Joan Didion’s Estate Sale Items Paint a Picture of Her Life

Joan Didion, who died last year at 87, famously never used a decorator. The only interior design advice she admitted to taking came from her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.

“I hope you California it up,” Quintana told her parents when she saw the New York City apartment they bought in 1988, after 24 years in Los Angeles.

The move happened fast: The West Coast home Ms. Didion shared with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, sold the same day it was listed, and the Upper East Side apartment they bought was the first one they saw. “We felt stale, settled, restless,” the couple said, explaining their move in a 1992 article they co-wrote for HG magazine, once known as House and Garden.

Over the years, they filled their new apartment with furniture, art and other things that had “meaning only for us,” as they put it in that article. Now, hundreds of those items will be available to buy.

On Nov. 16, Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y., will host Ms. Didion’s estate sale auction, and an exhibition of selected items will be on display there from Oct. 31 to Nov. 15.


Quintana Roo Dunne with John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion in 1976.

“Everything in the sale helps to paint the picture of how she lived in her private space,” said Lisa Thomas, the director of the auction house’s fine arts department.

One of the least expensive lots, Ms. Thomas said, will likely be a collection of blank notebooks estimated to sell for between $100 and $200. The most expensive may be a Richard Diebenkorn lithograph that could go for as much as $70,000. Proceeds from the sale will go toward the Sacramento Historical Society and Parkinson’s research and patient care at Columbia University. (Ms. Didion’s death was the result of complications from Parkinson’s disease.)

Ms. Didion left an impressive legacy that includes dozens of essays, books and screenplays, as well as an instantly recognizable and voguish silhouette: sunglasses on, cigarette in hand. Given the number of people she influenced, both personally and professionally, it is no wonder that the gallery has been inundated with emails and phone calls since the sale was announced last summer.

Blank notebooks. Estimate: $100 – $200

IBM Wheelwriter 5 typewriter. Estimate: $800 – $1,200

Desk articles. Estimate: $500 – $700

Writing ephemera from Ms. Didion’s desk. Estimate: $200 – $400

Some Didion enthusiasts were desperate to acquire even the smallest mementos of her personal life — including a single paper clip, said Ms. Thomas, who offered an explanation: “People feel that they can be close to an icon by owning something that that person lived with.”

For many fans, it seems, buying something — anything — from Ms. Didion’s estate amounts to owning a piece of her life, whether that takes the form of a paperweight, a typewriter, a chair or some other quotidian object. Here are a few of the things that will be up for sale.

‘Wearing Dark Glasses and Avoiding Paparazzi’

In 2015, Ms. Didion modeled for a Celine ad shot by Juergen Teller, much of her face obscured by large, dark sunglasses. Decades earlier, she appeared in a Gap ad with her daughter. While Ms. Didion insisted, not long before she died, that she wasn’t a style icon, many believed otherwise — and the contents of her estate confirm that.


Joan Didion in sunglasses in 1987.

She sold two pairs of her sunglasses for $2,500 each in 2014, to help finance a documentary about her life directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. And yes, those sunglasses were iconic enough that people were willing pay.

The documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” was released by Netflix in 2017. It featured an appearance by Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, where Ms. Didion worked early in her career, after winning an essay contest in college. Having recently graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, she moved to New York to take a job at the magazine, which published her influential essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power.” Later, she revealed in a 2011 essay in the magazine that her affinity for dark glasses could be traced to childhood, when she used to imagine herself as a would-be divorcée in Argentina, “wearing dark glasses and avoiding paparazzi.”

Pair of Celine faux-tortoiseshell sunglasses. Estimate: $400 – $800

Several pairs of her sunglasses will be included in the sale, although only one of them is from Celine.

Ms. Didion’s stylish Corvette Stingray isn’t in the sale, but the photos that made it famous are. Two gelatin silver prints of Julian Wasser’s portraits of the writer posing with her car — effortlessly chic in a long dress and sandals, holding a cigarette — are estimated to sell for $1,500 to $3,000 each.

Julian Wasser’s “Joan Didion with Her Stingray Corvette.” Estimate: $1,500 – $3,000

The portraits were commissioned by Time magazine in 1968, during what Ms. Didion called “kind of a wonderful period of my life actually,” in a 2014 interview about the photo shoot. She didn’t remember much else about the day the photos were taken.

“I don’t know how we decided to include the Corvette,” she said. “It must have been some whim of Julian’s.”

‘Fragments’ of a Domestic Life

Following Christmas in 2003, Mr. Dunne passed away unexpectedly while the couple’s daughter was in a coma. Quintana eventually pulled through, but died in 2005 at 39, a few months before Ms. Didion’s 2005 book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was published.


Ms. Didion reading to Quintana Roo in 1968.

In the book, Ms. Didion wrote about the heartbreak and challenges of that era of her life: “I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. All those soufflés, all that crème caramel, all those daubes and albóndigas and gumbos. Clean sheets, stacks of clean towels, hurricane lamps for storms, enough water and food to see us through whatever geological event came our way. These fragments I have shored against my ruins, were the words that came to mind then. These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them.”

The hurricane lamps that Ms. Didion wrote about — part of the couple’s effort to “California it up” in their New York apartment — will be included in the sale,as a set of three, a pair and a standalone. They owned dozens of those lamps in Southern California, where they would use them during the frequent power outages caused by Santa Ana winds.

Hurricane lamps. Estimate: $300 – $500 a pair

Mr. Dunne’s death was sudden. As Ms. Didion explains in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the night before New Year’s Eve, the couple came home from the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center where they had visited Quintana, who was unconscious after a severe case of pneumonia and septic shock. Ms. Didion built a fire, the couple sat down for dinner, and then Mr. Dunne suffered a fatal coronary attack. (He was sitting at their drop-leaf dining table, which is included in the sale.)

