Opinion Today: Joan Didion, R.F.K. and a decades-old mystery

June 17, 2023

Illustration by Vanessa Stevens; photographs by John Bryson and Bettmann Collection


In the past, moments of national trauma provided an opportunity for unity and cohesion. But Ms. Didion found herself confronted with a fractured version of America that’s not too different from the one we’ve come to recognise today.

By guest author Timothy Denevi. Mr. Denevi is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at George Mason University.

There’s a well-known passage in the title essay of Joan Didion’s 1979 collection “The White Album” that begins with a litany of 1960s tragedies, including the massacre at My Lai, a harrowing story of child abandonment and a very brief and cryptic mention of Robert Kennedy’s assassination: “I watched Robert Kennedy’s funeral on a veranda at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.” The section concludes with a personal revelation: In June of 1968, Ms. Didion experienced “an attack of vertigo, nausea and a feeling that she was going to pass out,” for which she underwent an extensive psychiatric evaluation and was prescribed amitriptyline, an antidepressant. “By way of comment,” she wrote, “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”

Over 40 years later, “The White Album” is regarded as a masterpiece of nonfiction and a pre-eminent account of the ’60s as a cultural era. The essay opens with what is perhaps Ms. Didion’s most famous line — “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — then explores what happens when those shared narratives start to unravel.

But many of the specific stories she alludes to in the essay have remained maddeningly opaque. Precisely what prompted her physical breakdown, as well as her terse reference to Kennedy’s funeral, has long been the subject of speculation for Didionologists. “What was she doing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel during Robert Kennedy’s funeral?” Tracy Daugherty wrote in “The Last Love Song,” his 2015 biography of Ms. Didion. “Was she alone? Did a crowd gather before a television set to watch the ceremony in sorrow? Was the TV propped on a wrought-iron table in the sun? What is the point of teasing us with the hotel if not to deliberately disorient the reader?”

Now we finally know the answer.

In a recording dated to 1971, Ms. Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, sat down for an interview with the writer Jean Stein, who was working on a new edition of an oral history about Robert Kennedy. The interview didn’t appear in the final manuscript, and only in the past year has the audio been made available through the archives department at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which houses Ms. Stein’s research from the project. (A transcript, processed in 2019, can also be found in the New York City Public Library’s collection of Ms. Stein’s papers.)

The unearthed conversation reveals the details of Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion’s trip to Hawaii and illuminates what prompted her breakdown. It also reveals a startling insight she had about the precariousness of the country, as she described to Ms. Stein the exact moment when she could feel the ’60s “snapping.” And her observations help unlock why her meditation on America’s unraveling still feels so resonant today.

On June 5, 1968, Ms. Didion, who was 33, and Mr. Dunne, 36, were driving from Sacramento to San Francisco, where they planned to catch the morning flight to Honolulu, when a news alert came across the radio. Robert Kennedy was in critical condition. He’d been shot in the head at close range. He was undergoing emergency surgery. But before they could learn anything else they departed for Hawaii.

The couple was staying in Waikiki at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, one of the oldest on the island. It was a favourite spot of theirs, as was Honolulu itself, a metropolis in the middle of the ocean where the national newspapers arrived a day late. When they checked in, the West Coast papers on the newsstand displayed the previous day’s headlines. Their room didn’t have a television in it; according to Ms. Didion, none did.

After listening to the six o’clock news, they decided to head out into the streets of the city, where the restaurants and bars were crowded with vacationers. They spent the first part of that night trying unsuccessfully to find updates on Kennedy’s condition.

That evening, they ducked into Duke Kahanamoku’s, the famous Waikiki venue, where Don Ho was headlining. The place was packed — there was a dry-cleaning convention in town — and salesmen and their wives crowded around the tables. Still, the couple managed to find a spot right up front.

Mr. Ho came out to do his set. The singer, who was born in Honolulu, was best known for his 1966 hit “Tiny Bubbles.” Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion saw him perform before and noticed that on this night, he seemed notably muted. It wasn’t until the end of his set that they learned why.

“For those of you who don’t know,” Mr. Ho told his audience, “Bob Kennedy passed on this evening at 10:40 local time.”

