There were a half dozen regulars, and I was a child, so forgive me if I am leaving someone out, but in the core group, as I recall them, there were novelist Brian Moore and his wife, Jean Russell; there were journalist Barry Farrell and his wife, Marcia Farrell; there were my father, novelist and screenwriter Josh Greenfeld, and my mother, then a painter and later a writer, Fumiko Kometani; and then there were the hosts: novelists, screenwriters, and journalists John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion.
The routine on Sundays was that my younger brother, Noah, and I were loaded into our Mazda station wagon and driven out to Trancas, the stretch of Malibu on which John and Joan kept a sparse single-level house just down the sand from Brian’s own, slightly grander house. There were other guests who occasionally joined the conclaves but whose names wouldn’t register until much later: Harrison Ford, before his great fame, who was introduced to John and Joan by Barry; Frank Pierson, the director working with John and Joan on A Star Is Born; Lynn Nesbit, my father’s, John’s, and Joan’s literary agent; Dominick Dunne, John’s brother, a producer who would himself become a novelist and journalist; Earl McGrath, the gallery owner; the painter Francesco Clemente. I believe Warren Beatty made an appearance. But the core group’s writers, as I recall it, were Brian, Barry, my father, John, and Joan. What they had in common was that they were literary refugees stranded in Los Angeles.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
My father had met John first, at Time magazine, where they briefly overlapped. John, a Princeton alum, had had the pedigree for Time, but apparently not the writing samples, so he had found a newspaper in Colorado that didn’t use bylines and presented a few of its pieces as his own, which got him hired—or so he boasted. My father had been hired by managing editor Henry Grunwald as a book critic and had tried to quit on his first day, but Grunwald had told him that such a quick departure would be embarrassing and insisted he stay on the payroll for six months. He wouldn’t have to come into the office or do any work. Just collect the paycheck. John joked that my father had set the indoor record at Time for shortest employment. The outdoor record, for a correspondent in the field, was apparently held by a reporter in Saigon who had never even gotten off the plane after landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Such accounts, frequently apocryphal, were the currency among the adults those weekend afternoons at the Didion-Dunnes’ or the Russell-Moores’.
I remember Joan, sitting on their white sofa, skinny legs folded beneath her, glass of white wine in her hand. She seldom spoke, or perhaps it was that in comparison with her loquacious husband anyone would seem taciturn. They played off each other, her quiet, soft-spoken observations cutting through his stream-of-consciousness rambling. He took more swings; she got the hits. I would pick through the buffet—Joan was a respectable cook, Jean was considered gourmet, and the two alternated hostess duties most of these afternoons. This was the ’70s, and the men ignored the sexist division of labor. I remember roast chicken, salads, a poached, deboned salmon, not the kinds of dishes that interest a child. My brother, Noah, profoundly autistic, would sit by himself on the beach, running sand through his hands. To divert myself on these long afternoons, I would bring army men and a baby Godzilla doll, a prized toy I had acquired on a trip to Japan in the third grade, that I could play with in the Didion-Dunnes’ cactus garden. Occasionally, there were other children, stragglers up from the beach or offspring of other guests. Michael, Brian’s son, was 11 years older and so could engage with the adults. Quintana, John and Joan’s daughter, blond, beautiful, often dressed in white, seemed worldly and wise and would occasionally join me in playing toy soldiers, but we were both at the age—she was a year younger than me but seemed a decade more mature—when such interactions were fraught with possibilities or the impending awareness of the possibilities.
Our parents often compared notes on child-rearing. My father and John spoke every day on the phone for years—“Twice, three times, sometimes four times a day,” John wrote in “Friends,” one of the title pieces in his collection Quintana & Friends. (The story was about our families and their relationship.) I used to answer the phone and know it was John before he spoke a word, because his stammer caused a slight hesitation before he asked whether my father was around. When my father called John, Joan often answered. (In that era before cell phones, calling a home meant you spoke to whoever picked up.) They talked about their work, developing their own shorthand: “wide margins” or “the tab key” meant screenplays; “narrow margins” meant books—this was well before the era when screenwriting software began to do your formatting for you. One afternoon, my father sheepishly confessed that he was editing my college-application essay into something coherent. Joan tittered and said she was doing the same for Q.
