Joan Didion reads from and discusses her novel "A Book of Common Prayer"
BROADCAST: Apr. 7, 1977 | DURATION: 00:53:20
Joan Didion describes the main characters Charlotte and Charlotte's ex-husbands, Warren and Leonard of her novel, "A Book of Common Prayer". Didion said she based her novel from the song, "If I Ever Cease to Love You". A fan of Didion, who after reading her novel, made the comparison and asked Didion, "So you knew my ex-husband, too?"
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel You know, there are certain writers in our time whose hallmark is quite obvious, and these, of course, are the better writers, the ones whose impact is overwhelming on you. Joan Didion is one of this group. Joan Didion, known best for her very perceptive essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", and her novel of a couple of years ago, "Play It As It Lays", and now her more recent one, it's an overwhelmingly powerful one, called "A Book of Common Prayer", Simon & Schuster the publishers. She's my guest this morning, and her hallmark would be what? A certain style, a certain passion, though she might deny it, passion offered in a cool observer's way, but also a style that is economical and the word "laconic" is used a great deal about [this? that?], an ironic, exquisite sense of irony, but mostly perceptiveness and awareness, I think. My guest, Joan Didion, and her book, "A Book of Common Prayer" in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] ["If Ever I Cease to Love" plays in
Joan Didion "I will be your witness. That would translate 'sere su testigo' and will not appear in your travelers' phrasebook because it is not a useful phrase for the prudent traveler. Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to 'history' and another to 'complications,' she imagined herself capable of shedding that baggage and came to Boca Grande, a tourist. Una turista. So she said. In fact she came here less a tourist than a sojourner but she did not make that distinction. She made not enough distinctions. She dreamed her life. She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course the story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and paregorina, but only for the living. Charlotte would call her story one of passion. I believe I would call it one of delusion."
Studs Terkel Joan Didion reading the opening passages of the book, "A Book of Common Prayer", and before that, preceded by a marching band, New Orleans marching band playing "If I Ever [sic - If Ever I] Cease to Love". Now, what would be the connection between these two?
Joan Didion "If Ever I Cease to Love" is a very strong element in one scene in the book, and actually, it was one of the--it was one of the first things I had in mind for this book. Originally, when I started the book, it was all going to take place in the South, motel rooms in the South, and part of it was going to take place at Mardi Gras. "If Ever I Cease to Love" is the Mardi Gras song, it's played all through the streets at Mardi Gras.
Studs Terkel And in the book somewhere, we'll come to that sequence, there's a guy named Warren Bogart who was the first husband of the one who was being talked about at the opening.
Joan Didion Charlotte.
Studs Terkel Charlotte Douglas. Now, the talker. The first person. The first person here is--Grace.
Joan Didion Grace. Grace Strasser-Mendana.
Studs Terkel Strasser-Mendana.
Joan Didion Nee Tabor. She was--
Studs Terkel Who--and Tabor out of Colorado.
Studs Terkel Like Jim Tabor, "Silver Jim" Tabor? [sic--likely Horace Tabor, not baseball player Jim Tabor]
Joan Didion Somebody pointed that out to me after the--copy editor at Simon & Schuster pointed that out to me. I hadn't really done it intentionally. I had not thought of "The Ballad of Baby Doe", it was--but of course that is the same name.
Studs Terkel Well, this, let's talk about her first, this narrator, and then, of course, of Charlotte, who is the central figure.
Joan Didion Yeah. Well, the narrator came out of Colorado. She grew up by herself, really. Her father and mother died when she was young. She grew up in the Brown Palace Hotel, sent herself to Chicago and California to study anthropology, went down to work in Latin America, retired herself from that field young, not satisfied with it. Married a planter in a, a coconut palms in this imaginary count--Central American country, "Boca Grande." He died and she more or less runs the country. Via her brothers-in-law.
Studs Terkel She inherited or she--or was she, she runs the country. Now this country, we'll come to this, and why this other woman she talks about came here. "Boca Grande," this--by the way, how you did this. You just--what did you do, did you--
Joan Didion To
Studs Terkel You have a map? Did you study some Latin Amer--Central American countries?
Joan Didion I went down to, to Latin America for the first time. I mean, the first time I've been south of Mexico City, was in 1973. And while I was down there, I was only down there about a week. But I got paratyphoid, so I came home and I was sick for six weeks in bed, and, so, the whole thing took on a hallucinatory cast. And as I--soon as I got strong enough to hold a book, I had people get me a lot of books out of the UCLA library about Latin America. Not because I wanted to write a novel set there, but because I was obsessed with what it had been like. I didn't understand it. The week was as shocking to me as, as the bacteria, you know.
Studs Terkel So the fact that you were ill and it had sort of a dream quality--by the way, gives this book a dream quality.
Joan Didion It has a fevered quality.
Studs Terkel A
Joan Didion Yeah. One thing I knew about this book when I began it was that it would be full of names of bacteria. You know, I think it--
Studs Terkel By the, this narrator Grace, the American woman from Colorado who married this Central American guy, this family who's powerfully, the subject--she was an anthropologist, of course.
Joan Didion Right.
Studs Terkel But then she became interested in biochemistry. So a lot of--
Joan Didion More demonstrable answers.
Studs Terkel So a lot of chemicals and a lot of germs, bacteria come into the play here.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. But whenever I think of Grace, I think of those, those charts that show the way the neutrons connect. I mean, she wanted to believe that everything could be reduced to one of those models, you
Studs Terkel But also she was an anthropologist, and so a way she's looking at the people in this book, particularly Charlotte Douglas, [we'll come to her?], has sort of members of a certain species.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. That's right. That was one of the reasons I made her an anthropologist to begin with, she had to be a trained observer.
