Photo: Courtesy of Stair Galleries
They let me put the sunglasses on. You know which ones: big, dark, Céline, tortoiseshell. How did they make me feel? Great, honestly. Very cool. My first thought: run. take them. I imagined running away from the gallery, going out into the street. The staff would have been surprised so I would have had a head start. Then the adrenaline would have kicked in. I’m sure she could have gotten away with the $27,000 sunglasses.
On Wednesday, Stair Galleries in Hudson, New York, auctioned off some of Joan Didion’s possessions, with proceeds going to Parkinson’s research at Columbia University and the Sacramento Historical Society. Maybe you’ve read about it. In the lead up to the sale, as bids opened online on October 31, each plug send a correspondent and all the correspondents pored over the details. Didion died last year at the age of 87, and the sale may mark the end of a period of public mourning, which has included a memoryme at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan in September, and a exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles until February 2023.
The auction included artwork, furniture, books and trinkets from Didion’s Upper East Side apartment. I visited it the week of November 7 and the pieces occupied two rooms of the gallery. In person, the scale was modest. Certain spaces in Didion’s house had been recreated, the painting of her desk, the layout of the upholstered sofas in her living room. The books were grouped by author or subject: books about New York, books about Richard Avedon, books by women poets.
Lisa Thomas, director of Stair’s fine arts department, said: “We took these books off your shelves and for the most part they are very worn and used. She read and reread the books in her library. She told me about the interest the sale had generated (a lot) and the most popular items (the sunglasses, a group of 13 blank notebooks that went “kind of viral”).
There was a brass Cartier desk clock. It’s stylish, a good size, though not functional and has a few “minor bites in the metal” that I liked. A small stack of Elizabeth Hardwick books would have easily slipped into my bag. I would have stayed with Richard Serra’s painting, a black quadrilateral on a cream background, pleasantly severe. It would have been great in my house, and what a story.
He had nice things, Thomas and I agreed. Thomas called his style “part of this ’70s California bohemian creative kind of thing that was going on. And then you mix it with this New York literary chic.”
I thought, before appearing in the gallery, Why bid on someone’s dusty old stuff? It felt like having movie props. The bat suit, or something like that. Dorothy’s ruby slippers. She seemed like a boost from Planet Hollywood, part of our national obsession with celebrity. What are you going to do with Joan Didion’s hurricane lamp, I thought, make an altar?
But then I tried on the sunglasses. They had been designated “Lot 5” and when I placed them the top bid was $3200. Its final price could be over $5,000, I (naively) speculated. For $440, you could buy them new. You can buy them at any time at Céline. website. But I can’t deny that I felt a charge when I put them on. I know it was imagined. I know that nothing of the essence of a writer clings to his possessions after death. I know that genius is not transferable through luxury items. And yet.
The auction was held virtually, like all Stair Galleries auctions since the pandemic hit. Thomas told me they miss seeing customers in person, but the energy of a live auction isn’t lost online. Looking at the auction, I could see what he was referring to. Founder and Chairman Colin Stair went through it for several exciting and harrowing hours. He took offers from three different online platforms. A handful of people in the room with him yelled offers to call. It was exactly like an auction of all the movies you’ve ever seen.
Things started to go off the rails when the first painting sold for $110,000. Until then, the bidding had been competitive, but somewhat reasonable. Lot 1, a group of Didion’s copies of her own books, sold for $15,000. That made sense, I thought. Hardcore book collectors would want those. Lot 2, a photo of Didion in a black turtleneck, sold for $17,000. Well, okay, a beautiful and iconic photo. Lot 3 was where the big spending started. It was a collection of 15 books that Didion liked to read every year, including the one by Joyce Carol Oates. Wonderlandby Renata Adler Fast boatand VS Naipaul’s guerrillas. The offer had been for just $300 online, but it rose to $26,000 in a matter of moments.
Lot 4 was the painting, a portrait of Didion by Leslie Johnson painted in 1977 and given to Didion as a gift. It comes in peach, gray and tan. Didion is sitting on the bed and looks at the viewer with a sad eye. The bidding started, and went ahead. At a certain point, it stopped increasing in $1,000 increments and switched to $5,000 increments.
Then we come to Lot 5, the sunglasses (my sunglasses). The bidding opened at $10,000. Final price $27,000. I had an irrational feeling, around the $20,000 mark, that I’d like to see them go for a million bucks. If we’re to lose all sense of proportionI thought, let’s go big.
The rest of the auction took place in the same way for 224 lots. Two photographs of Didion with her famous stingray sold for $24,000 and $26,000. Her desk, made famous by a photograph of her with her daughter, Quintana, and her husband, John, between walls of books, sold for $60,000. The blank notebooks I talked to Thomas about cost $9,000. Some kind of ugly wicker chair sold for $28,000. Perhaps the most fun was Lot 50, a bunch of seashells and pebbles, literally rocks, from the ground. For rocks from the ground and shells from the sea, an anonymous bidder paid $7,000.
Photo: Courtesy of Stair Galleries
When I think of the objects of Didion’s writing, I am reminded: Jim Morrison’s black vinyl pants worn without underwear, the record blonde on blonde, Quintana’s 66 baptismal gowns. And, of course, the famous packing list from the title essay of the white album. The popularity of the list bothers me. Women’s publications love to suggest that readers pack this way as well (“2 skirts, 2 jumpers or tights, 1 sweater”, etc.). It’s easy to forget that the essay from which the list comes deals with, among other things, the Manson murders and Didion’s deteriorating mental health. She packed like this to try to bring order to a world gone mad.
Taking the list out of context and emulating it is silly, but I don’t think Didion’s personal style can be dismissed that easily. The auction would indicate that I am not alone. The whirlwind of signifiers in her writing evokes Manhattan, Malibu, the glamorous heyday of the publishing industry, a wealthy, mythical American West. In “The White Album”, and in other parts of her work, the objects are not out of place; they are precisely the point.
Still, $27,000 for sunglasses. $7,000 per pebble.
Can we take the results of this auction to mean that people care a lot about literature? Can we be comforted that so much money goes to charity? Or is it a strange display of greed? Vultures with carrion? I have a few friends who were moved by Didion’s writing and made modest offers before prices reached the stratosphere. Was what they wanted weird or gross?
Most of us can’t afford to have some Didion, but if you’re a fan, you already have a part of her. You own the most intimate and personal part of her that a stranger can have. It is your unique interpretation of her work. The way she lived in your mind as you read it. I don’t know how a pair of sunglasses can compare to that.