Berkeley universities

My memories of Joan Didion before she became famous – Press Enterprise

I knew Joan Didion before she became, well, Jeanne Didion. That is, the literary icon Joan Didion.

Carlos Cortés, professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside, remembers his friendship with the late Joan Didion. (File photo by David Bauman, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

We both graduated in 1956 from UC Berkeley, where we were active in student publications. During our last year, she edited the “Occident”, the student literary magazine, while I edited the school annual, the “Bleu et Or”. With offices across from each other in the Student Publications Building, we slumped in a warm friendship.

Two shy people, each covering in their own way. Me, painfully wanting to make my way through conversations. She watching, meticulously, with a sometimes antiquated, sometimes mischievous smile, so decidedly absent from the austere defiance patented in her later professional photos.

We sat together on the Student Publications Council. As Chair-Elect of the Board of Trustees, I was asked to speak at an outdoor event on campus honoring UC President Robert Gordon Sproul. I congratulated him on his defense of freedom of the student press. Not that he had much to defend, since student publications of the 1950s weren’t arousing much controversy.

That is to say until the spring of 1956, when the last issue of Jeanne’s “Occident” came out. The cover, as far as I remember, was a striking cubist sketch of a bookstore window. Jagged lines, sharp angles and confusing intersections. The artist came to my office and, with a mischievous smile, suggested that I look at the horizontal cover. I did, holding the book flat and looking over the cover. From this angle, the previously hidden letters “F***” emerged. The newspaper has become a hot item on campus.

Carlos Cortes knew author Joan Didion, seen on September 26, 2005, before she was famous. Both were students at UC Berkeley and lived in New York after graduation. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Joan had no prior knowledge of the prank. Worried about her, I asked her if she wanted to go out to lunch and talk about it. We did, but we didn’t say much about the cover itself. Instead, Joan expressed concern that the furore over the cover would distract from the accomplishments of the student writers she nurtured.

In the fall of 1956, Joan and I headed separately to New York. She had won the Prix de Paris “Vogue” writing competition, leading to a position as a research assistant at the magazine. I came as a student from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Two reluctant newbies from Berkeley to the Big Apple, we hung out together, especially in the early months. Lunches, movies, theatre, a cup or a drink of anything. Memorably witnessing the short-lived revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” marketed with time capsule language for its “all-black cast.” We supported each other by adjusting to the rhythms of our divergent trajectories.

After my year at Columbia and a PR stint with the American Shakespeare Festival, I joined the military and lost touch with Joan. For the next decade, I bounced back, eventually becoming a history professor at UC Riverside.

Then Joan suddenly came back into my life when she was invited to give the start address of the DUC 1975, the first woman to do so. Joan, addressing a huge crowd? My soft-spoken friend whose statements at release committee meetings could barely be heard? But she was formidable, with sentences cut like tiny jewels. Although not powerful, his voice carried far more assurance than I had ever heard up close and personal.

Because of our friendship, I was invited to a small post-graduation dinner at the Chancellor’s Residence at UCR. Joan and I sat across from each other and pleasantly reminisced about the good old days in Berkeley and New York. Then, after we had exhausted our recollections, Joan’s husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, took over the conversation.

That was the last time I saw Joan, mostly my fault. I find it difficult to keep in touch with people. I’ve never attended a high school reunion, and despite graduating from four colleges, I’ve only attended one college reunion: My 50th birthday from Columbia in 2007. That’s when I tried to see Joan again.

Four years earlier, in 2003, Joan’s husband had died. His thoughts on coping with his death, “The Year of Magical Thinking”, became his bestselling book. She adapted it into a play, which had opened on Broadway just before the meeting.

When John died, I sent my condolences to Joan, the first letter I had written her since leaving New York in 1957. Since I didn’t have her address, I sent it to her publisher.

I wrote again in 2007, telling Joan that I was going to be in New York and would like to see her again. I never heard back. My protective superego assures me that Joan didn’t ignore my letter, that the editor probably never delivered it, thus protecting her from the daily avalanche of fan letters.

When my wife Laurel and I arrived in New York, we decided to see “Frost/Nixon” rather than go see Joan’s play and watch the hulking Vanessa Redgrave portray my boyfriend, who was barely over 5 feet and may never have reached 100 pounds. I prefer my personal memories of the leprechaun I knew at Berkeley over six decades ago.

Carlos Cortés is professor emeritus of history at UC Riverside, author of a memoir, “Rose Hill: An Intermarriage before Its Time,” and a book of poetry, “Fourth Quarter: Reflections of a Cranky Old Man.” He can be contacted at [email protected]