Studs Terkel Now the place, "Boca Grande." This place has no--seems
Joan Didion Has
Studs Terkel It's almost as though it has no history.
Joan Didion Has no color, has no Spanish colonial cathedral, has no, has no hills, has no voodoo, has nothing. Has no resources. Has--it has an interior where there might be something, but nobody knows.
Studs Terkel Yeah. It has an interior where there might be something. This is kind of funny. So we come to the member of the species she's looking at and observing and met, her name is Charlotte Douglas, about 40. Attractive woman. [And meanwhile she?] has no songs like "Mountain Greenery", we know it's Cole Porter, who is Charlotte Douglas and how come she's down here?
Joan Didion She's a child of the Western--a child of the Western United States of a certain age. She was one of those romantic idealists, she grew up believing that everybody in the world--she grow up with that kind of egalitarian idea that everybody in the world was exactly like her. She's a child of the middle class, child of comfortable circumstances, and still a child in many--as she enters adult life. Of course, we don't pick her up, I mean, I, she's almost 40 when this
Studs Terkel Yeah. She's almost 40 and of course she's known, her passport, by the--looked at very carefully because it happened that her daughter, very much like Patty Hearst.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel Her daughter, Marin, who's about 17?
Joan Didion Marin is 18 when she disappears, yeah. Marin, who is, was a student at Berkeley, or so Charlotte thought. One morning, the FBI comes and tells her that Marin was one of the people who had a few days before tried to bomb a building in San Francisco and hijacked an L-1011, flew it to Utah and burned it on the salt flat and just disappeared from the face of the earth.
Studs Terkel So this is, of course, headlines all over, FBI--
Joan Didion Charlotte insists she's skiing. Yeah.
Joan Didion Insists that she's skiing at Squaw Valley.
Studs Terkel And Charlotte, of course, by the way, Charlotte--in the very opening you spoke of Charlotte, who thought her life was full of passion, you, you that is, Grace, thinks it's one of--
Joan Didion Delusion.
Studs Terkel Delusion, illusion and delusion.
Joan Didion Yeah. I think Grace is not so sure at the end, though.
Studs Terkel Hmm?
Joan Didion I think Grace is less sure of that at the end.
Studs Terkel Mmm. That Charlotte may knew more.
Joan Didion Charlotte maybe did, yeah.
Studs Terkel And may be aware of possibly everything she was doing.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel But let's stick with Charlotte. She's now--because here she was, a seeming innocent, who also didn't think much of past or present or future, did she?
Joan Didion No, no. She tried to avoid thinking of the past, she tried to live entirely in the present.
Studs Terkel So this place she came to would seem to be unnatural for her.
Joan Didion Yes. But, because she always moved not on what she saw, or what was actually out there, but on the idea that she had in her mind, she appeared not to notice that it was dangerous there. It
Studs Terkel And by the way, as we're talking about this character, this person, Charlotte, and the woman observing her, and a friend of hers, too, there, we're not in any way, you're not getting the style of Joan Didion's writing. This--it's, it's, it just holds you, it just moves. I was saying somewhere it reminded me of a Black preacher because you have a--the title, "A Book of Common Prayer".
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel So it almost has a preaching--not a--a chant quality that I think came through in one of your interviews you had. You mentioned it somewhere.
Joan Didion Yeah. I fell into that because it was sort of a complicated story. I never dealt with so many people, I'd never dealt with, on such a big canvas. I have lots of characters, violent events, and I felt I had to keep reminding the reader of where we had been, and so the repetitions came into it and I probably would have knocked them out--
Studs Terkel But a good example might be--
Joan Didion Had
Studs Terkel The opening of a chapter here. There's a reference to Warren. Warren was the first husband of Charlotte, we'll come to him in a moment, this incredible figure. And suppose you--the reading of the idea of this repetition that mesmerizes.
Joan Didion "When Warren came that day to the door of the house on California Street, Charlotte did not answer. When Warren telephoned, Charlotte hung up. When Warren stood on the sidewalk outside the house on California Street at 2 a.m. and threw stones at the windows, Charlotte closed the shutters. When Warren left the note reading quote, 'This is the worst behavior yet,' unquote, in the mailbox of the house on California Street, Charlotte tore the note in half and avoided those rooms which fronted on the street."
Studs Terkel "When Warren Came", there's another one, there's a chapter.
Joan Didion Yeah, "When Warren"--I realized after some chapters that I was never referring to the house without calling it the house on California Street. Part of that was for distance, you know, because Grace had never seen this house, and so part of that was to keep it distant from Grace.
Studs Terkel And this story, by the way, as told by Grace, is not one that is chronological. There is a free association, thoughts--
Joan Didion Since Grace is telling it, it's, it's easy to do that. Yeah. I mean, when somebody tells us a story, they skip around.
Studs Terkel She--describe Charlotte. By the way, Charlotte's been jumping around and about, maybe more about Charlotte, the picture of her. Upper middle-class, her clothes. She's very careless, like she has a $600 bag, it's
Joan Didion With the clasp broken.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Joan Didion She's one of those people who, if you look at, they have these very expensive clothes and you look at them and there is maybe a thread hanging from the shoulder or, you know, a seam is about to go someplace--or the hem, you can see a little pucker in the hem where there's a safety pin. Actually, that's probably one of the things about Charlotte I picked up from myself, is that--
Studs Terkel It's sort of a carelessness--
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel But the stuff she carries. It was at Bonwit Teller's, wasn't it?
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel It was at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Studs Terkel Made me a ring, might be a Tiffany ring.
