New York Public Library Acquires Joan Didion’s Letters, Drafts and Notes

The archive includes 240 linear feet of papers from Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne

Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne
The New York Public Library has acquired the papers of the late literary couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Frank Edwards / Fotos International / Getty Images

The New York Public Library has acquired the literary archive of Joan Didion, who died in late 2021, and her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died in 2003. 

The sale comes just two months after the writer’s hurricane lamps, Le Creuset cookware, tortoiseshell eyeglasses and other personal belongings went under the hammer at a historic Stair Galleries auction that raised $1.9 million for charitable causes.

Though the literary archive has no Celine sunglasses, it paints a vivid picture of the glamorous couple through letters, photographs, manuscripts, family records, datebooks, recipes and more. In total, it contains approximately 240 linear feet of material.

“The acquisition of the Didion and Dunne papers reflects the library’s commitment to collecting the papers of paradigm-changing writers—and in particular, women writers,” says Julie Golia, the library’s associate director of manuscripts, archives and rare books, in a statement. “Didion’s literary contributions, her public persona and her tenacity in the face of grief have shaped the work of countless intellectual successors, both known and unknown.”

The library estimates that processing the collection will take about two years. At that point, it will be available to historians, scholars, researchers and anyone else with a library card. 

“We anticipate that the Didion and Dunne papers, once processed, will become one of our most heavily used collections,” says Declan Kiely, the library’s director of special collections and exhibitions, in the statement. “... We can’t wait to make this available to the public and inspire the next generation of thinkers and writers.”

A hospital record from 1934, the year Didion was born in Sacramento, is in the collection, featuring her tiny footprint and her mother’s thumbprint, per the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler. Also included is a letter written by a 22-year-old Didion to her family, describing the “dull and tedious” work she did as a copywriter for Vogue magazine.

“All anyone in this generation wants is security and group belonging,” she wrote in the letter, reflecting on a book she had just read. “And what will happen to the world if nobody is willing to risk that security to gain the big things?”

The archive contains Didion’s extensive research materials for her cultural criticism essays, which she published in critically-acclaimed books including Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). It also includes drafts for The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Blue Nights (2011), the memoirs she wrote following the deaths of her husband and their daughter.

Didion and Dunne, who was also a writer, married in 1964. The archive includes Dunne’s manuscripts and research materials for his own books, including the best-selling novel True Confessions (1977), as well as his journalistic endeavors, like his 1997 piece for the New Yorker about the convicted killer of Brandon Teena.

Didion and Dunne’s rich creative partnership is also on full display in the archive, represented through drafts of the 26 screenplays that the couple worked on together.

The collection also captures the lives Didion and Dunne led off the clock. Correspondence spanning six decades includes letters to and from Margaret AtwoodNora EphronAllen GinsbergDiane Keaton, the former Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy (a childhood friend of Didion’s), Philip RothTennessee Williams and others. Candid photographs, datebooks, homemade cookbooks and dinner party guest lists reflect the couple’s bustling social lives.

The archive “very much captures the significance and gravitas of their careers,” Golia tells the Times. “But it’s also deeply personal.”

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