In her 1979 oeuvre, The White Album, writer Joan Didion published her packing list for traveling on assignment. The list is concise: Two skirts, two “jerseys or leotards,” and one sweater does it for clothes (undergarments withholding). A plain toiletry list includes shampoo, deodorant, aspirin and tampons. A few items bring Didion into sharper image: Cigarettes, bourbon, a mohair throw and a typewriter are all mentioned. Still, the packing list is starkly ordinary.
The same can be said of a 224-lot collection of the writer’s belongings that will be auctioned at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, on November 16. Featuring photographs, furniture, accessories and books, the cache of items—all from Didion’s Upper East Side apartment—paints a vivid picture of the essayist, who died at age 87 last December.
Most of the offerings are everyday objects like tables and blank notebooks.
“There was nothing precious or fancy,” Lisa Thomas, the director of Stair’s fine arts department, tells the Times Union’s Jaime Stathis. “They didn’t have fancy antiques; it was all just usable stuff. … They’re the kinds of things we all have.”
The quotidian nature of Didion’s belongings mirrors the clarity of her writing. Born in Sacramento, California in 1934, Didion began making a name for herself in the late 1950s and early ’60s by penning essays that mediated on popular culture; hippie counterculture; personal struggles; and universal experiences like packing, moving and keeping a notebook. Her writing, which spanned numerous books, screenplays and plays over the course of her career, is celebrated for its precision and unadorned beauty.
Didion died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on December 23, 2021. Proceeds from the upcoming auction will go toward Columbia University’s patient care and research on Parkinson’s and other movement disorders, as well as a Sacramento City College scholarship for women in literature.
So, what items are up for sale?
Books and notebooks
Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, built floor-to-ceiling shelves in various rooms of their Manhattan apartment to hold all their books. “When that wasn’t enough, they built more shelves in their own bedroom,” writes Anna Kodé for the New York Times.
Some of those books have been grouped into auction lots. One collection, which has already reached $1,600 in an online bidding war, includes the majority of Didion’s published books. Another group contains 15 of the 19 books Didion once listed as being her favorites, including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Also on offer are collections of books about California, New York City, photography and contemporary art.
Additionally, 13 blank notebooks are being auctioned, with a current top bid of $1,600. All of the books and notebooks on sale feature a bookplate that reads “From the library of Joan Didion.”
Some of the books are signed by Didion—but don’t expect to find dog-eared pages or notes in the margins.
“There’s been an archive established, and everything in the apartment that was germane to her literary career has gone into the archive,” Thomas tells the Times Union. “If she wrote notes in the books or dogeared the pages for the purpose of teaching or writing, they went into the archive.”
Didion had a lifelong affinity for large, dark sunglasses. In a Vogue essay titled “In Sable and Dark Glasses,” she described a recurring childhood daydream in which she was a glamorous divorceé living in Argentina, hiding behind fashionable eyewear. The relationship between Didion and sunglasses was formalized in 2015, when luxury brand Celine tapped Didion to model its eyewear collection. She did so seated in a chair in her apartment, wearing all black and giant sunglasses.
Now, a pair of Celine faux tortoiseshell sunglasses that Didion owned is up for auction, with a current top bid of $2,000. Another lot, which bundles three pairs of shades, has a current leading bid of $700. “Miscellaneous Group of Eyewear” bundles together nine eyeglasses, from red prescription glasses to another pair of faux tortoiseshell sunglasses.
Didion’s eyewear has hit the market before: In 2014, the author sold two pairs of her sunglasses to help finance Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary about her life made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Each pair sold for $2,500.
Photographs and prints
In 1996, Brigitte Lacombe photographed Didion in black and white, her face buried in a black turtleneck. Prints of those images—which also feature prominently in an exhibition about the writer currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles—are expected to sell for between $3,000 to $5,000.
The prints are just a fraction of the artworks Didion collected that are now up for auction.
Other photographs of the writer include Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Didion with her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne; Mary Ellen Mark’s photograph of Didion and Dunne; and Julian Wasser’s famous images of Didion with her Corvette.
The writer also collected a range of artwork, spanning mediums, levels of prestige and moods. On sale are works by Jennifer Bartlett, Richard Diebenkorn, Willard Dixon, Helen Marden, William Padien, Edward Ruscha, Richard Serra and more.
Some of the artists Didion collected were dear friends—and some were family. Two Patti Smith photographs will be auctioned. One of them features the inscription “To Joan with love and admiration.” Also on sale are two photographs by Quintana, who died in 2005 at age 39.
Household furniture and items
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion’s 2005 book about living with grief following the deaths of her husband and daughter, she writes at length about a mahogany drop-leaf table where her husband suffered the heart attack that ended his life. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” Didion wrote in the memoir. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
That very table is up for auction, along with a number of other furnishings and household items that Didion and Dunne shared.
Also up for grabs are a large desk made of oak, walnut and bird’s eye maple woods and a Victorian woven chair that comes with four toile pillows, upon which Didion was photographed many times. Numerous desks, tables and mirrors will be auctioned, as will two white sofas, which are estimated to sell for $400 to $800.
Two sofas for $400 may seem like a modest estimate for an item owned by one of the most iconic American writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, but Thomas tells the Times Union that Stair prices objects based primarily on their intrinsic value, rather than the value they accumulate from their former owner.
“Things rise to their appropriate value at auction,” she says.
Household items, such as a collection of orange and red Le Creuset cookware, a tea set, a desk clock, desk supplies such as pens and a pair of scissors, colorful glassware and hurricane lamps, will all be auctioned later this month.
Didion wrote about those hurricane lamps in The Year of Magical Thinking: “I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life,” she reflected. “Setting the table. Lighting the candles. … Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms.”
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins were the words that came to mind then,” the passage continues. “These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.”