Joan Didion It was, everything was very expensive, and she didn't seem to care
Studs Terkel No, she also wants to do this piece. Her delusion is so profound. She's even going to do a piece that "New Yorker's" gonna publish
Joan Didion Oh, she wants to do. She has projects, I mean, she has projects, all kinds of projects. She wants to start a boutique in, in Boca Grande, she wants to carry expensive French sheets in this boutique.
Joan Didion She wants to have a film festival in Boca Grande as a way of bringing in tourists. She has--she, it's that kind of pathetic ingenuity.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Joan Didion Ingenuity in a vacuum.
Studs Terkel But sometimes she's, is she or is she not aware of her, of her impact on other people as [casually?] because where she goes, something happens. Charlotte is highly charged sexually. That is, the thing about your book that's so fantastic is suggestion is there. Suggestion, she is--at--is she aware of this, or is it casual? You know, that is, it--is she unaware of the impact she has on people?
Joan Didion I think she's, she is unaware of it on one level, and yet it's just the ambiance she moves in. I mean, I think she would notice if nobody turned around, you know, when she walked into a room. She would be--she would notice it then. I think she's aware of, probably--she doesn't appear to be aware of it.
Studs Terkel But all this time she's in this place, there's a danger around. There's also an impending sense. We sense this. You said there's a fever there. It's like a dream. She ought to get out of this place, 'cause things are popping at Boca Grande, and she's in the middle of it. For one thing, her daughter is internationally known. And not
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. And she is, naturally, because of her daughter and because of, her husband's a radical lawyer, because of all of her connections, she is naturally going to be suspected of playing a role in this, in whatever happens in Boca Grande. I mean, she's not going to ever be regarded as a tourist. In fact, there are very few tourists there. Even a tourist would be suspected of being CIA in, in Boca Grande.
Studs Terkel Of course, in this, in this--where she hangs out, with her circle, involves this family, Grace's fam--Grace's brothers-in-law and their wives and Grace the narra--has all this power. They're looking for power, too.
Joan Didion They trade power among them. I mean, that's all they do is trade power, yes.
Studs Terkel And something explosive may happen and Grace, others tell Charlotte to get the hell out. But how did she get to Boca Grande? There are several stops before.
Joan Didion Yeah, about six months or six weeks after, after Marin goes underground, naturally, her first husband, Warren, whom you mentioned before, has come out to San Francisco to be with her in this hour of need. Warren is Marin's father. All he does is harass her a great deal, and he wants her to come south with him, to come to New Orleans with him. Finally, she does this. She leaves her second husband. She goes south with Warren. This is part of, there's a period of months in which somebody she can't remember later, somebody seems to have shuffled her memory. Lot of motel rooms in the South. Very peculiar evenings. She's pregnant at the time she leaves San Francisco, she and Leonard are going to have a child. She loses this ch--or, she has the child. The child is born hydrocephalic, no liver function, everything possible wrong with it. In the South. She decides not to let the baby die in the hospital. She takes the baby down to the Yucatan, and the baby dies in the Yucatan, and then she drifts south through the Caribbean, just going to airports. And finally she gets to Boca Grande.
Studs Terkel See, as you tell it now, and of course, in the reading of it, in the writing of it, you have this, there's this fever, you spoke of a fever. She is a temperate zone child. She's in the temperate zone. And she is, I told you in the beginning when you came, I know Charlotte. Well, she's at the temperate zone, yet there she is in a fevered atmosphere, and she herself is almost hallucinating. It's like a dream. And so she loses this child near a Coca-Cola plant in somewhere, in one
Joan Didion In Mérida, yes. Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel And I was telling you I have a feeling that's almost a Samuel Beckett feeling of like, there is a "Waiting for Godot", there's a dream quality. There's a almost immobilized quality, at the same time there's a, the motions are going through.
Joan Didion It's a very s--thing that kept impressing me about equatorial countries is that nothing appears to move, and yet everything does. I mean, when you say immobile, the sun doesn't even--you know, the days don't get shorter or longer because it's at the equator.
Studs Terkel I know, but as you're talking, we have to speak of these people who are so much a part of her life, you mention her first husband, casually you mention Warren Bogart. What a character. Let's come to Warren Bo--how would you describe him? Then I'll give you my--then we'll read him.
Joan Didion People have told me who read the book, a lot of people have said to me, "Did you know my first husband?" [Laughter] It seems to be everybody's first husband. Um, he, he is a brilliant man. He is a terrible man. He harasses and bullies people. He is very often smarter than anybody knows. He is wasted in many ways.
Studs Terkel Self-destructive.
Joan Didion Self-destructive. Destructive not only of himself, but destructive of other people.
Studs Terkel But of others around him. Brings out the worst in people around him.
Joan Didion Yes.
Studs Terkel There's a scene there with a couple, the Mardi Gras scene we're talking about. What was their name?
Joan Didion Fayard.
Studs Terkel Unbelievable scene. But here's Warren, the description of Warren: "'Warren.' Charlotte did not want to hear Warren on the radio." He was on the radio then. I guess they were asking him about
Joan Didion About Marin, right.
Studs Terkel About the daughter, his daughter. Now Leonard, this is her second husband, we'll come to him in a minute. A very fascinating guy. "Leonard had once said that Warren could arrive in a town--why don't you read? It's your book.
Joan Didion "Leonard had once said that Warren could arrive in a town where he knew no one and within twenty-four hours he would have had dinner at the country club, been offered a temporary chair in Southern politics at the nearest college, and been on the radio." That's--
Joan Didion Yes. He, he is--he has a great deal of charm when he wants to. And he--
Studs Terkel Charm when he wants to.
Joan Didion Yes, and even when he doesn't want to, he makes a, he makes himself--everybody's glad to see him come, and everybody's glad to see him
Studs Terkel Yeah. So he been fired. Of course, he's been at many universities, and immediately I guess he charms everybody, doesn't he?