Joan would eventually write the introduction to the paperback edition of one of my father’s novels, The Return of Mr. Hollywood. My father provided the only back-cover blurb to the paperback of Quintana & Friends. This economy of favors given and received was largely overseen by John, whom my father described as resembling a big-city Irish machine boss, only the borough he presided over was the world of letters. He was fiercely protective of Joan, boasting of her success at every opportunity. Brian once joked that John was walking down the beach one morning and ran into God. And what did God say? That he admired Joan’s work.
Joan would write college recommendations for me, then a recommendation for the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. She was generously supportive of my own, nascent career as a writer, passing along a draft of an early novel to the literary agent Amanda Urban, then being genuinely surprised that Binky had passed on the book. After I sold my first book in 1992, Joan photocopied (or had photocopied) the Rights announcement in Publishers Weekly and sent it to my parents with “J&F — In case you didn’t see — xx Joan” written in red ink. They had already moved from Malibu back to New York, via Brentwood. We kids had all grown up, and on one of my visits back from Japan, my future wife and I had lunch with Joan and John at a French restaurant whose name I can’t recall. (It frustrates me, because I know that Joan would have the name and significance of that restaurant, or whatever significance could be wrought from it, anyway.) My father had instructed me to pick up the check with the words “It’s on my dad,” and to my surprise it worked. John and Joan let me pay. When I published a piece about the death of a friend, the talent agent Jay Moloney, in Time, it was Joan who left a simple message on my office voicemail: “Great, great, great” and that was it. No name. But I knew who it was.
The writers who gathered in those Trancas beach houses—Brian, Barry, John, my father, and, most recently, Joan—have passed. The exception is my 91-year-old mother. I’ve lost track of the other kids who waited out their parents’ afternoon banter. Quintana, of course, has passed as well. The last time I saw Joan was when the Paris Review was presenting her with its Hadada Award in 2006. She’d already lost John in 2003 and then Quintana in 2005. The Year of Magical Thinking, her National Book Award–winning memoir of losing John, had been published the same year and had reaffirmed her position at the center of the literary world. But without John as the connective thread, a slight wall had grown between us. At one point, when I was fresh out of a rehab center in Springbrook, Oregon, my father had asked me if I would talk to Quintana about getting sober. It had been decades since we’d really spoken, and I hardly felt an expert on staying clean myself. I told my dad I felt unqualified to pass on any words of advice. I can only imagine my alive-and-well presence must have been yet another reminder of Q’s shocking death after her own struggles with alcohol. Why, of the children who had played among the cacti all those years ago, was I still there yet Q was gone?
These days, Joan is not so much admired as revered—a distinction that was in place even before her death. It’s a situation about which I know she had mixed feelings. After all, she had written far too much, and far too presciently, about the dangers and disappointments of fame not to feel at least a little uneasy with the late-life burst of it. But I don’t have many literary insights to offer about Joan. There are others who read her more closely and still others who knew her much better. And critics and essayists can put her talent in sharper perspective. For me, she stands most strongly for the mystery and promise of adulthood. Along with my father and mother and the rest of that Malibu group, she taught me to associate adulthood with writing. Writers, to my child’s eye, were the consummate adults—the real grown-ups. If John had done most of the talking on those long-ago afternoons, Joan had, all the same, been the group’s gravitational center, the still point around which all of it turned. And so it was that during my slow years of struggle to become a writer myself, Joan’s words of encouragement, when they came, weighed heavier than others’.
In the late ’90s, after they moved back to New York, when I was writing for various magazines but not the right magazines, not those, for example, that Joan regularly wrote for, I was lamenting to her at an art opening—perhaps at Earl McGrath’s—about the travails of my writing life. I was struggling, as writers often do, not with the writing part but with the rest of it: the rejection, the criticism, the egocentric belief that one’s work isn’t getting the reception it deserves. (That novel of mine she had graciously advocated for would, for example, never get published.) She looked at me, her eyes by then prodigiously baggy, her famously slender frame already seeming so brittle that she could be snapped by an offhand gesture. And she told me, with kindness, that it’s hard; it is always hard. I remember considering, for a moment, what exactly she meant by this. Was it writing she was talking about, or life itself? I now wonder whether maybe the point of those writers gathering on those afternoons was not just banter and repartee but also commiseration, mutual support.
Because one thing I do glean from her writing that she seemed to know better than any of us: it never gets easier.•