California belongs to Joan Didion. That is what Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic for The New York Times, wrote in a 1979 profile of the then-rising literary figure. Kakutani would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, so I'm inclined to believe her. And Didion is now heavily regarded as the de facto Golden State writer, even more so than Steinbeck—and only one of them was deemed stylish enough to front a Céline fashion campaign.
Several portraits from Didion's younger years helped crystallize her particular brand of California cool. One of the standouts was taken in 1968 by Time photographer Julian Wasser. Didion stands in front of her bright yellow Corvette Stingray in a long-sleeve dress and sandals. She has a cigarette in her hand, an icy glare on her face, and nonchalance hung on her shoulders. That carefully crafted image, along with select others from the same photo session, would become intertwined with the legend of Didion for the decades to come.
Another series of photos, less famous than Wasser's, captures a sunnier and less stoic portrait of the writer. In these, the writer is in her extremely California kitchen. They cut a softer and sunnier portrait of the writer.
These are shot by Henry Clarke, from a 1972 Vogue feature on her family Malibu home, on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway, just beyond Decker Canyon. In the first, Didion stands at the kitchen counter, chopping leafy greens on a wooden cutting board, while a hulking enamel pot, brightly colored in a sunburst of red and orange, sits beside her. The second photo is a still life of one kitchen corner. It is brimming with fresh citrus and alliums in baskets—lemons and grapefruits and oranges and Vidalia onions and garlic bulbs. There are three ceramic planters—presumably chipped and weathered by the Pacific Ocean—that house chives, mint, and a third herb I can't quite identify. Tucked away to the side are cooking and gardening books. And my favorite detail is a tiny cardboard box chock-full of notecards, presumably of recipes.
Didion's friend, the writer Susanna Moore, wrote in her memoir that "Joan" was "fastidious and particular" about her domestic life. Moore mentions some of the dishes that Didion cooked and served in that kitchen. Each reads as more Californian than the last. Artichoke vinaigrette. An orange-and-endive salad. Mexican chicken. Moore tells a story of how Didion once became irritated when Nora Ephron kept pestering her for the chicken recipe. She writes how Didion would come downstairs in the mornings to drink an ice-cold bottle of Coke from the refrigerator.
The actor and director (and also Didion's nephew) Griffin Dunne offered a PDF cookbook as a perk for the Kickstarter campaign for the documentary he made on his legendary aunt. Included were a simple parsley salad (parsley, olive oil, vinegar, and parmesan), artichokes au gratin, and the recipe for Alice Waters' coleslaw. Two books on the kitchen counter with legible titles offer another hint of her domestic sensibilities. One is "Cooking à la Cordon Bleu" by Alma Lach, and the other is Sunset Magazine's "Western Garden Book." (Didion owning a book produced by Sunset is as Californian as it gets.)
Her kitchen also has an unmistakable West Coast feel, even if the quintessential "California-style" kitchen itself is hard to pinpoint. California kitchens tend to favor tile over marble, light and warmth over modern sleekness, and there is usually a heft dosage of wood. Didion's kitchen checks all these boxes and then some.
No one writes about California like Didion. She is known for sentences that oscillate between doomy and seductive in one breath, a duality that found a worthy partner in the polarizing landscape of Southern California. "Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse...The wind shows us how close to the edge we are," she wrote in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I prefer when she writes about the state in softer terms. At another point in the very same book: "When Catalina floats on the Pacific horizon and the air smells of orange blossoms and it is a long way from the bleak and difficult East."
There is something that I find uniquely delightful about Didion having sunburst cookware and potted herbs in her kitchen. The fact that her oft-prickly prose can feel at odds with this homey kitchen. Over the decades, her friends have hinted that the Didion they know, as a confidante and host, contrasts from the Didion we collectively know as a writer. She seems warmer and kinder than the vast sum of the words we readers have devoured over the years. Her icy stare and smoke in hand and Corvette may sprint to the front of mind when one summons an image of Didion, but it's also quite fun to think of her dressing a salad of oranges and endives in her sun-soaked kitchen. An affinity for both cigarettes and citrus—that's the California way.