Joan Didion Yes,
Studs Terkel Especially, I suppose, faculty wives and women students.
Joan Didion Yeah, yeah, 'cause he's smart, and he's, he's a--
Studs Terkel But he's a bully.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel He's a bully, isn't he?
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel Now, Charlotte, she can't handle him. I think her [second to Warren is that?]--she doesn't--I mean, she's a natural
Joan Didion She can't be in the same room with him, even, no. She can't--he has her number. He--
Studs Terkel What do you mean he has her number?
Joan Didion He can make her feel--he knows how to make her feel bad. He knows how to make her feel guilty. He knows how to, how to get her to do exactly
Joan Didion And she knows she's being manipulated, but she can't help
Studs Terkel Then he knows how to hit her most vulnerable spot. Whether it's a guilt about Marin or about anything.
Studs Terkel And she's trying to escape him, isn't she, in a way.
Joan Didion Yes. Yes, and finally she gives--finally, she gives in.
Studs Terkel But you see her second husband, we'll come to him in a minute, Leonard, he knows one thing about Charlotte, doesn't he? He knows that she wants to have that baby--
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel That child who was born hydrocephalic--so that, that could free her from Warren.
Joan Didion Right, right. Yeah, because if she has a prior responsibility to a baby, she can't possibly do the inevitable and leave with Warren.
Studs Terkel But Warren is always showing up, isn't he? Some--uninvited. Oh, by the, he has tremendous gall. Effrontery, doesn't
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Doesn't think twice.
Studs Terkel But they don't know what to do--boy, this guy, as you say, many women read your book say, "Have you met my first husband?" [chuckling]
Joan Didion Yes. "You must have known
Studs Terkel But what he does is that, it's as almost he were a snake, you know, the wise serpent, you know. And they're like the birds, hypnotized by him. The host and the hostess.
Joan Didion Yeah. He's a good person, don't you think? In the end--I don't mean in the end of the book, but at bottom. At bottom, Charlotte, at bottom, Charlotte thought that Marin should have been in touch with him, gone to his funeral at bottom. At bottom, Charlotte had a lot of respect for him, she just didn't want to be around him.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And by the way, we're talking, Marin should have gone to his--where he, the book also deals in the some way, it deals with death, but death and a--in a way, in a death in a live way, it--doesn't it? That Warren is dying.
Studs Terkel Grace the narrator is dying of cancer. Warren is dying and knows, he lies about it. And Leonard, Charlotte's second husband says, "He wants you to see him die. He wants you." So, in a sense, Warren is clinging toward--I guess, toward Charlotte and possibly--impossibly to Marin.
Studs Terkel And he wants that por--his portion of life.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. Yes, I was very touched by, uh, by Warren, in that, at that, during that part.
Studs Terkel Of course, this is a--
Studs Terkel This is the special giftedness of Joan Didion, you see, you got this guy, he's a horrible guy, he's
Studs Terkel At the same time, you get this tremendous feeling of loss at the end when he dies because something, you know, horrendous though he is, the sig--this vitality that he is, the vitality's gone. So you read--the book is about vitality.
Joan Didion I thought it was about life, yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah, it is about life. I said it's about death, it's really about life.
Joan Didion I thought it had a lot of joy in it.
Studs Terkel It does! Well, just, by the way I must say it's a very funny book--
Joan Didion Well, I'm glad you think that.
Studs Terkel I was--when I first met you, I was going to say I read a very funny book. It's a funny book, but of course it's not laughing out loud, the outrageousness of some of it, you know, the disjointed conversations. We should perhaps try to tackle that after this pause. One, the visit the FBI, we gotta have that, and there's one, Charlotte's disjointed conversations you hear so often, but you do it in a poetic way, and yet it's true. It's "A Book of Common Prayer" of Joan Didion, and it's Simon & Schuster the publishers, and it's just absolutely full of exquisite irony and lot of insight and funny. And it's a book about life, well, obviously about life, 'cause you know that guy. You know that woman. In a moment after this message. [pause in recording] And so we resume our conversation with Joan Didion. Since you mention Warren and funny book, is she--Charlotte is visited by the FBI a lot, because they want to find out--
Joan Didion About
Studs Terkel If she's heard from the underground girl. I won't--and so there are a lot of scenes there,
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. They come every morning, in fact. Yeah, mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel They come every morning. And she knows the phone's being tapped and, well, let's have one--and several, several visits, this
Joan Didion Their phone has been tapped for a long time, actually, because of Leonard's involvement with radical
Studs Terkel Oh, perhaps a word about Leonard before we hear the sequence with Warren. Now her second husband, Leonard, here's another very--boy, a guy of several dimensions.
Joan Didion One of those--yeah, he's an operator.
Studs Terkel How would you describe
Joan Didion Ah, he's, he's a radical lawyer from San Francisco, but he has, he has a firm that also handles estate work. In other words, he can do anything. He's, he handles those kind of show trials with names like "The Alameda Three," but he also--
Studs Terkel He's more than a guy like Kunstler, he's more
Studs Terkel He has that touch. But he also has other things.
Joan Didion Right, and he, he's one of those fixers.
Studs Terkel He handles rock groups, too,
Joan Didion Oh, yes, yes, he will, he handles any, any place there's action he
Studs Terkel He could be the producer of a hot movie,
Studs Terkel Put up stuff. And he also handles [heart?] now and then. He's involved in international stuff, we don't quite know what,
Joan Didion No, he's one of those people who meets with, oh, people from Third World groups that say--I always think of him having meetings in Montreal with people from--
Studs Terkel He's a celebrity, isn't he?
