amy Robbins, Margi Fox, and Roger W. Straus III.

Also, my gratitude to Don Bachardy, Weston Blalock, Christopher Buckley, William Burg, Janet Burroway, Phyllis Butler, Norman Carby, Jon Carroll, Larry Colton, Anna Connolly, Amy Cooper, Meghan Daum, Jim Desmond, Julie Didion, Willard Dixon, James Fallows, Carol Felsenthal, Jodie Ferrara-Adler, Gael Greene, Karl Taro Greenfeld, Linda Hall, Joan Haug-Smith, Carol Herman, Alex Ives, Boris Kachka, Sue Kaufman, Brian Kellow, Jonathan Lethem, Kel Munger, John Newhagen, Madeleine Noble, Joyce Carol Oates, Ivan Obolensky, Jay Parini, Harriet Polt, Claire Potter, John Ridland, Jill Schary Robinson, Gabriel Rummonds, Anna Schneider, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Nora Sheehan, Gary Snyder, Matthew Specktor, Ben Stein, Susan Straight, Rob Turner, David Ulin, Paul VanDevelder, George Vazques, Lois Wallace, and Sam Waterston.

Finally, my love and thanks to Don and Debra Daugherty, Charlie and Joey Vetter, Jeanne Sandor and the rest of her lovely extended family, Willie and Alice, and most especially to Marjorie Sandor and Hannah Crum.

 

The consciousness of the human organism is carried in its grammar.

—Joan Didion,

A Book of Common Prayer

I think it is fair to say that the West has lost its place in the national imagination because, by some sad evolution, the idea of human nature has become the opposite of what it was when the myth of the West began, and now people who are less shaped and constrained by society are assumed to be disabled and dangerous. This is bad news for the American psyche, a fearful and antidemocratic idea, which threatens to close down change. I think it would be a positively good thing for the West to assert itself in the most interesting terms, so that the whole country must hear and be reanimated by dreams and passions it has too casually put aside and too readily forgotten.

—Marilynne Robinson,

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.

—Sidney Howard,

Gone With the Wind
screenplay

The whole cosmology of America tends toward the West … the quenching of the sun in the sea.

—Christopher Hitchens,

“It Happened on Sunset”

 

Preface: Narrative Limits

One afternoon in late September 2011, I was riding in a cab from Central Park West to JFK, reading Christopher Hitchens's profile of Joan Didion in
Vanity Fair
magazine, when the cabbie, who had been muttering about the punishing price of gas, said wretchedly, “I don't know what happened to this country.”

The cabbie was a transplanted Iranian. He complained about America's “wallowing” in ten-year remembrances of 9/11. Christopher Hitchens was dying. Didion would soon publish a book,
Blue Nights,
about the near impossibility of surviving everyone she loved. In prepublication interviews, she had hinted that this might be her swan song. “I used to say I was a writer, but it's less up front now. Maybe because it didn't help me,” she told
Publishers Weekly.

Ten years earlier, by coincidence, she had published
Political Fictions
on the day hijacked commercial airliners destroyed New York's World Trade Center towers and a portion of the Pentagon.
Political Fictions
excoriated America's ruling class: the politicians, the moneyed, and the media courting them while claiming to expose their corruption. Predictably, the book drew fire from political and media enclaves exploiting the events of 9/11 to censor speech or solidify their influence.

Coincidence is not something Didion much credited. And now, ten years later, within weeks of the 9/11 anniversary ceremonies, she was about to offer her account of the death of her daughter. An account of what it was like to leave no one behind. A totting up of the end.

Coincidence?

I don't know what happened to this country.

Already, from the Hitchens piece and other well-placed profiles, it was apparent that
Blue Nights
would not be read solely as a meditation on private loss. Given the timing, and Didion's reputation as a public pulse taker, her readers would receive the book as an elegy for everything those of us now living had experienced, including, perhaps, books themselves.

We are not adept at facing the ends of things in this country. But in the photograph accompanying the article on her daughter's demise, Didion did not try to evade the camera or conceal from it her physical and psychological losses. She confronted the viewer directly, the face of grief and desiccation. In shadow, against a creamy white couch, her right hand, veined and curled, resembled charred bone. And yet the viewer knew the shot was precisely posed in the manner of Irving Penn's old fashion layouts, for which Didion used to write captions—a sort of glamorous horror still. Who was she, really?

In the cab to JFK that day, I was not just idly considering Didion. In recent years, I had become—by coincidence, I sometimes thought, though I also distrust the concept—a literary biographer, and I had turned my ear to her. She was a powerful voice for my generation. Early in my career I had decided there was no point to literary biography if it did not seek to grasp what was said, and why, in a certain time. Unavoidably, this approach made the biographer an elegist, writing lamentations.

1

In the preface to
Slouching Towards Bethlehem,
her first nonfiction collection, published in 1968, Didion had written, “This book is called
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem … have reverberated in my inner ear.” Reportedly, in the preface to
Blue Nights,
she had written, “This book is called
Blue Nights
because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise.” The lines' echoes forged the link between her early career, when the culture's center seemed not to be holding and she was perhaps our keenest observer of the chaos, and her late writings, when she, like the readers who had matured with her, noticed her physical decline along with cataclysmic cultural shifts. Didion's readers knew
Blue Nights
would feature an idiosyncratic appraisal of grief. Additionally, her genius for and uncanny luck with timing inclined the book to be not just a harrowing lullaby but our generation's last love song.

A large claim. Yet a woman who had entitled one of her books
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
and another
Democracy
had never shied away from making or accepting large claims, including the quiet insistence in her work that she had always spoken for us.

By nailing the naughtiness of American politics on the day two of its physical symbols were attacked, and by keening ten years later, exploring, as a blind person touches strange new skin, the mechanisms of mourning and irretrievable loss, she had told us who we are, who we were. She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired: the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death. At its best, her prose surfaced suppressed emotions, causing in the reader vertigo, déjà vu, and yes, even the sensation of coincidence: the now and to come, the hidden and known, overlapping like warm and cold Pacific waves. So conceived,
coincidence
is an evocative word for what we have always been and what we are already losing. It is, like an evening tide, a thick and somber blue: for Didion, the color of our current moment.

BOOK: The Last Love Song
12.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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