Remembering a Malibu long gone

Joan Didion with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter Quintana Roo at their West Malibu home during the 1970s. Joan Didion Dunne personal collection

Joan Didion has written a book that comes to terms with the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter. It also describes an earlier and quieter Malibu where she once lived.

By P.G. O’Malley / Special to The Malibu Times

In 1971, journalist and essayist Joan Didion moved from a rundown apartment building on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood to Malibu, where she lived for eight years with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and their only child, Quintana Roo.

Not yet established as the literary icons they would become, Dunne and Didion spent just short of eight years at the west end of Malibu, far removed from the glow of Malibu Colony.

“We moved there because we loved the area,” Didion said. She recalled buying groceries at the old Trancas market, and being able to leave a package or a message for a neighbor at the Gulf gas station at the corner of Heathercliff and Pacific Coast Highway.

After Malibu, the Dunnes lived more conventionally in Brentwood, then Manhattan. It was Dunne who hankered for the East. Didion, who had taken Southern California to herself, clung to images of Malibu’s “thin light,” of Quintana-not yet 10-running rip tides with the lifeguards at Zuma Beach, of dogs and children wandering from one house to another. It was a lifestyle that was both casual and imbued with a spirit “of shared isolation and adversity.”

Dunne died on Dec. 30, 2003 at the age of 71 from a massive coronary at the dining room table. A little more than a year later, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, not yet 40, died in a New York hospital after a second bout with septic shock. The dual, untimely deaths provide the framework for Didion’s new book, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” (Knopf, $23.95), an account of her struggle to reconcile herself to the loss of the husband and literary collaborator who was a constant in her life for 40 years.

The facts are straightforward. Dunne collapses after arriving home from visiting his daughter in the ICU at Beth Israel North. Didion struggles through Quintana’s illness, delaying a memorial service for Dunne until her daughter recovers. With the placement of Dunne’s ashes in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine we are prepared for closure. Then on a trip to the West Coast with her husband, Quintana collapses on arrival at LAX and is rushed into neurosurgery at UCLA.

Didion encamps at the old Beverly Wilshire Hotel (now the Regent Beverly Wilshire), remembering days when she and Dunne and Quintana stayed there, called in from Malibu for a conference on a film (that’s how far we thought it was from West Malibu into town those days). Still struggling with guilt and impotence she associates with her husband’s death, Didion holds a daily vigil at her daughter’s bedside.

Malibu becomes part of what Didion calls the vortex, physical landmarks that draw her into unwanted memories she fears will debilitate. She avoids the Brentwood neighborhood where she once lived although the house she lived in has long since been replaced. She stays clear of Pacific Coast Highway. But although Didion’s persistence is to avoid the point of no return, the reader senses that the feared labyrinth also contains keys to renewal-the family’s frequent working vacations in Honolulu will be reenacted when Quintana recovers; the leis that arrive for Christmas Eve dinner the year after Dunne’s death will bring comfort, Israel Kamakwiwo`ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow” will sooth and inspire. When Quintana takes her husband to Malibu, Didion foretells there will be wild mustard on the hills. “They would see the orchids at Zuma Canyon and eat fried fish at the Ventura County line.”

Although Didion tells us she lived at Trancas, the Dunnes actually settled on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway just beyond Decker Canyon, where today a house within the reach of a struggling writer is magical thinking in itself. Johnny Carson had not yet commanded a cul-de-sac on Point Dume for tennis courts and a play yard. Broad Beach was still considered a quiet alternative to the Colony off Malibu Lagoon. Didion’s daughter attended fourth grade at Point Dume Elementary School before it was decommissioned to become the Point Dume Community Center, which was before it was reopened as the Point Dume Marine Science Elementary.

Perhaps what Didion is asking us to consider are the talismans by which we maintain our sanity, the places, the trinkets, the rituals that help us keep us alive when living makes no sense. It is in this aspect that her carefully wrought treatise on grief and mourning becomes an inspiring call for renewal-and the acceptance of change.

Didion will be at the Hammer Museum, located at 10899 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood, on Saturday at 7 p.m. Parking is $3 under the building. Seating is first come, first served and museum members get precedence.