We were watching The Year of Magical Thinking on West 45th. Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion (sort of) was talking about her daughter Quintana, who was in an induced coma. I had always told her I’d keep her safe, she repeated. Safe. It was a thread running through the whole play: she kept the home fire burning, she had it under control, she would make them live, her dead husband and her gravely ill daughter, through the force of her will and her persistence—they would be safe.
I sat in my theater seat. Your safety isn’t the same as mine, I thought.
In her essays and books, she tells us in the details: the Corvette, the dinners at Morton’s, the Westlake School for Girls, flying to Honolulu just to write a screenplay, the Bohemian Club, the minute, intimate knowledge of what china patterns convey what message about one’s upbringing in certain Orange County circles: this is her milieu. Her themes are universal: power, history, justice, death—but her social stratum is rare, specific, and not mine.
I’m not judging this writer—whose work I love—for being wealthy. But we seek ourselves in other people’s stories. I do. This is what I hear in her story: the wild injustice of loss, the power of will and memory… and the strange, distant trappings of a luxurious life.
When she describes how she keeps Quintana safe, it involves speaking with teams of the best doctors in the city, some of whom she’s known for years. When her condition worsens, Quintana is flown via Medi-Vac from Los Angeles to another specialist in New York. Redgrave recreates the scene in the plane: she describes holding Quintana’s red suede Prada bag in her lap, her jewelry, her watch. She always weaves this layer of material detail; her story is always in the details.
They get sick like you and me, but this writer and her family do not live, or die, like you and me. When they die, their obituaries run in the New York and Los Angeles Times, and they are mourned and interred in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. You get the sense that it isn’t just that Didion and her husband were successful writers; you imagine that it was always this way. One doesn’t live on a bluff in Malibu and drive a Corvette so early in one’s married life just by writing Run, River, a successful novel, but not one of stratospheric consequence.
She never marvels. She mentions the names of restaurants, the brands of shirts, the neighborhoods, the streets, as though they were everyone’s names, like Formica or Levi’s or Elm.
It isn’t a revelation that Joan Didion is wealthy, or that any author or famous person is wealthy. I live in Manhattan, across the street from a building full of tacky apartments (if you ask me, which, maybe you didn’t) that happen to be worth more than two million dollars, and that’s starting with the one-bedrooms. Wealth is everywhere in this town. Wealth sits next to you, looms down from the billboard, stands across the street in stilettos, swishes right past you.
Vanessa Redgrave’s gorgeous, radiant face practically touches you with her lively eyes, her urgent cadences—It will happen to you, she actually says. Didion’s matter-of-fact, even prose insists nothing is unusual. Her purported point is never the detail—the restaurant, the china pattern, the maker—but she mentions them relentlessly. Sometimes, they are part of the pleasure of the litanous rhythm of her writing.
Yes, my husband will die one day, but I am not like her.
I don’t begrudge her the details—I like her work too much—but I was struck, watching Vanessa Redgrave, a more generous persona than Didion—that when she says safe and home, she and her daughter don’t worry over the things I am obsessed by: why do I feel like cleaning my mother’s house every time I go home? Does my mother have enough money to retire on? What will happen if she gets old and sick and feeble—who’s going to pay for it? How am I going to afford an apartment in this town, at $1580 per square foot? What if I don’t want to move to Bay Ridge, what if I want to live in the West Village, where Calvin Trillin could afford a down payment on a townhouse as a newlywed reporter, sixty years ago? How am I ever going to make enough money to feed my children, who don’t even exist yet?
It’s nothing new that New York pushes you to the edge of sustenance—what would pass for comfortably middle class in another city becomes barely scraping along here. In Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik writes that in New York, real wealth doesn’t buy you “luxury, twisting staircases, panoramic windows”—it buys you a “normal” home with “kitchens that look like kitchens” and “bedrooms that look like bedrooms.” A couple with Master’s degrees and Decent Salaries (one a schoolteacher, the other an architect), who pass for yuppies on the street in their $300 designer glasses and Diesel jeans and Camper shoes, who live around the corner from the Chelsea galleries, split the rent for a 400-square-foot studio and cannot fathom putting together the $140,000 down payment it would take to buy a one-bedroom apartment nearby. One that, with a little drywall and cleverness, we could raise two children in.
I grew up in a flimsy two-story apartment that eventually grew mushrooms out of the ceiling, raised on my mother’s postal clerk salary in California, which was commensurate, at the time, with a teacher’s salary. I imagined we were “middle class”—“lower middle class” if I was going to get technical. But not poor, like my classmates whose parents didn’t have green cards and washed dishes and picked oranges for a living, who sold tamales door to door on the weekends, who lived with their ten brothers and sisters in two-bedroom apartments with their abuelas. By this measure, we are rich.
Maybe Joan Didion is just an accurate chronicler, a faithful ethnographer, of her class. I said I didn’t begrudge her the details. It’s so simple: maybe I begrudge her all those comforts—from here, they look so good: a house in Malibu, never having to look at the total on the dinner check, real living rooms and bedrooms in Manhattan. Simple, predictable: I want the greener grass. It seems so callow when I’m talking about a story of losing your husband and your daughter. But if she didn’t mention it all the time, maybe I wouldn’t notice it.