Joan Didion He's
Studs Terkel You find this guy once in a while in a rag like "People."
Joan Didion Right.
Studs Terkel Yeah,
Joan Didion He arranges things. He can find money for people who want to buy guns.
Studs Terkel Now, there's something interesting here. Warren, see, now Charlotte doesn't know how to handle Warren Bogart. But Warren Bogart doesn't quite know how to handle Leonard.
Joan Didion No. And Leonard knows how to handle Warren.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Because Leonard, he's this guy who's the arranger, nothing offends him. He's above it all.
Joan Didion That's
Studs Terkel And Warren wants to outrage people, can't outrage him.
Joan Didion Yes, yes, that's exactly it.
Joan Didion Yeah,
Studs Terkel That you have a great scene in there somewhere, we'll find, but now we come--so that's, now we know who these two husbands are, ex and present one of Charlotte. And now she's being visited. And what'd it say--oh, Grace is telling the story. And I'll do Warren!
Joan Didion Okay.
Studs Terkel This is a good scene. Why don't you set it up?
Joan Didion "I know why Charlotte liked talking to the FBI. The agents would let her talk about Marin. Their devotion to Marin seemed total. They were pilgrims pledged to the collection of relics from Marin's passion. During the days before Warren arrived in San Francisco, the agents had taken Charlotte to see Marin's apartment on Haste Street in Berkeley. The agents had taken Charlotte to see the house on Grove Street in Berkeley where they had found the cache of .30-caliber Browning automatic rifles and the translucent pink orthodontal retainer Marin was supposed to wear to collect--to correct her bite. In both those places, the gray morning light fell through dusty windows onto worn hardwood floors and Charlotte had remembered for the first time how sad she herself had been at Berkeley before Warren came to her door."
Studs Terkel And so the FBI guy says, "Let's flop back to one of the theories you were espousing yesterday, Mrs. Douglas. When you--" and Warren says, "Let's flop back to all of them." "And Warren had been sitting in the same chair ever since he walked into the house and dropped his shopping, shopping bags." Oh, of course, he'd come in with a brown shopping bag. Warren--
Studs Terkel And probably sloppy, in dress, just barge in unexpected. "He had gotten up only to get himself drinks and once, perfunctorily, when the FBI men arrived and Leonard left. 'I'm the felon's father,' he said to the FBI men. He seemed bent now in a fit of laughter. 'I want to flop back to every one of these theories Mrs. Douglas has been espousing.' Espousing. He's taking off on the FBI guy now. "In my, in my absence. I've been out of touch, I didn't know Mrs. Douglas had theories. To espouse."
Joan Didion And Charlotte says, trying to get back to the FBI man, "When I what?"
Studs Terkel "'Flip-flop. We need ice, Charlotte.' 'When you--' the FBI man glanced uneasily at Warren"--of course, he can't quite figure him out--"'When you said yesterday that "Marin might have, might have been sad," what exactly did you mean? Normal, everyday blues, or something more out of the mainstream?' 'Just your normal everyday mainstream power-to-the-people latifundismo Berkeley blues.' Warren was still bent with laughter. "Just those old American blues, spell that with a K."
Joan Didion "'I don't know what I meant,' Charlotte said."
Studs Terkel "'Some theory. Did you get the K? Did you get the K? Did you spell it with a K?'" Finally the FBI guy says, "'To push on for a moment, Mrs. Douglas, now the office raised one other question. Did your daughter ever mention a Russian name of, uh, let's see,'" and he examines his notebook. "'Those old old American blues didn't come up the river from New Orleans, they K-O-M-E up the river from New Orleans. Get it? Charlotte? Did he get the K?'"
Studs Terkel "'Gurdjieff,' the FBI man said. 'Russian name of Gurdjieff, Marin ever mention him?' 'In the first place, he was Armenian,' Warren said. 'Otherwise you're on top of the case.' 'I'm not sure I get your meaning, Mr. Bogart.' 'Not at all. You're doing fine.' 'Excuse me. The Gurdjieff I'm'"--this is the FBI guy--"'The Gurdjieff I'm thinking of is a Russian.' 'Excuse me, the Gurdjieff you're thinking of is Bashti Levant?'' Oh, an explanation of this, Bashti Levant is a rock producer whom Warren hates, who is a client of Leonard, on whose plane he was traveling to get here. Warren's [unintelligible]--
Joan Didion And Charlotte says, "'Warren. Please.'"
Studs Terkel "'Don't you think that's funny, Charlotte? "Excuse me. Don't you think that's funny, Charlotte? Excuse me, the Gurdjieff you're thinking of is Bashti Levant?"'"
Joan Didion "'It's funny, Warren. Now--'"
Studs Terkel "'You used to think I was funny.'" Now, by the way, on this one point, there's a, most, almost a wistful part right there. Warren in all his horsing around, comic stuff here, "You used to think I was funny." Might be said that way. "Used to think I was funny." Isn't that it? Yeah.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. And there would be an undertone of that, whether, you know [better now?]
Studs Terkel Let's continue. I like this. "'Let me try to put this on track.' The FBI man cleared his throat. 'Did you ever--Marin ever mention a Gurdjieff of any nationality? Ever mention reading about
Joan Didion him?'" "'No,' Charlotte said."
Studs Terkel "'Well, Marin can't read,'" that's Warren, of course. "'She plays a good game of tennis. She's got a nice backhand, good strong hair and an IQ of about
Joan Didion And Charlotte just closes her eyes.
Studs Terkel "'Charlotte. Face facts. Credit where credit's due. You raised her. She's boring.' 'I'm not sure this is a productive tack,' the FBI man said. 'Irving's not sure this is a productive tack,' Warren raised his--rattled his ice. 'Hear, hear, Charlotte. Listen to Irving.' 'Bruno,' the FBI man said. 'The name is Bruno Furetta.' 'Don't mind me, Irving. I've been drinking.'"
