The New York Public Library Acquires Archive of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne

By NYPL Staff
January 26, 2023
a woman and man on a sofa talking and smiling

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, 1970s

The New York Public Library has acquired the archives of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. The dual collection comprises the couple’s literary and personal papers and stands as a rich testament to two of the most successful and important writers in postwar America.

The collection offers a substantial account of their life and work, including personal and professional documents that illustrate their careers and intellectual legacies. Noteworthy pieces in the collection include:

  • Correspondence spanning six decades, including letters to and from Margaret Atwood, Richard Avedon, Candice Bergen, Helen Gurley Brown, Michael Crichton, Nora Ephron, Allen Ginsberg, Lillian Hellman, Diane Keaton, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Norman Lear, Jacqueline Onassis, Philip Roth, Charles Schulz, Tennessee Williams, and many others;
  • Several hundred photographs, many of them candid images taken throughout the couple’s life, including photographs from their 1964 marriage and of the family at home and on travels;  
  • Screenplay drafts—26 in total—that the couple worked on together that reveal the iterative nature of their collaborations. 

The collection, once processed, will be available to researchers at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, one of the Library’s world-renowned research centers, a fitting final home for the bicoastal couple’s papers. Although a California native, Didion considered both New York and California as home. The pair met in New York and spent significant periods living in the city. In Didion’s final interview with Time magazine in January 2021, she was asked: "Which feels more like home: New York or California?" Didion responded, "Both." 

The collection of approximately 240 linear feet provides exceptional detail into the life and work of Didion and Dunne, beginning with memorabilia from Didion’s infancy and encompassing their careers, their marriage and family, and finally their deaths. It is the most comprehensive collection of the authors' materials and includes personal and professional papers; manuscripts and typescripts for journalism, essays, books and screenplays; photographs; correspondence; art and ephemera; inscribed copies of books from Didion and Dunne’s library; and more. 

A typed letter and envelope and photo of a woman in a dress from a magazine

Letter and clipping from Joan Didion to her family during her early years at Vogue, 1957

The acquisition was approved by the Library’s Program & Policy Committee of the Board of Trustees at its January 26, 2023, meeting. The processing, preserving, and cataloging of the archive will begin immediately, after which the collection will be housed in the Manuscript and Archives Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It is expected to be available to patrons in early 2025.  

“The Library is thrilled to announce that our outstanding research collections will now include the archive of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, iconic voices of postwar American journalism, fiction and screenwriting,” said Declan Kiely, Director of Special Collections and Exhibitions at The New York Public Library. “We anticipate that the Didion and Dunne papers, once processed, will become one of our most heavily used collections and an essential resource for scholars, students, and those interested in their intensely collaborative life and work. Both deeply intimate and professionally significant, this collection is incomparable in its scope of materials, providing unprecedented insight into their creative process. We can’t wait to make this available to the public and inspire the next generation of thinkers and writers.”

a woman in a black short-sleeved shirt sits in a curved back rattan chair smiling

Joan Didion, 1960s

Further highlights of the acquisition include: 

  • Early journalistic writings including notes and typescripts from her interview with former Manson Family member Linda Kasabian and a file entitled “Haight Ashbury 1967” filled with autograph notes, typescripts, fragments, and a checklist of the pieces Didion wished to include in Slouching Towards Bethlehem;
  • Annotated transcripts of the alleged Central Park Five “confessions” (later revealed to be false) for Didion’s ahead-of-its-time New York Review of Books essay on the case; 
  • Dunne’s extensive correspondence with the murderer of Brandon Teena, which led to a New Yorker piece that was adapted into the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry;
  • Notes and drafts related to Didion's later works The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights;
  • Extensive records of menus, recipes, guest lists, setup notes, and handmade cookbooks documenting the couple's dinner parties;
  • Didion’s “Babyhood” book with portions filled out by her mother, with clippings and cards inserted celebrating her birth, a lock of her hair, and calendars noting early milestones—for example, 12 January 1935: “laughed aloud”;
  • Over 140 letters between Didion and her family from her college and Vogue years, 1954–1957.

As agent for the sale of the archive, Marsha Malinowski of Marsha Malinowski Fine Books & Manuscripts LLC writes: “The Estate could not be more pleased with the placement of the Joan Didion/John Gregory Dunne Archive at The New York Public Library. The synergy of the archive with existing archives at NYPL is nothing short of extraordinary. Together, NYPL’s holdings now document the expansive story of American literary culture of the 20th and 21st centuries with even greater gravitas.

Paul Bogaards, the spokesperson for the Didion Dunne Literary Trust, the custodians of the writers’ intellectual property, confirmed the Trust’s enthusiasm for the acquisition: “Joan and John were great admirers and supporters of The New York Public Library, so this is an ideal home for their archive. The Didion Dunne collection will be populated with materials that reinforce the importance of their work as great chroniclers of American life. The archives provide detailed documentation of their writing and creative process and an intimate window into their lives. They will be a welcome and essential resource for future generations of readers, students, and scholars of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.” 

The Library anticipates the Didion and Dunne papers will become one of its most heavily used collections, an essential resource for scholars, students, journalists, and writers studying Didion, Dunne, American literature and journalism, and more. The archive will join a number of collections from their contemporaries in the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division including correspondence from authors who were friends and fellow literary figures, such as the Camilla and Earl McGrath papers, the Tom Wolfe papers, the Jean Stein papers, the Ted Solotaroff papers, and the recently acquired Renata Adler papers (currently undergoing processing), as well as the New York Review of Books records. Didion and Dunne had a close and long-standing relationship with Bob Silvers, co-founder and long-time editor of the New York Review of Books; Didion once said of Silvers, “I trust him more than anyone.” 

"The acquisition of the Didion and Dunne papers reflects the Library’s commitment to collecting the papers of paradigm-changing writers—and in particular, women writers,” said Julie Golia, Associate Director, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books and Charles J. Liebman Curator of Manuscripts. “Didion’s literary contributions, her public persona, and her tenacity in the face of grief have shaped the work of countless intellectual successors, both known and unknown. At The New York Public Library, Didion’s papers will continue to inspire new generations of authors."

While both Didion and Dunne were prolific writers in their own right, they also worked together on screenplays including the 1976 film A Star Is Born, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; the 1972 film adaptation of Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays, starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld; and the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer film Up Close and Personal (based on the biography of journalist Jessica Savitch). Each draft includes handwritten annotations from both Didion and Dunne; together, they offer in-depth documentation of their editorial partnership and their impact on American popular culture.

Dunne died at 71 in 2003. Two years later, their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, died at 39. Didion wrote about her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which won the 2005 National Book Award for nonfiction and was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2007 in a one-woman production starring Vanessa Redgrave. Didion died in December 2021 at age 87 from complications of Parkinson's disease.