Joan Didion Remembers the Day Julian Wasser Took Her Portrait

Vogue spoke with Joan Didion and Julian Wasser about his portraits of her, now in Wasser’s new monograph, The Way We Were.

Shortly after Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published, in 1968, Timemagazine commissioned portraits of Joan Didion by the photographer Julian Wasser. You know the series: a young Didion in a long-sleeved dress and sandals, standing in front of her Corvette Stingray, a cigarette dangling from her right hand. Two of these portraits appear in Wasser’s new monograph, The Way We Were, published recently by Damiani, alongside many of his other seminal photographs: Steve McQueen exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke; Robert F. Kennedy five minutes before he was shot; Roman Polanski kneeling near the entrance of the house on Cielo Drive, the word PIG,scrawled in blood by the Manson family, faded but still visible on the door.

Of all the pictures he took during those years, Wasser says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, the ones of Didion were “a big event in my life.” “I’d read her fiction,” he says. “It was very L.A. She didn’t miss a thing. She was such a heavyweight person.” Wasser shot Didion on the Strip and at her rented house on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, where she lived with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter, Quintana Roo. “It was a very nice, cozy house,” Wasser remembers. “And she was a very easy person to talk to. It was like a dream. Quite nice and relaxed. No Hollywood phoniness.” Vogue asked Didion, too, for her memories of the shoot.

These portraits were commissioned by Time in 1968, just after Slouching Towards Bethlehem was published to great acclaim. What do you remember about this moment in your life?

I think someone said that the picture had been taken under circumstances that it hadn’t. What do I remember? I can’t say what I remember. I had a baby. I was living in a rented house in Hollywood. It was kind of a wonderful period of my life actually. Not because I was in a rented house in Hollywood. But just in general.

As a writer and reporter, was it strange for you to be the subject of a story? To be appearing in Time?

I don’t think it was the first time I’d been written about. The whole thing was strange. Yes, it was strange to be written about. But that probably wasn’t the first time. I loved having pictures of me with the baby. The one where she has sort of—the one that shows her hair pulled up tight? I love that picture. I love that picture. That was also at Franklin Avenue. Most of what Julian Wasser took was at Franklin Avenue.

Was this the first time you met Julian Wasser? Were you familiar with his work?

I was very familiar with his work because I was writing for magazines then and he was at the Time bureau. Any time anyone was shooting in L.A. for Time and Life, they were shooting with Julian. He was just somebody I knew very well.

What details do you remember about that day? Does anything in particular stand out to you now?

I can’t remember anything specific that stands out about the day. I don’t know how we decided to include the Corvette. It must have been some whim of Julian’s.

Joan Didion and daugther Quintana Roo Photo: Julian Wasser
Joan Didion and daugther Quintana Roo Photo: Julian Wasser

He said it was not his whim. He said, “You don’t tell a woman like that what to do.”

[Laughs] Oh, really?

Had you thought about what you were going to wear, or were the long dress and sandals just what you happened to have on?

I remember the long dress. I remember being out on the Strip in a long dress. Why, I can’t imagine.

Do you remember buying the Stingray?

I very definitely remember buying the Stingray because it was a crazy thing to do. I bought it in Hollywood.

What color was the Stingray?

The Stingray was Daytona yellow. Which was a yellow so bright, you could never mistake it for anything other than Daytona yellow.

Did you like these photographs of you?

The picture with the baby—I would say that was my favorite picture ever. Julian took beautiful pictures. Anybody who had their picture taken by Julian felt blessed.

How did you feel about the article?

I don’t remember the article. I remember the pictures.