“Maybe Broccoli Doesn’t Like You Either” (Lot 151) On the Allure of Joan Didion’s Objects
Mary Kate Frank Wonders at the Power We Give to Things
Joan Didion’s seashells are for sale and I am stuck behind a Greyhound bus on I-87 North. The bus, I am convinced, is loaded with people who want the shells. I don’t know whether I want the shells, but I would like to put one to my ear and imagine hearing the Pacific.
I pass the bus.
It is October 31, the first day that An American Icon: Property from the Collection of Joan Didion is open to the public at Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York. It is Halloween, and I am the ghoul who wants to listen to the shells (Lot 50), look through the magnifying glass (Lot 78) and sit on the slipcovered sofa (Lot 22). Never again will it all be together. On November 16, Lots 1-224 will be auctioned, a little less than a year after Didion died at 87 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. Proceeds from the sale will go towards Parkinson’s research and patient care at Columbia University, as well as the historical society in Didion’s hometown of Sacramento.
The auction includes valuable artwork. I admire the Cy Twombly lithograph (Lot 95) that Didion and her late husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, bought one day when they were meant to be shopping for a winter coat. (It happens.) But how my heart thumps over the dictionary (Lot 77) left open in Dunne’s office, not to mention the group of Didion’s prescription eyeglasses (Lot 189).
Why would I choose the eyeglasses over a first edition of The White Album? What makes me covet the everyday object? I believe there is power in the things our favorite writers keep close, the objects they run their fingers over: loose buttons in a box (Lot 169), seashells on a mantle. Evidently, I am not alone. As I write this, bidding on the shells has reached $1,000.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote.
The first story I tell myself, in front of her Cartier desk clock (Lot 68), is that I can afford to look. The second: If I put this clock on my desk, my work will be blessed.
Blessed by Joan Didion? By Cartier? Just blessed. As long as I leave the clock stopped at 10 minutes to three.
I need to know that the clock was found stopped precisely on that time. (It was.) Did Didion alphabetize her books? I hear another potential bidder inquire. (No.) Tracy Daugherty, author of the Didion biography The Last Love Song, recalls that someone once asked him whether she used wooden or stainless-steel spoons for cooking. (The answer is unclear, but I can confirm there are no wooden spoons up for auction.)
Questions like these, Daugherty observes, are usually about something else altogether.
“I think what we all want to know about a writer or an artist is: How did they do it?” he tells me by email. We, the readers, avoid dwelling on talent and focus instead on method. Do you use a pen or a pencil? we ask our favorite writers. We hope that knowing the answer will help our own efforts.
Yes, I think, remembering myself poring over Jill Krementz’s photos of writers at their desks. How do you do it? If I arrange my desk like this, can I do it too?
I have come close to trouble, imbuing objects with magic.
For several hours in July 2021, I was the high bidder on Sylvia Plath’s rolling pin (Lot 45) at an auction at Sotheby’s London.
Let me explain.
I’ve read Plath’s poetry since I was a teenager, copying “Mad Girl’s Love Song” into my journal in runny black ink near the lyrics to Hole’s “Doll Parts.” (Was anyone ever so young?) The summer of the auction, I had just finished Red Comet, Heather Clark’s brilliant new biography of Plath. My head was full of her. I felt in fresh awe of her genius.
Okay, you say. But why the rolling pin?
I found the chipped wood beautiful. I knew it was an object that had brought Plath joy. I believed it would bring me joy. It would live on my desk. Stuck on a sentence, I’d turn it over in my hands. The words would come. I’d roll out pages like pastry dough.
One night, I raised my digital paddle at Sothebys.com and clicked until I reached 5,500 British pounds. Until a green message flashed: “The current bid is with you.”
I went to sleep pleased, not grasping that I seriously might, you know, win. I woke up to reality in the form of an email from Sotheby’s. The auction house needed me to submit a copy of my passport or driver’s license to confirm both my identity and my billing address.
“Should you be successful in this auction we will be unable to release the property to you until ID has been added to your account,” the email read.
Should you be successful. The terror of those words.
Numbers began to churn. The exchange rate put my bid at roughly $7,500. Plus the buyer’s premium. Overhead premium. Value-added tax. Shipping. I considered the possibility of owning a $10,000 rolling pin.
Should I be successful, I would pay for Lot 45 somehow. But I could in no way afford it.
I took a walk. Please get me out of this, I begged Plath and Ted Hughes and Horus, an Egyptian god in the form of a falcon, a statue of which Hughes had bought Plath. (Horus was now Lot 3.) I appealed to my father, eight years gone. His response, I heard clearly: “Jesus Christ.”
By the end of the walk, I had been outbid. The rolling pin, together with 33 of Plath’s typed recipe cards, sold days later for $27,794.
