Libby Rainey, ’16, a Daily Cal reporter and editor, decided to focus her thesis on the Berkeley roots of Joan Didion’s career. Prior to becoming a renowned journalist and author, Didion was a special issue editor at The Daily Californian and worked for the Occident. Rainey, whose parents Alison Bell and Jim Rainey met at the Daily Cal, is doing graduate work in England. Here is an excerpt from Rainey’s thesis, “The Education of Joan Didion: Her Uncollected Works and What They Tell Us (2016).”
(Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Rainey ’16)
Joan Didion arrived at UC Berkeley in the spring of 1953, where she joined an influx of students, both female and male, contributing to the massive and rapid growth of the campus. Berkeley’s enrollment had more than doubled in the late 1940s, and was still on the rise. Administrators implemented rapid construction projects to accommodate for this growth – expanding the campus south and into Telegraph Avenue in order to make more room. Indeed, Dwinelle Hall, a massive building with a maze-like layout, opened just before Didion began her college career.
The campus appeared bustling and traditional to a young Didion, who had just missed a loyalty oath scandal that led 31 faculty members and dozens of employees to their dismissal. Perhaps due to this deliberate silencing of insubordinate voices, Didion remembers most Berkeley students as politically quiet. Two decades after her college years, she reflected:
“We were all very personal then, sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us are still. I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood.”
The civil stillness on campus lent itself remarkably to school spirit and a lively student life. Didion’s peers confined their engagement for the most part to the campus, which was populated by some 11,000 undergraduates. Student organizations were bustling and collegiate fun was serious business; sophomores were intent on hazing the freshmen, and fraternity and sorority life dominated the social scene.
(Joan Didion, middle row, far right, poses for her Tri Delt yearbook photo)
Outnumbered two to one by male undergraduates at Berkeley, Didion did what was only natural for a girl from upper class Sacramento with no housing plans to do: when she arrived at Berkeley she rushed a sorority. At the time, the university offered no high-rise dormitories, so the fraternities and sororities offered prime real estate for new students looking for a place to live. Of the 22 organizations available to her, she joined Delta Delta Delta, and soon moved in with the 62 other girls who lived at the house on 2300 Warring Street. She is barely recognizable in her sophomore yearbook photo, her short hair curling to nestle around her ears and a strand of pearls framing her crewneck sweater. She’s practically indistinguishable from her newfound sorority sisters, excepting the fact that her smile seems more reserved, her lips closed.
For the many Berkeley women who joined sororities, daily life entailed a flurry of dates and socials and football games — prerequisites to impending domestic life. Similarly, The Daily Californian’s regular “Woman’s Page” announced recent engagements and offered tips on dress design. Peggy LaViolette, a good friend and classmate of Didion’s, remembers spending many weekends at weddings. In those days, she said, everyone was looking for a “steady” — after four dates, it could be guaranteed that most people assumed a couple was dating seriously. “For a great majority of women, some married while they were in college and most married immediately following,” LaViolette said.
As a young woman of the 50s, Didion engaged in this world of courtship as much as the next girl, for a time. She had a “steady” — a boyfriend named Bob, whom she dated before and after a stint as a guest editor at Mademoiselle in the summer of 1955. Far from smitten, she considered him “boring.”
Didion began to detach from this narrative even as she was living it. She became more involved with her own writing and student publications, including The Daily Californian and the literary magazine, The Occident, her participation in the sorority waned. By her sophomore year, she moved out of the sorority house and into an apartment at 2520 Ridge Road. In her junior and senior years, she was not among the women photographed for the yearbook’s pages featuring the Tri Delts.
But despite Didion’s hesitance about sorority life and her seemingly deliberate separation from her domestic peers, it was her attention to the world of collegiate women — their styles and desires — that catapulted her writing career at Berkeley. She began working in her very first semester for The Daily Californian, where she co-edited a special spring fashion issue alongside Peggy LaViolette. Immersed in a world of impending weddings and social events dominated by courtship and custom, perhaps Didion found fashion writing to be her most immediately available creative outlet — a space where she could observe the feminine world around her from both inside and out. The spring 1953 fashion issue – her first writerly project at Berkeley – is a portrait of the complex female life Didion strove not only to describe, but also
The 12-page edition’s front page displays a woman’s silhouette standing on top of the world. The figure’s heels touch delicately as she poses, holding an umbrella lightly in her gloved hands. Hoop earrings adorn her ears and her tiny waist is cinched. Her eyeless face looks straight at the reader from under a large hat. Beneath this image, cursive text declares: “It’s a Woman’s World.” The cover declares ownership of the world and its vast offerings, and yet the female figure standing on top of the globe is not the untethered woman, but rather a fashionable and controlled one. Her posed body suggests a woman’s power comes from appearance — the silhouette’s face is nothing but a shadow, a blank canvas dressed up by accessories. As it claims female autonomy, the cover also restricts it – the woman’s world, the illustration suggests, is a domain of fashion and appearances rather than interiority. In kind, the contents of the issue expand on how to perfect that appearance.
