“‘That woman Estelle,’” the note reads, “‘is partly the reason why George Sharp and I are separated today.’”
Didion begins her essay with this note because it awakes a gossipy desire for confession in the reader and he’s hooked. But that desire is disappointed, or at least diverted. The note is a quotation of a woman she observed in a bar. Didion does tell us about herself later, but the opening image encapsulates the main theme of the essay. A writer discovers her own innerness (thoughts and emotions) by observing the way in which she reacts to exterior goings-on–such as the melodramatic utterances of women who wear dirty crepe-de-Chine wrappers.
I love this opening because it so effectively grabs our ear for gossip. I love it because I can imagine Didion’s wry twist-of-the-lip as she began to write it. But the reason it is a good opening beyond my own liking for it is that Didion in this sleight of hand, Didion not only hooks the reader but immediately sets the tone and states the takeaway of the entire essay. I am in awe. Here are form and content reconciled.
I believe that whether you create trash or treasure, as long as you create and value it enough to keep going, you are an artist. Therefore, if you were, upon hearing me say, “This is art” to expect it to be anything beyond what you could produce yourself, you would be wrong. It is as if, upon hearing me say, “This is a coffeepot,” you immediately smiled in expectation of a steaming cup of coffee. It might be an empty coffeepot. It might be bad art. You might be an artist. That doesn’t mean you are a skilled one. (Yet, at least.)
Didion is. This is not just art. It is artful art.
Because she must go directly from the train to lunch in New York, she wishes that she had a safety pin for the hem of the plaid silk dress, and she also wishes that she could forget about the hem and the lunch and stay in the cool bar that smells of disinfectant and malt and make friends with the woman in the crepe-de-Chine wrapper. She is afflicted by a little selfpity, and she wants to compare Estelles. That is what that was all about.
Ambrose Bierce liked to spell Leland Stanford’s5 name “£eland $tanford”
It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends
The other one, a twenty-three-year-old, bothers me more. She was always a good deal of trouble, and I suspect she will reappear when I least want to see her, skirts too long, shy to the point of aggravation, always the injured party, full of recriminations and little hurts and stories I do not want to hear again, at once saddening me and angering me with her vulnerability and ignorance, an apparition all the more insistent for being so long banished.
To me it means a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Another man approaches, and they all regard one another in silence for a while. “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” one of the fat men finally says by way of welcome, and the blonde stands up, arches one foot and dips it in the pool, looking all the while at the cabaña where Baby Pignatari is talking on the telephone. That is all there is to that, except that several years later I saw the blonde coming out of Saks Fifth Avenue in New York with her California complexion and a voluminous mink coat. In the harsh wind that day she looked old and irrevocably tired to me, and even the skins in the mink coat were not worked the way they were doing them that year, not the way she would have wanted them done, and there is the point of the story. For a while after that I did not like to look in the mirror, and my eyes would skim the newspapers and pick out only the deaths, the cancer victims, the premature coronaries, the suicides, and I stopped riding the Lexington Avenue IRT because I noticed for the first time that all the strangers I had seen for years—the man with the seeing-eye dog, the spinster who read the classified pages every day, the fat girl who always got off with me at Grand Central—looked older than they once had.
It all comes back. Even that recipe for sauerkraut: even that brings it back. I was on Fire Island when I first made that sauerkraut, and it was raining, and we drank a lot of bourbon and ate the sauerkraut and went to bed at ten, and I listened to the rain and the Atlantic and felt safe. I made the sauerkraut again last night and it did not make me feel any safer, but that is, as they say, another story.