I’ve wanted to share many things with Joan Didion over the years: her effortless style, her serene presence in front of an audience, her way with a sentence most of all. But it did not occur to me until recently that we do have something in common, something small but true and undeniable—the letter J. Among the items from her estate to be auctioned on Wednesday at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, there are not one, but two J paperweights: a solid brass one in the shape of the letter, and a cube of glass with a ghostly J etched into it. For a writer who was famously economical with her words, this feels like a statement.
I learned of the Didion auction on Sunday, October 30, from the New York Times. On the front page of the real estate section was a familiar black-and-white photo of the writer that caught my eye. The piece continued inside across two full pages and included more than twenty pictures. I spent a long time looking at those pictures. First, I was drawn to the hurricane lamps. They were mentioned in The Year of Magical Thinking and seemed like something wonderful to own. One writer’s light-in-a-storm to another? Yes, please. Next, I considered the black-painted and gilt stenciled chairs that she used around her kitchen table. I love wooden chairs, but I wanted just one, maybe two, and the lot includes all eight.
Eventually I went to my computer and looked up the whole catalogue and that is when I found the paperweight Js. They are in a lot that is arguably the most mundane of all the lots. In an auction that contains works by revered American artists Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn, this little arrangement of desk items includes, in addition to the Js, a plexiglass paperweight enclosing a metal fragment, a leather-bound journal stamped “Journal,” and another glass paperweight with daisies. Even the other desk sets include more interesting things, such as a horn-mounted magnifying glass and a tiny typewriter music box. The J paperweight lot was estimated to sell for between $200 and $400. I’d never bid in an auction, but I started to think I might try.
A few days later, however, the stakes had changed considerably. A set of blank notebooks that was estimated to sell for between $100 to $200 had a current bid of $2,200 (at the time of the publication of this post, they were at $2,800). Her Celine sunglasses, estimated between $400 and $800, were at $3,250 (now $5,500). A Cartier brass desk clock, also in the $100 to $200 range, had hit $2,100 (now also $5,500). My little lot of the J paperweights had doubled to $800 (now $1,500).
“Everything in the sale helps to paint the picture of how she lived in her private space,” Lisa Thomas, director of the auction house’s fine arts department, told the New York Times. But that does not fully explain these prices. The Diebenkorn lithograph estimated at $70,000 had reached only $25,000 and was holding steady (it’s now at $29,000). The bidders sending the value of a set of blank notebooks into the stratosphere were after something else.
“The items were valued based on their innate value as an object or ‘thing,’” Thomas wrote to me. “We do not add on value based on the notable person they belonged to.” However, she added, “The interest in Joan Didion is much stronger than we’ve seen for other sales.”
By Monday, November 7, I decided to go to Hudson to see the auction while it was on view. That, at least, I could do. It was the day after the New York City marathon and the day before the midterm election. While I stood in line for boarding at Penn Station, I had a marathon finisher in front of me—I could tell from the shirt and the medal around her neck—and, behind me, a man talking loudly on his phone about selling a company for $250 million. I will never run a marathon, nor sell a company, and I felt pinned. I scanned the line to see if there was anyone else who might be making a Didion pilgrimage, someone quiet and self-contained, eavesdropping on all within earshot, but it was impossible to tell.
The train was slow and delayed by track work. The gallery website had suggested sitting on the left side to enjoy the views of the Hudson River Valley, and I did. The day was beautiful, though too warm for November, and the heat seemed to be reflected in the political signs I passed on the walk up from the station. Small yards in front of deteriorating houses displayed the most.
The front door to the gallery on Warren Street was propped open, but when I approached the front desk, I hesitated. I’d never been to an auction house and wasn’t sure what to do or say. A man behind the desk, in glasses Didion would have admired, took one look at me and said, “Here for Didion? Yes, of course you are.” I was delighted to be recognized. “Through the red door,” he said.
The red door was a second entrance inside the first, to make you feel, I imagine, as if you were walking into a home. It made sense. An auction house, after all, is in the business of selling the contents of homes.
“Joan is in here,” the man said, meeting me on the other side of the red door. The first-name basis surprised me, but I liked it. He gestured through an archway and there, pushed away from a desk, was a chair with a cashmere shawl draped over it, as if she’d just stepped away.
“You’re lucky,” he said. “You have the place to yourself. Normally there are throngs in here.”
I asked about the blue walls showcasing her things; the other galleries were painted white. “Was the blue chosen…for her?” I managed. I couldn’t bring myself to say Joan.
It was not. It was for a Matisse show that was previously in the space, but everyone agreed it suited her and they left it.
After that, I had her things to myself for two and a half hours. The only other people who came through were a man and a woman, who stayed briefly and looked chiefly at the photographs, and two single women, one of whom was silent, like me, and the other, who loved Didion’s fish plates.
“My brother died in a tragic accident, this was a long time ago, and so my mother gave my sister-in-law the fish plates. But she was from the Midwest, Iowa, and didn’t want a picture of a fish looking up at her while she ate.”
I am from Michigan and do not feel the same way.
“Gimme, gimme, gimme,” the woman said, trying to summon the lost fish plates with her outstretched hands.
“Anyway, those are beautiful,” she said, gesturing at Joan’s, and moved on.
I found the paperweights, displayed on the bottom shelf of the glass case at the end of the room. The Js were hard to see because the whole lot was tucked tightly between a large crystal vase and an egg-shaped stone bowl. They were nice, but after several circuits around the room, what I kept coming back to were her cookbooks and Le Creuset pots with cooking stains; a black lacquer tray that looked perfect for carrying martinis into a room; a blue-and-green glass bud vase; the cashmere shawl (estimate $300-500; currently $2,400, sold with a bonus cashmere throw). I knew from the website that books were part of the auction, but I hadn’t expected them to look so well-loved, the jackets soft and a bit torn in places. I stared at her Graham Greene collection and her large Random House dictionary. I loved the sterling candlesticks and remembered how she felt about setting the table, lighting candles every night, the daily rituals “she shored against [her] ruins,” she’d written.
The paperweights looked pristine. They may have sat on her desk. Maybe they were nearby when she put down some of her incredible sentences. But I couldn’t convince myself that she’d loved them the way she’d clearly loved these other things. And anyway, even if I could afford them, wouldn’t she say I was thinking magically? Joan’s J on my desk would not help me write like Joan.
I looked for a long time at the chair with the cashmere shawl and the desk it was next to. I wanted to sit there, but it was the only corner of the room cordoned off. So I pulled one of the black-painted chairs up to one of the other desks and sat down, which felt illegal, but there were no signs saying not to. I checked. No one came in or out. It was completely quiet and, yes, I pretended for a few minutes. Then, on my way out, I asked what constituted a “throng” and was told they had been seeing groups of twenty-five or so, wave after wave. On Saturday they believe 3,000 people came through.
I don’t know how I earned that stolen solo time with her things, but I will treasure it. I walked back through the red door and caught the train home, to my desk.