Joan Didion "'I happen to know you're not all that drunk, Warren.' Charlotte is not opening her eyes. 'I happen to know you're just amusing yourself as usual.'"
Studs Terkel "'You get the picture.'"
Joan Didion Charlotte stands up, "'And I want to tell you that I am not--'"
Studs Terkel "'She's overwrought,' Charlotte heard Warren say as she fled the room. 'Let me give you some advice, Irving. Never mind the Armenians, cherchez le tennis pro.'" And there's the scene. Oh, meaning Marin was--
Joan Didion Marin played a lot
Studs Terkel Played a lot of tennis. So we have scenes like this, and of course here is--Charlotte is getting it from all sides, isn't she?
Joan Didion Mmm. She can't--at that point I think she's just beside herself.
Studs Terkel But throughout--
Joan Didion Oh, she's totally misperceived Marin.
Studs Terkel Marin.
Studs Terkel We'll
Joan Didion Totally misperceived her.
Studs Terkel And there's Marin, of course, Marin who isn't there, who's somewhere. And, of course, Charlotte can't get her out of her mind. In fact, every time she's thinking back now, it's because of
Joan Didion Of Marin, right. She's always thinking back to a tiny child. [And there's none?].
Studs Terkel And a certain memory of the Tivoli. Oh, many memories. There's Easter. Tivoli, this is the, in Copenhagen with the Luna Park, Riverview, Tivoli. And in her mind what? A child's point of what? A moment of gentle remembrance.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. There's just everything she, she just plays over again and again. It's like--it's as if she has a collection of snapshots that she just keeps looking at in her mind, of always, of a very small child. Um, I realized when I was about halfway through the book that there was no point when, when Charlotte mentioned Marin after Marin was about 12.
Studs Terkel And you know what's so funny also, of course this is the crazy part, upper-middle-class, there's Copenhagen or a certain, later married to Warren, there's no money at the Plaza Hotel, one of the hotels. There's no dough in the restaurant, but it's a memory [east?] of a little princess. In fact, that, that headwaiter speaks of the
Joan Didion How's the baby principessa, yeah.
Studs Terkel But what's crazy is this girl, for better or for worse, absurdly, ridiculously revolutionary. And there are--there are tapes sent out to the world and this is the nutty part. A little girl, 12 years old, upper-middle-class, raised in what? A private, private
Joan Didion Private schools, Episcopal day schools in San Francisco. Wanted to go to Stanford, couldn't get in, went to Berkeley.
Studs Terkel Of course you're talking about something, you're talking about--you're writing about something nutty too, aren't you? Here. In a way.
Joan Didion I think that Marin had no sense of, uh, any, anything that the world was about. I mean, and she couldn't put words together. She didn't listen to words. Somebody told her some words that sounded alright and so she became a revolutionary. She didn't know what revolutionary meant. She didn't--she thought she was the first one in the world.
Studs Terkel By the way, she thought she was the first one in the world. Now we come to, why, what somebody might call one of the subtexts of the book, you know, I like to use that word. I always wanted to use it, I'll use it now. Okay. And that's, there seems to be a lack of a--Charlotte, too, but certainly Marin--there's no past as Boca Grande.
Joan Didion Has
Studs Terkel Where Charlotte winds up--what happens to her has to happen, unfortunately. Seems to be. Didn't have to but--where the country has no past, Charlotte and Marin
Joan Didion Have no sense of the past at all. No. I don't know. I hadn't planned that. Um, I thi--they have no personal past. And they also have no sense. Charlotte knows nothing about, Warren and Leonard taught her everything she knows about history, and she can, she like Marin can can give you back certain phrases. She knows the initials. I mean, she would probably know PLO and all those initials, but on a blank map of the world she couldn't fill in the countries. I mean, she has these vacuums in her education. She's almost one of those tabula rasa, she's an American. [laughs]
Studs Terkel Yeah. They got it, now we--she got the words without the meaning.
Studs Terkel And this is also--so Charlotte, is of course, is thrown, doesn't know what to do about Marin. Well, who would? But the fact is it's inevitable almost, it's natural that Marin come from Charlotte.
Joan Didion Yes.
Joan Didion Yes.
Studs Terkel That might have been Charlotte at 17.
Joan Didion Yes.
Studs Terkel If she were with these people. There.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. Exactly. If she met Warren whe--if Charlotte met Warren when she was about Marin's age, and if Warren had said to her instead of saying, "Uh, we're going to New York," if he had said, "We're going to bomb the Transamerica building," she would have gone.
Studs Terkel But because she has no--somebody, she doesn't--she can't make a decision, can she?
Joan Didion Not--
Studs Terkel Charlotte.
Joan Didion Consciously.
Studs Terkel Not consciously. So you think she made an unconscious decision?
Studs Terkel To stay in Boca Grande.
Joan Didion Decided to stay in Boca Grande. I think she knew exactly what she was doing.
Joan Didion She gets killed, and she must have known she was getting killed, because on her way out to dinner the night she gets shot, she--I mean, it's absurd to go out to dinner to begin with, she's going to have dinner alone. She's the last person she knows left in Boca Grande at that point.
Studs Terkel People are leaving because the coup is taking place.
Joan Didion Everybody has left.
Studs Terkel About, about this coup, it's not--no one knows what side is--it's not political. I mean, it's political, but no one knows who the hell is what.
