The Transit of Venus

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Notes from St. John the Divine


Fran Lebowitz was smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk when I arrived at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. It was four o’clock, a full hour before the memorial service was scheduled to begin, and I’d decided to get there early in hopes of avoiding what I imagined would be throngs of mourners jockeying for seats. Knowing Fran, she probably had the same idea.

On the train to St. John’s I read, for the first time, Outline by Rachel Cusk. I’d borrowed it from the personal library of a couple for whom I was housesitting that week. They were very excited to learn that I would be attending a memorial for Joan Didion while they were away. Before they left, they encouraged me to avail myself of their book collection; my first night in the house, I plucked from the shelves Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus, and the Outline trilogy. I knew I couldn’t possibly read them all within the week, but I liked having them at my fingertips. At night I slept with the books in my bed to try and osmose their genius.
The couple’s house was a two-story brownstone with a wood deck and a garden and big bay windows, located in deep Brooklyn, far south of my own apartment. There wasn’t much to do nearby, so I decided to turn my stay into something of a writer’s retreat; the residence was spacious and beautiful, the locale distraction-free. Each day I sat down at the dining room table first thing in the morning and worked there until late into the night. This outing to St. John’s was the first time I’d left the brownstone in several days. I was already exhausted by the time I got there. Spotting Fran outside the Cathedral, I felt a sense of deliverance, like when the Golden Arches suddenly come into view during a grueling road trip. Pull off here, come inside, you belong.
When I entered St. John’s I was greeted by a young woman in crisp black and white. High above her, panes of stained glass cast soft blue and pink light on the vaulted ceiling. I told her my name and press affiliation, and she motioned toward the stage and projector screen that had been set up at the front of the room: “Any seat up there.” I grabbed a program and a paper hand fan, decorated to look like the stained glass above, from the table beside her and headed up the long aisle; just ahead of me were several glamorous, thin, white-haired women walking with confident resolve. It felt like we were on a runway.
For weeks I’d fretted over what to wear. In part because the event would be star-studded, but mostly because Joan was so stylish, and so known for her style. I wanted to do her justice, sartorially. Over dinner one night, I mentioned to a friend my search for the right outfit. She bolted up from her kitchen table, raced into her bedroom, and returned with a long-sleeved black midi dress with a high neck and slanted hem. “You must wear this,” she said. It had belonged to her mother, and it was Helmut Lang, which she assured me was a very cool and coveted brand. I tried on the dress and modeled it for her. In between poses I said that, should I wear this to the memorial, I would of course wear a bra, which I didn’t have on at the moment. “No!” she protested. “No bra!”
I made my way to the front of the Cathedral, no bra, and took a seat at the far right end of the first row, directly across from the projector screen. I scanned the space: there was Annie Leibovitz chatting with Carl Bernstein across the aisle from me, and Donna Tartt a few rows behind me; by then Fran had taken her seat, not far from Donna; Bob Balaban was making his way in. I read my program, inspected my hand fan. Inside the program was Joan’s quote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”; on the back of the hand fan, Edna St. Vincent Milllay: “Who should I be but just what I am?”
Both quotes, it seemed to me, had been conveniently cleaved from their contexts. The latter was the last line of a wry, fantastical poem from 1920 that, crucially, begins, “What should I be but a prophet and a liar / Whose mother was a leprechaun, whose father was a friar?” And the former is regurgitated so routinely that it’s been defanged; “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is as much observation as condemnation. It’s not about storytelling as a tradition or cultural practice but the often misguided instinct to find meaning in the meaningless. (The full passage evokes a mass murder; children lured into the sea; the corpse of a naked woman, dead by suicide.) I don’t think Joan would have been pleased with the program.
I wondered, as photographs from throughout her life flashed on the giant screen before me, whether Joan would have been pleased by any of this. She’d spent her career rejecting our compulsion to narrativize, and a memorial, in essence, is an attempt to form a coherent narrative. To not just reflect on someone’s life but make sense of it. At least the photos in the slideshow were in random order, more akin to the “disparate images” and “shifting phantasmagoria” that she felt were the true nature of experience.
Projected were many of the photos that long ago became part of my visual vocabulary: Joan in front of her Stingray; Joan with a cadre of hippies in Haight-Ashbury; Joan with a cigarette in her hand and Quintana in her lap. But there were also many that I’d never seen before, of her sitting silent and pensive in her study, or palling around with the likes of Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick and Toni Morrison. All of them dead now. I noticed for the first time—why only the first time I can’t say—how beautiful Joan was. Her big eyes and small nose, the sheen of her hair and curve of her lips. I wished I looked more like her.
The service began promptly at five o’clock. Griffin Dunne spoke; Justice Anthony Kennedy and Governor Jerry Brown spoke; Hilton Als and Jia Tolentino and David Remnick spoke. David quoted heavily from a New Yorker essay Zadie Smith wrote after Joan died. I’d forgotten how perfect it was, how true it felt for me. “When women writers of my generation,” Smith had written,

