California Forum

Native daughter Joan Didion feels like part of our family

Joan Didion made a special visit to Sacramento this month. Well, not exactly a “visit,” but it was exciting to have her with us in any case. She is, after all, one of our most famous native daughters.

Didion appeared via a taped video message to accept the honor of her induction into the California Hall of Fame. Frail, diminutive, articulate, she talked with us from her living room sofa in New York City, with her classic page boy cut and bangs and large glasses, and surrounded by pictures of her family in soft focus in the background.

“I wrote about California because I wanted to remember it,” she said in a sometimes delicate voice. She said she’s written about Death Valley, the Sierra and Yosemite because she wanted “to preserve California moments … its rivers, valleys, highways … the way water runs in its creeks.”

“I wrote to remember,” she said. “It’s part of me.”

Most of us of a certain age who grew up here, and especially those of a certain age who have parents who grew up here, feel connected to Joan Didion, though she’s been gone from the city for at least 60 years. Didion’s presence has been a thread through my own family over the years. There’s the odd fact that she and I had the same counselor at C.K. McClatchy High School (though for the record, Elizabeth Riley must have been starting her career with Didion and ending it with me).

But the strongest thread between Didion and my family connects her to my mom, Nancy Skelton, one of the first women political writers for The Sacramento Bee. My mom looked up to Joan Didion like a big sister and revered her late husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. They both started in journalism on the society desk, Didion years earlier at the Sacramento Union covering weddings, and my mom at The Bee covering social events such as Nancy Reagan’s women’s teas.

They both moved on to accomplished journalistic careers, though I’d bet my mom would have loved to live the bohemian reporter’s life and achieve the extraordinary success that Didion did. My mother, a fiercely proud native Sacramentan who loved California’s geography in all of its magnificent forms, emulated Didion’s work, her knack for detail about human behavior and emotions in such masterpieces as “Run River,” “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” all lined up in our tiny shelf of books when I was growing up.

I don’t know if my mom and Didion ever met. She did hear from John Dunne once, when she received a letter from him saying he’d liked one of her pieces and kept it in his files for future reference. He wrote that her writing was “beautiful.” My mom kept the letter until she died.

And when my mom committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1985, Didion came to her funeral, quietly sitting in the back, unnoticed. She must have felt connected to my mom, too. It might have been because in an unlikely coincidence, her only daughter, Quintana Roo, and my sister Sharon Skelton, were high school classmates at Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. Or, it might have been because Didion felt connected to another native daughter from Sacramento.

A few weeks ago, our daughter wrote a paper for her class at California Middle School, which Didion attended in the 1950s. She gave it to her grandfather, George Skelton, the other gifted writer in my family and another passionate Didion fan, to read.

“She’s a great writer,” he said. “She’s a little like Joan Didion.”

And with that, the thread of Joan Didion’s life continues to weave through generations of Sacramento families. She wrote to remember. And we remember her through her writing. She is part of us.

Karen Skelton is a political strategist and former CEO of The Shriver Report. Contact her at