Late Regency ebony inlaid mahogany Pembroke table. Estimate: $1,000 – $1,500

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” These were the first words she wrote after it happened, and the only ones she would write for months.

Chinese export bamboo-and-lacquer side table. Estimate: $200 – $300

American black-painted and gilt-stenciled side chairs. Estimate: $1,200 – $1,800 for eight.

American oak library table. Estimate: $300 – $500

George III-style inlaid mahogany cylinder writing desk. Estimate: $300 – $600

The partners’ desk they owned, estimated to sell for $8,000 to $12,000, was a favorite piece, bought by Ms. Didion’s father at an auction in 1934, for $30. It was in bad shape after surviving a fire, but he refinished it and gave it to the couple when they married. They had the desk refinished again after moving to New York. “It has history and it has attitude, and we like to think the same of the apartment,” they wrote in the HG article.

American oak, walnut and bird’s-eye maple partners’ desk. Estimate: $8,000 – $12,000

An ornate rattan chair that Ms. Didion frequently posed in for photos — and where she used to hold the young Quintana in her lap and read to her — will also be sold at auction.

Victorian-style woven rattan armchair. Estimate: $500 – $700

‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’

Ms. Didion and Mr. Dunne had an extensive personal library — which isn’t surprising given that, as she wrote in her 1979 book “The White Album,” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” To hold all those books, they built floor-to-ceiling shelves in the living room, dining room, guest room and offices of their New York apartment. When that wasn’t enough, they built more shelves in their own bedroom.

Ms. Didion’s favorite books. Estimate: $800 – $1,200

Random House unabridged dictionary (lot includes a laminate-veneered faux-wood stand). Estimate: $500 – $700

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Estimate: $200 – $400 for six cookbooks

Books about the Kennedys and Lyndon B. Johnson from Ms. Didion’s Library. Estimate: $200 – $300

While he was making his documentary, Griffin Dunne shared a handwritten list that Ms. Didion had made of 19 books that changed her life. Fifteen of them, from her personal library — including V.S. Naipaul’s “Guerrillas,” Joyce Carol Oates’s “Wonderland” and James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” — will be included in the auction and are expected to sell, as a set, for $800 to $1,200.

In 1978, when asked which writer had influenced her the most, Ms. Didion told the Paris Review, “I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”

A set of 14 Hemingway books from her collection will be included in the sale.

Ernest Hemingway books from Ms. Didion’s library. Estimate: $400 – $800

George Orwell’s work was also a big influence. In 1946, he wrote an essay called “Why I Write.” Almost three decades later, Ms. Didion gave a lecture at her alma mater, Berkeley, with the same title. “Of course I stole the title for this talk, from George Orwell. One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words,” she begins the speech. A lot of seven of his books from her personal collection will be up for sale.

A number of cookbooks will also be sold at auction, including Ms. Didion’s copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.

‘Novels Are Like Paintings, Specifically Watercolors’

Ms. Didion’s fine art collection included works by several blue-chip names — among them Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg and Annie Leibovitz — and she clearly felt a kinship with many of the artists whose works she owned. As she told the Paris Review in 2006, “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with.”

One relationship that stands out was with Ed Ruscha, who has three works included in the sale: two etchings, “Library” and “Book Return,” and a lithograph.

Like Ms. Didion, he is known for capturing the Great American West, and many see their works as intertwined. Some of his pieces are currently on display in “Joan Didion: What She Means,” an exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

The lithograph up for sale in the auction, “Course of Empire,” depicts 10 of his paintings of industrial Los Angeles, half in black-and-white and half in color. Those paintings were on display at the 2005 Venice Biennale, where Mr. Ruscha represented the United States. Ms. Didion wrote an essay for the catalog, describing his art as “distillations, the thing compressed to its pure essence,” and he gave her the print as a thank you.

Ed Ruscha’s “Course of Empire” and thank-you note addressed to Ms. Didion. Estimate: $6,000 – $9,000

Ms. Didion’s art collection sometimes grew haphazardly, as she and her husband would make decisions on a whim. Once, they went out with the intention of buying a winter coat. Instead, they came back with a Cy Twombly lithograph, which is included in the sale.

Cy Twombly’s “Untitled.” Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000

Billy Al Bengston, who described his relationship with Ms. Didion as “kissin’ cousins,” has two watercolors in the sale, both titled “Honolulu Watercolor.”

Mr. Bengston, 88, recently told The New York Times that he couldn’t remember the objective or the story behind those paintings, but he had no trouble recalling Ms. Didion’s lasting influence on him: “She was so good — about as simple as that. When someone is as good as her, you can’t tell what makes them good.”

Billy Al Bengston’s “Honolulu Watercolor.” Estimate: $5,000 – $7,000

The significance of Hawaii to Ms. Didion, however, isn’t hard to fathom, as she traveled there several times, staying at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu and documenting her experiences in her essay “In the Islands,” included in “The White Album”: “I was not going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life reduced to a short story,” she wrote. “I was going to Honolulu because I wanted to see life expanded to a novel, and I still do.”

A number of the artworks that will be sold have personal inscriptions from the artists, making them all the more covetable.

“To Joan with love,” reads the bottom of a Patti Smith photograph of chocolate bunnies. Another inscription by Ms. Smith reads: “Hermann Hesse Typewriter, for you.”

Patti Smith’s “Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter.” Estimate: $2,000 – $4,000

The two were close friends, and admired each other’s work. Following Ms. Didion’s passing, Ms. Smith, an artist and singer known as the “godmother of punk,” posted a tribute on Instagram, articulating what many felt.

“This is a true writer. Joan Didion. Sunglasses, cigarettes, and a Stingray,” she wrote. “Farewell brave sister, master of pain and ink.”