I recently asked Heather Clark whether the price had surprised her. “Plath enjoyed cooking and baking very much, so I expected the rolling pin to sell for a few thousand dollars,” she told me by email. Of the final number, she wrote: “I don’t understand it myself, except that some people have money to burn.”
“Is there a market for dead writers’ rolling pins?” I ask an antiques dealer in Hudson.
“There’s a market for everything,” he says.
Didion used a marble rolling pin and an apron that reads: “Maybe Broccoli Doesn’t Like You Either” (Lot 151). In my mind, those words are a jab at George H.W. Bush who, while president in 1990, declared, “I do not like broccoli.” Didion covered his election.
I realize that I am imposing my narrative on an apron.
Auctions are driven by narratives. The title of the Didion sale, “An American Icon,” manages to evoke both monuments and Coca-Cola. Inside Stair Galleries, the walls conjure California skies. They’ve been painted a Benjamin Moore color called Blue Jean (customized to become darker, which seems right). Lisa Thomas, director of the auction house’s fine arts department, tells me she chose the shade to set off Didion’s Richard Diebenkorn lithograph (Lot 8) and yellow slipper chairs (Lot 24).
The curation tells a story. “We wanted some personal items that nobody would have seen unless they visited her at her apartment,” Thomas says. “And then we wanted some of the iconic things, like the rattan chair that everybody’s seen because she was photographed in it so many times.”
Didion scholars may someday look at the catalog as a supplement to The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of losing Dunne, and Blue Nights, her reflections after losing their daughter, Quintana Roo. Consider the devastating detail of Lot 47 (“This quilt hung over the bed in Quintana Roo’s room in her parents’ NYC apartment”) or Lot 26 (“It was at this table that John Dunne suffered the fatal heart attack that took his life”).
Even the condition reports read as poems about mortality. I tear up over the barware in Lot 164: “The decanter with rim chips. The funnel with bruises and oxidation. The wood corkscrews with nicks and losses.”
The absence of certain items, the white space in the text, may bring you relief. You will not find, for example, a Western Union cable to an editor signed, “REGARDS, DIDION.” Any items related to her career will live on in a joint Didion Dunne archive. The home of the archive will be announced in the coming months.
The books on offer don’t contain Didion’s marginalia. They contain a bookplate put there by the auction house. You cannot buy notebooks full of Didion’s scribblings. You can buy her empty ones. They have been bundled into groups and split across three lots.
“What is anyone supposed to do with 13 blank notebooks?” a caller asks on the day I visit. It strikes me as a line Didion might have recorded in her notebook. I think of what she once wrote: “Your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”
People have different reasons for wanting what they want. A fine books dealer may buy Didion’s blank notebooks and sell them off one by one. I suppose there is money to be made that way.
Other people, having been moved by a writer, seek objects as a means of connection. I watch news footage of a 2015 estate tag sale at the former home of Maya Angelou in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Some of the late poet’s belongings were sold to benefit the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation.
Javon Bell was one of the people waiting in line to buy something. He admires Angelou’s writing and her civil rights activism. They lived in the same community. He wishes he could have met her.
Among the items he purchased are a silver coin bank with carousel horses on it and children’s books about Angelou from her own library. He gave the books to his daughter. He hopes to pass them on to his grandchildren.If I put on Didion’s eyeglasses, could I see as she did?
“They can go back and study her work and say, ‘I have something of hers that she actually owned,’” he says. “It’s a part of history that you have hands on.”
I love knowing that someone cherishes Angelou’s coin bank. Someone, or several people, wear Gabriel García Márquez’s ink-stained tweed jackets, which were sold for charity in Mexico in 2021. Someone—I hope!—has Truman Capote’s papier-mâché parrot on their bar cart. The parrot (Lot 488) sold at Julien’s Auctions for $3,200 in 2016.
Someone owns Plath’s cane fishing rod (Lot 351). Peter K. Steinberg, an archivist, won it at Bonhams for $714 in 2018. He has spent years reading and studying Plath. He co-edited two volumes of her letters. When he saw the fishing rod in the auction catalog, it struck him as being “almost the weirdest possible thing in there,” he says. “And I became enamored of it from that moment.”
The rod sits in his office, still in its bag. He has never used it. He rarely touches it. But he could. He could pick it up and make a motion like he was casting a line out into the water. “Who knows? I might even place my hands in the same way Plath did,” he says. “That’s kind of cool. But maybe not to everybody.”
If I put on Didion’s eyeglasses, could I see as she did? No. I could try every pair, but I wouldn’t see anything; not myself at 28 listening to her read in Central Park or the words now in front of my face. There is no shortcut to the work, not even in Ray Bradbury’s favorite magic trick, though it went up for sale years ago.