Joan Didion No. No, it's all, it's all going to end in just another exchange of power among Grace's family by marriage. But for the time being it's dangerous on the streets and it's gone on for longer than it should have. I mean, usually they expect these things to be over in three or four days. This one is, there have been more guns in evidence. There was more money somehow. Nobody knows where the extra money came from. So it's dangerous. Everybody's gone. The embassy people are gone. Grace is even gone. Everybody has tickets to New Orleans and finally they take the plane. Um, Charlotte is, this--won't leave, she stays there, and on the night she finally gets shot, she comes home from her--she has a volunteer job at a birth control clinic, she comes home, [I meant to it?], and she goes to work and nobody's coming in for birth control devices on a day when they're shooting in the streets. But she goes to work, she leaves work, she comes home, she changes into a clean dress and goes out for dinner, and on the way she mails Marin's address that she has recently been given by Leonard to Grace, and she also mails a ring that she has, so she must have known.
Studs Terkel It's as though she were--known also as though she were--you describe her somewhere as though she were living underwater.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel That's that feeling of un--as things are around her, but her non-decision is really a decision.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. It's a way
Studs Terkel By the way, she's not weak. Of course, there are certain things she does here. She works in this clinic, this cholera clinic.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel And she's strong, and she could wring the neck of a chicken with her, twist it, with her fingers.
Joan Didion She has that weird, quixotic strength that a lot of, of frontier people have. This is a kind of demented strength in certain--I mean, inappropriate places. I mean, it's silly to perform. She performs a tracheotomy--
Studs Terkel A tracheotomy.
Joan Didion On somebody at--yeah. Well, it's, it's silly, you know? I mean, you could kill a person. You could also, there are other--there are more efficient ways of doing it. She has that kind of deranged strength at times.
Studs Terkel It's spontaneous but spontaneous in a--yeah,
Joan Didion Yeah. It's a gunfighter's strength. You know,
Studs Terkel Oh, she's--by the way, Charlotte herself was from where? Cali--
Joan Didion She's from California.
Studs Terkel Well, that figures, doesn't it? That's kind of a nutty state, isn't it?
Joan Didion Well, I'm from California.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I know. [laughter]
Joan Didion But there is a peculiar strain.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And so this is, this is Charlotte.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel She's American, isn't she?
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel I mean really American. There's an innocence, and yet you get the feeling there's--she knows more.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel It's as though sh--very American, isn't it? Not just the innocence of "I'm guiltless," no, I [unintelligible] and also something, a meaningless, a mean, a meaningless death.
Joan Didion Yeah. When I started writing the book I thought of her as, as one of those transcendentalist heroines. I mean, the last living transcendentalist, somebody who walked around with an idea in her mind and thought that was the way the world was.
Studs Terkel In a way it was Margaret Fuller.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah, Margaret wanted to swallow the world like an oyster, she
Joan Didion Yeah, I mean really, at the end of, at the end of this, Charlotte is really saying, "I accept the universe like this," as Margaret Fuller said.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Margaret Fuller, by the way, could have saved her life. You know, she was in the boat off Fire Island, and she decided not to. It's like Charlotte--she drowned off Fire Island coming back from Italy.
Joan Didion And she could have saved
Studs Terkel Oh, yeah! I mean, did, she, she just, stayed. Very much like Charlotte, it just occurred to me.
Joan Didion Really?
Studs Terkel Yeah. In that, again, facing, she might have faced scandal back here because she was with Ossoli in the--she might have faced scandal. Here again, Charlotte and Marin. And so this book, there's some--I'm thinking about--Charlotte dies, Marin is somewhere way up there, doesn't, and Grace, who is dying of cancer, the narrator, is now in the United States.
Joan Didion Grace goes to see--makes a trip, for Charlotte's sake to see Marin. Whether she makes it for Charlotte's sake or whether she makes it out of curiosity herself, I don't know, but she goes up to see Marin and it's a most unsatisfactory visit.
Studs Terkel Well, Marin doesn't even know who Charlotte was, does she?
Joan Didion No. She--anymore than Charlotte really knew who she was. Marin always, um, saw Charlotte, I mean, she has a picture in her mind of of Charlotte that just isn't true.
Studs Terkel You know, she saw--perhaps we can, if we could find that spot here. The, this--here. Mother and child, parent and child, the complete--oh, by the way, before we come to that, I just happened to notice this: Warren. Not Warren, the husband, the lawyer, the second husband, who, the [operative husband?]--it's also your chant repeat again, but also tells us a good deal about emptiness.
Joan Didion Yeah, he had--this is when Warren had, Warren had had died, and Leonard has come down to Boca Grande to try to get Charlotte out. Um, and this is a passage there. "He"--Leonard--"He had found Marin Bogart in an empty room in Buffalo. He had buried Warren Bogart in an empty grave in New Orleans. He had come to save Charlotte from an empty revolution in Boca Grande, and Charlotte was not listening."
Studs Terkel The word is empty.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel Empty is the word that repeats. Empty.
Joan Didion I had a great worry about using it. I wanted it repeated three times there, and in the second place about that empty grave in New Orleans I thought, oh, I can't use it, all graves are empty. I mean, I-- [chuckles]
Studs Terkel By the way, didn't the form, hearing it of chant or this--this, by the way, you talk, this book is about life, because there's nothing more lifelike than a Black preacher chanting, it's song--this is song, too. The words become song, bardic, you know, and you're caught up in it, as a reader's caught up in this book. Did the title then come from that?
Joan Didion No, I, the title I had when, before I wrote a word of the book I decided to call it "A Book of Common Prayer" because I wanted--because I thought it was gonna be, one reason was that I thought it was gonna be a really hard book to write, and I wanted it to be a prayer.
