To honor ancestors who traveled with the Donner party, Didion kept a framed photo of the Sierra Nevada on her desk. Her forebears were not present for the most infamous chapter of the journey—they wisely split off before the group reached the Sierra. Nevertheless, their story inspired Didion’s fascination with frontier myth, and she writes about the legacy of the West’s survivalist mentality in her essay collection Where I Was From.
As a student at C.K. McClatchy High School, Didion worked at the society desk of the Sacramento Union. There she wrote wedding notices, which she mostly considered boring and uninspiring. In a 2011 interview, Didion said, “I didn’t cover weddings, I just wrote about them. I wouldn’t call that reporting.” Still, this early gig helped her represent high-society Sacramento in her debut novel, Run River.
Didion’s essay “Many Mansions” is an ode to the Victorian Gothic house in a neighborhood that she notes “has since run to seed.” She admires the narrow halls and elaborate molding and recalls evenings spent there with classmate Nina Warren, the daughter of then-governor Earl Warren. She writes, “The old Governor’s Mansion was at that time my favorite house in the world, and probably still is.”
Having missed protests at UC Berkeley and Columbia, Didion somewhat reluctantly traveled to S.F. State in 1968 to observe demonstrations there. In her essay “The White Album,” she sketches a quintessentially Californian revolution: the campus protests mimic the backstage camaraderie of a fastidiously constructed theater performance. The hippies never impressed her, and neither did students-in-arms.
At land-use hearings regarding Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, Monterey residents looked warily on the singer’s utopia in progress. Didion sat in, relaying the paltry courtroom drama as yet another battleground amid discordant times in her essay “Where the Kissing Never Stops.” Locals deem the institute “detrimental”; some even testified to witnessing bearded visitors loitering about.
Didion was fascinated by the epic diversion of water that characterizes the American West. “Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control,” she writes in her essay “Holy Water,” in which she tracks the aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada to a point in Los Angeles County and reverently observes as officials drain water from a reservoir.
Didion reports on a fatal car crash near Death Valley Junction in “On Morality”: an unremarkable night in an unremarkable town, with the legacy of wagon train survivalism shaping each party’s sense of obligation to the dead man up the road. Despite the sweltering heat, Didion articulates a chilling truth: “If we have been taught to keep our promises—if, in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough—we stay with the body, or have bad dreams.”
The port city provides a dismal beachside getaway for protagonist Maria Wyeth and lover Les Goodwin in Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays. A motel room near the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks is the backdrop for their brief tryst. By day’s end, both parties are homebound, ashamed for thinking it could work, and swearing life will be “idyllic later.” Even before The White Album, Didion was examining the stories we tell ourselves.
The nursery caught Didion’s attention because of her affinity for greenhouses. The final essay in the collection The White Album, “Quiet Days in Malibu,” finds Didion at home, where she meets the nursery’s head grower, Amado Vazquez, a talented horticulturist and Mexican immigrant. Here, her tradition of gleaning truth—from California’s volatile environment and the people who inhabit it—is in full bloom.
In her essay “The White Album,” Didion contends that the ’60s ended with the murder of Sharon Tate. But her description of the aftermath is arguably more compelling: Didion visits the now-defunct I. Magnin store to buy an “emerald green or gold” dress for Linda Kasabian. The prosecution’s lead witness had planned to wear a “long white homespun shift” to the trial, but District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi wanted a more court-appropriate option.
In 1968, Didion sat on the “cold vinyl floor” of the studio while the Doors recorded a rhythm track for their next album, and the gaudy facades of nascent, almost-famous rockers were crumbling; she felt the debris hanging in the air. In “The White Album,” she navigates band politics and star egos to paint the portrait of a rock group—the fickle microcosm it can be—from that nightlong spot on the floor.
“A lot of California murderesses live here, a lot of girls who somehow misunderstood the promise,” Didion writes in her essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” Take Lucille Miller, who in 1965 was convicted of killing her husband to cash out a $120,000 insurance policy. To Didion, Miller represents an archetypal Californian figure—the dreamer who wants too much and pays the price.