speak in awed tones of Didion’s ‘style,’ I don’t think it’s the shift dresses or the sunglasses, the cigarettes or commas or even the em dashes that we revere, even though all those things were fabulous. It was the authority. The authority of tone. There is much in Didion one might disagree with personally, politically, aesthetically. I will never love the Doors. But I remain grateful for the day I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem and realized that a woman could speak without hedging her bets, without hemming and hawing, without making nice, without poeticisms, without sounding pleasant or sweet, without deference, and even without doubt.

Vanessa Redgrave read from the final pages of The Year of Magical Thinking. Liam Neeson, her son-in-law, just as tall as you imagine, walked her to the stage and up its stairs. She looked frail, fragile; her hands trembled. But when she cracked open the book—her signed copy that she said she’d purchased at Book Soup in Los Angeles, placing poetic emphasis on the word “soup”—she was transformed. The gravity in the room shifted; she became its uncontested center. As she read her voice was rich and steady, her delivery that of a master thespian, her gravitas unmatched by any speaker before or after. When she was done, she closed the book and shuffled slowly back to the stairs, where Liam was waiting to help her back to her seat. 
Patti Smith concluded the event with a song, Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” Her voice, like Vanessa’s, had not diminished with age but evolved, clarified. She looked strong and solid, even in her reading glasses. Her grey hair was half-braided, her black pants half-tucked into army boots. I focused on her as hard as I could, trying to absorb some of her power.
And then it was over. I joined the hundreds of guests trickling out to the sounds of an invisible pipe organ. Only then did I notice that the back half of the Cathedral had been made open to the public. Lingering in the aisles of this posterior section were dozens of stylish young women—in maxi skirts and cowboy boots, buzzcuts and blue jeans, carrying on-trend purses and bookstore-branded tote bags—who had come to pay their respects. Outside St. John’s, black town cars lined Amsterdam Avenue and absorbed the glamorous, thin, white-haired women who had been seated in the front half of the Cathedral.
I left St. John’s and started in the direction of the train. Outside, a woman was asking Fran, on another smoke break, whether Joan was more a Californian or a New Yorker. Fran didn’t hesitate: Californian. I realized then that if I had to respond to the same question on my own behalf—to decide on the spot if I was more Californian or New Yorker—I wouldn’t know how to answer. Joan and I were the same age when we came to New York from California. For a time Joan was—like I am now, like Fran still is—“in love with New York.” Then she wasn’t. Now she was buried here.
As I walked back I picked up a slice of pizza and a Coke, ice-cold, just as Joan liked it. By then it was dark. I found a bench at the entrance of Central Park on the corner of Morningside and Cathedral and had my greasy fizzy little meal. A bus blared its horn; a rat crawled over my foot; a fresh blister was throbbing behind my ankle. I was glad to be alive.

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