Joan Didion But as I, as I worked on it, I think the title influenced the style a great deal.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel Toward the end is the meeting of Grace, the narrator, and Marin, and absolutely incredible. Just perhaps read that little piece of that--by this time we know. Marin--does Marin know? Marin knows that Charlotte is dead now.
Joan Didion Yeah, they're in a dirty room in Buffalo, and they've been talking for a while. "'All right,' I said finally to Marin Bogart. 'You tell me, you tell me what you think your mother did in Boca Grande.' 'I think she played tennis all day,' Marin Bogart said. 'She didn't ever play tennis,' I said. 'All day, every day. I only remember her in a tennis dress.' 'I never saw her in a tennis dress,' Grace says. As a matter of fact, Charlotte had told me that she and Marin once modeled matching tennis dresses in a fashion show at the Burlingame Country Club and that because she did not play tennis she had needed to ask Marin how to hold the racket correctly. 'I'm quite sure your mother didn't play tennis,' I said. 'She always wore a tennis dress,' Marin Bogart said. 'More than once?' 'Always.' 'Didn't you play tennis?' 'Tennis,' Marin Bogart said, 'Is just one more mode of teaching an elitist strategy. If you subject it to a revolutionary analysis, you'll see that. Not that I think you will.'"
Studs Terkel Yeah. And so here you have two different kinds of memories. Oh, she uses the phrase "elitist strategy," a phrase that she's picked up, a jargon she's
Studs Terkel But also the, her memories of her mother, this is the complete chasm here, absolutely
Joan Didion Yes, she seems to have forgotten that she herself played tennis constantly. That she--
Studs Terkel No, but also that of her mother at tennis, versus, the mother's memory, though, we come back to her is the little girl--
Joan Didion In a, in a flowered long
Studs Terkel The flow--a humiliating moment when Warren let them without dough.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm.
Studs Terkel At the same time, beautiful. And the Tivoli in Copenhagen. It's funny--and there's no connection between the two.
Joan Didion No. Very strange between the two.
Studs Terkel Now in doing this--you find this in doing this book, Charlotte is no stranger to you. Just as Warren to many of your women readers was no stranger to them. "You must know my first husband," Charlotte is around.
Joan Didion Sure. I thought that Charlotte was around. Some people who've read the book said, they have told me that they, that they thought Charlotte was some kind of contemptible woman, they never met anybody like Charlotte. I thought, where do they go? Where do they live, where do they go to dinner with? I know Charlotte.
Studs Terkel But Charlotte also, you see, the thing about Charlotte is she's very funny, she can be very funny company.
Joan Didion Yeah.
Studs Terkel Charlotte, you know? In her own way, yet you know there are thoughts in her. You know, you have a feeling that she's less innocent or put it another way, brighter than she pretends to be.
Joan Didion Right.
Studs Terkel You have a feeling that she's pretending to a coolness and casualness and standoffnish, whereas the opposite is exactly the case.
Joan Didion Mm-hmm. She's a very complicated woman.
Studs Terkel Even carrying that fancy stuff around, that seeps out of her bag or whatever it is, sloshily-like. It's not [deliberately?], it's just--that's kind of a, like a rudder is loose.
Joan Didion She has a way of, of existing entirely on manners when she's distracted. When the FBI men come to tell her about Marin, I mean, she goes through this whole morning, the house keeps filling up with FBI men, she hasn't even had breakfast yet, and she keeps serving coffee, and when they actually sort of prove to her that it was Marin, all she can think to talk about is a caterer that they've been talking about earlier, and--
Studs Terkel Yeah. Also, as--she's on the island on Boca Grande and death in the air, Grace has taken the plane, Charlotte's putting some perfume, expensive perfume on Grace's wrist, you know, little things
Joan Didion And a gardenia for her.
Studs Terkel And a gardenia for her, Grace says, that's what you're talking about, aren't you? Things like that. Or, when her husband Leonard is coming down there,
Joan Didion She wonders about having a, why she can't have an evening for him.
Studs Terkel But this is after the death of Warren, impending doom. An evening.
Joan Didion An evening. As, also, there's a revolution about, the airport is closing. I mean, it's--
Studs Terkel Yeah, but this is it.
Joan Didion Yeah, but she thinks in those, in those trim forms. Old forms she relies on. And she knows that they're empty, but she runs through them.
Studs Terkel "A Book of Common Prayer". You know, we opened--Joan Didion. Simon & Schuster the publishers. It's really, it's, um, I'm looking it through now, I feel like reading some of the stuff out loud with you, but time does not permit. I was thinking of another scene there, the nature of dialogue, the way Charlotte talks. She's still thinking about something else. Somebody's talking about something entirely different. The disjointed, disparate kind of conversation. It's very funny, which, by the way, it's a very funny book.
Studs Terkel You know, we opened--Warren--we opened with "If Ever I Cease to Love", a Mardi Gras song, the lyrics of it are being sung by Warren in the book, he's teaching a girl he picked up, and he's very brutal to her, in this family that he's invaded and taken over, but when Warren dies, "Didn't He Ramble?", the song which is, of course, is the great old New Orleans marching song on the way back from the cemetery.
Joan Didion Is played at his funeral.
Studs Terkel Well, wasn't Charlotte in a way a kind of rambling girl?
Studs Terkel So it'd apply to her, too, wouldn't
Joan Didion Yes.
Studs Terkel Didn't she ramble? And since say the book is about--I said it's about death and it's about life, that song is just perfect to close our conversation because on the way to the cemetery, there's a slow march, they would bury the dead okay, and the way back is "Didn't He Ramble?" And this is for the living. Which is your book. Joan Didion. Thank you very much. "A Book of Common Prayer". Simon & Schuster, and available. I wanted to meet you anyway.
Joan Didion Oh.