‘The Last Love Song’

THE LAST LOVE SONG: A Biography of Joan Didion. By Tracy Daugherty. St. Martin’s Press. 728 pages. $35.

Joan Didion’s image is everywhere these days, in Celine ads, on tote bags and moto jackets, and now on the cover of a new biography, “The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion” by Tracy Daugherty.

What, you may wonder, was Daugherty thinking? Didion has always been the supreme chronicler of her own life. Early on, she fastened on the tactic of making herself part of the story, a revolutionary move when she first made it. Zelig-like, she shows up wherever the action is — in the Haight, at the Watts riots, in El Salvador — and insinuates herself.

She went after a story in the most back-handed way possible, hanging around the edges, catching wisps of conversation and noticing chinks in the official facade. In the end, her pieces are as much about the perceiver as about what’s being perceived. While she is, as she famously said, telling herself a story in order to live, Didion also is telling a story about the life of our times and about our fragile national myths.

Daugherty admits in his preface that his design has pitfalls. Didion herself did not choose to cooperate, and most of the people close to her also shied away. Daugherty’s acknowledgments page thanks a paltry list of participants, many of them people who lost touch with Didion long ago. A bigger problem for him is that Didion has told this story better than anyone else could, and her sentences are irresistible. Daugherty promises to remain skeptical about the content of Didion’s self-presentation, but he is, in fact, reverent. The zip on every page comes from her quotes and from close paraphrases of her writing. Anyone half familiar with Didion’s work will find that many lines ring a loud bell.

All readers of Didion know where she was from. A sixth-generation descendant of pioneers, Didion has often mentioned in her essays that one of her ancestors traveled west with the notorious Donner-Reed party, breaking away before some of them made a meal of the others. Her memoir, “Where I Was From,” questions whether California was ever the site of a golden dream. Instead, she finds people ruled by the “wagon train mentality,” always ready to cut their losses, sell out and move on.

Didion grew up among prosperous, ranching Republicans in Sacramento. Her father was a realtor who was always “seeking something for nothing” and, she remembered, “full of dread.” He was hospitalized for depression when she was in college. Her mother’s favorite phrase was, “What difference does it make?” No wonder their first child should be from the start “sad and anxious,” according to her mother.

Daugherty’s book takes off as he traces the early Didion, first through her undergraduate years at the University of California-Berkeley and then as a journalist for women’s magazines in 1950s New York. Didion described herself in the Preface to “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” as “physically small, temperamentally unobtrusive, and ... neurotically inarticulate.” Her quietness and tiny presence keep coming up, but Didion didn’t shrink from everything.

At Berkeley, she worked harder than everyone, always. She won a spot as a Mademoiselle magazine guest editor, just two years after Sylvia Plath’s stint. The next year, she won a Vogue magazine contest and negotiated a job in lieu of the prize. Readers of “Good-bye to All That” know this story, with its mixture of nostalgia and dread. Daugherty tells it with verve.

Didion remembers a moment in New York City, perhaps during her first or second spring there. She stops at the corner of Lexington and 62nd Street, buys a peach and eats it. She can smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume. “And I knew it would cost something sooner or later because I knew I did not belong there,” she writes. The comment is pure Didion, with its demand for accountability and a moral story. At this point on her timeline, she is crafting a voice and learning the lesson that everything comes at a personal cost.

Fast forward many years, and she applies the same cost principle to the political arena. During her New York years, in addition to her column for Vogue, Didion contributed often to the National Review and the Saturday Evening Post — no surprise to anyone familiar with her contrarian impulses but somewhat out of keeping with her later gig at the “New York Review of Books.”

Daugherty makes a strong case for the centrality of her training on the fashion beat. Working with veteran editor Allene Talmey, Didion learned to “write long and publish short,” a credo she never abandoned.

Didion’s early pieces often mentioned messy domestic arrangements. She reported regular bouts of weeping. In fact, she was a literary It Girl, already mysterious and cool.

Increasingly, her story came to seem public property — the marriage to John Gregory Dunne, the return to California, the posh houses and the famous neighbors (the Mamas and the Papas, O.J.), the parties, the hotels, the movies. If the California years go by in a blur, the years after the Dunne-Didion move back to New York in 1988 are even swifter in Daugherty’s telling. He lingers, as Didion herself did, over the deaths (within a year of one another) of Dunne and their daughter, Quintana, and relies heavily on her grief memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” to narrate the loss of Didion’s little family.

Someday, someone will write an excellent biography of Joan Didion. Until then, there’s Daugherty’s “The Last Love Song” or, much better, Didion’s own works. Daugherty leans hard on Didion’s words, but he doesn’t ever come fully to grips with the curated disclosures in her pages. The through-line for her was always clear: “I went somewhere. This is what I saw.” Interested in Didion? Read her, go with her, see what she sees and reconstruct a story.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.