“We had great fun with it,” said La Violette of the issue, which came out May 13, 1953, at the end of Didion’s freshman year. “We did some fashion shoots, we did some promotion stuff, we both wrote captions.” Many of the articles within the edition are exactly what one might expect of an early-’50s fashion supplement: they delve into fashion trends and share tips in a conversational, woman-to-woman tone. “Slim figure will be required for this season’s styles,” one caption advises. Another observes that “Accessories, separates (help) vary costume.” Oversized ads for Roos Bros. feature smiling women in umbrella skirts.
Yet one article, buried at the very end of the supplement, points toward a different version of the “woman’s world” on Cal’s campus. The unattributed article, titled “Women students hold top posts in ASUC, greater than total enrollment justifies,” chronicles the many women in leadership positions across the campus. Specifically, it mentions in the Associated Students of the University of California, the Women’s Athletic Association, Mortar Board, the Daily Californian, and the Blue and Gold yearbook, and even goes so far as to suggest that “The truth of the matter is that women are almost running this school. … Whether because they are better suited to it, or because they have more interest, is an unanswerable question.”
As a sub-headline in this story, “More Women Rulers,” suggests, the article provides a notable contrast to the hyper-domestic world that the rest of the fashion issue evokes. It suggests a certain tension in the internal lives of UC Berkeley’s women, who were exercising leadership and initiative on the campus but simultaneously expected to enter an outside world where they would be taking a backseat to their husbands. The fashion issue suggests that despite these successes, the women of UC Berkeley would be concentrating on perfecting their appearances to be more desirable under the male gaze and more suitable for their future husbands.
Still, Didion became one of these “women rulers” herself within the Berkeley publishing scene, again editing a spring fashion issue alongside LaViolette in 1954, this time writing stories as well. The 1954 special issue — themed “Campus Fashion is High Fashion” — is littered with posed photos, ads and fashion advice much like the year prior. An advertisement for “JayVee sun ‘n fun wear!” accompanies sketches of women in sundresses, swimsuits, pajamas and coats. “Tan creates problems,” one article reads forebodingly. In the lower lefthand corner of the seventh page, a small square advertisement announces: “Diamonds: Engagement and Wedding Rings, Liberal Discounts to Students, Faculty, Employees”
Didion authored the lead article, a gloss of the campus’s Women’s Day, which coincided with the release date of the fashion issue, May 19. She writes with a brisk sense of authority and just a hint of irony, opening the piece, “Today is Women’s Day — the one day of the year on the University campus dedicated entirely to women, by women, for women.” She reviews the campus plans for the day ahead, including an orchid sale and fashion show. She writes that “anyone” can visit the Stephens Union for coffee and doughnuts before correcting herself: “Any woman, that is. All men must be accompanied by something female.” The piece is breezy and informative, but the phrase “something female” suggests a hint of subversion beneath Didion’s review of the day’s events. Her chiding humor insinuates that women’s day, with its fashion-focus and flowers and all, may truly be a commodification of women rather than a celebration.
The femininity Didion chronicles and the femininity the fashion issue presents are a superficial female world rather than one populated by ideas. A sly sense of irony is also on display in Didion’s second article for the issue, which discusses summer conferences for young writers across the country. “Summer is the time when writers and publishers confer. Apparently under some mystic compulsion, potential Katherine Anne Porters and Henry Luces rise from typewriters all over America at the sound of the first Midwestern locust,” she writes before summarizing some 40 different conferences. She concludes by encouraging her readers to apply: “Information on any or all of these special conferences may be obtained by writing the sponsoring college or university.” The article is, in some sense, nothing special — just a straightforward account of opportunities outside of Berkeley. But it stands out among the headlines that surround it — “Summer look for 1954 is sweater look,” “Mules, pancakes; New trends in shoes” — and offers up a hope that the women of Berkeley might apply to continue their professional progress elsewhere.
Though Didion didn’t attend these summer sessions herself, she was intent on furthering her own writing career beyond the small reach of Berkeley’s student publications. She was a “campus correspondent” for the Sacramento Union. Aiming for publication in the most prestigious magazines of the time, she sent pieces to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, and then pinned up her rejection letters in her room at home in Sacramento when they came. She also continued to pursue a path in which she had already found success: fashion writing. In the fall of her sophomore year, she was one of 14 University of California female students appointed to Mademoiselle magazine’s college board. In the position, she kept the magazine updated on campus happenings and served as an ambassador of sorts for the fashion publication.
In her junior year, she applied for one of 20 summer guest editorship spots with the magazine. The application was poised as a competition: girls from around the country submitted writing assignments to the magazine in the hopes of scoring a position working with the magazine’s editors for a month to produce an August college issue. Didion applied to help oversee Mademoiselle’s fiction section. Her dear friend Peggy La Violette also applied, but for a marketing position. At the end of a lengthy application process, both girls were awarded positions — the first time in the contest’s history that two women from the same college were chosen. In May of 1955, Didion and La Violette caught the same flight to New York City, with stops in Dallas and Washington, D.C. along the way. Didion was terrified of flying — she shivered in her seat before they took off for the long journey east.