Mr. Ho had known Kennedy well, campaigning with him in California. He asked one of his musicians to honor the moment by singing the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father,” the man intoned, “who art in heaven ….”

One of the conventioneers jumped to his feet. “What are they singing a church song for?” he shouted. At his table and those surrounding, the other dry-cleaning salesmen and their wives chimed in: “What’s this church song for? Why a church song?” Clearly, they were drunk. For Ms. Didion the scene was surreal: the women with their big bouffant hairdos and flower leis, the men growing increasingly belligerent. Then she noticed a young sailor nearby. He was sobbing.

Two months earlier, Kennedy gave an impromptu speech to supporters after learning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder. “What we need in the United States is not division,” he said, “but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.” Now he had been murdered, too. But the convention crowd at Duke Kahanamoku’s refused to acknowledge the tragedy that had just been relayed. “The whole thing,” Ms. Didion told Ms. Stein, “was very charged. It was a great conflict of everything and everybody.”

As for Kennedy, there were no more updates to receive. Everything that could happen, it seemed, had.

It wasn’t until June 8, that Ms. Didion and Mr. Dunne were able to watch a special broadcast on ABC’s Honolulu affiliate, which they described as a three-hour tape that combined footage from throughout the week with scenes from Kennedy’s funeral in New York and burial in Washington. A television had been set up on the Royal Hawaiian’s lanai, a large veranda. When the couple arrived, it was already crowded with viewers, and “The Lawrence Welk Show,” a musical variety program, was playing, its images spilling out as if from a time capsule. “Hollywood Palace” was scheduled to air next, but the evening’s programming was pre-empted by the special news program on Kennedy’s assassination. The lanai crowd wasn’t happy. Some stood up to leave.

The ABC news special, Ms. Didion and Mr. Dunne told Ms. Stein, opened with a rendition, by the actor Hume Cronyn, of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the same poem from which Ms. Didion had drawn the title of her first book of essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which was published that May: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

As the three-hour special wore on, Ms. Didion looked around the veranda and noticed that everyone who was sitting there earlier in the evening had left. A few guests stopped to ask about the program she was watching, but at the reply — Bobby Kennedy — they continued on their way. When a woman lingered to take in a scene from the funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s, the man she was with exclaimed, “We’ll get enough church in the morning!” and hurried her along.

“It was as if they were shutting their minds to it, shutting their eyes,” Mr. Dunne explained to Ms. Stein.

Neither Ms. Didion nor Mr. Dunne considered themselves Kennedy supporters. She voted for Barry Goldwater in the last presidential election, and he was suspicious of the whole Kennedy family. In “Delano,” his 1967 book on Cesar Chavez and the Central Valley grape strike, he characterized Robert Kennedy as “ruthless, arrogant, a predator in the corridors of power.”

But like Ms. Didion, Kennedy started from a more conservative position — on civil rights, on Vietnam — and his personal evolution on the public stage of the 1960s embodied the turmoil that characterized the era. In his brief campaign, he responded to the climate of discord by advocating a national reconciliation through a shared sense of civic responsibility. “When one part of the United States does badly,” he said just before his death, “it also has an effect on the rest of the United States.”

Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion had spent the previous year publishing “Points West,” a joint column in The Saturday Evening Post that paid them handsomely to report from the front lines of political and cultural tumult. As the Tet offensive raged in Vietnam in the spring of 1968 and President Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t run for another term, Ms. Didion profiled Jim Morrison and Nancy Reagan. After King’s murder and the civil unrest that followed, she wrote about visiting the incarcerated leader of the Black Panthers, Huey Newton, at the Alameda County jail.

In their conversation with Ms. Stein, the couple explained that they found themselves profoundly affected by Robert Kennedy’s murder, to a much greater degree than they’d been by his brother’s. With Jack Kennedy, “there was a kind of haphazard sense,” Mr. Dunne told Ms. Stein. “It was just one of those things that could happen to anyone. The thing about Bobby’s death,” he said, “was there was a pattern. There was something wrong.” He added, “It was the final unraveling of a very dark tapestry.”

“It was, in some ways, a very radicalizing experience for me,” Ms. Didion told Ms. Stein. These tourists from the mainland, she realized, enjoying their Hawaiian vacation as if nothing had happened, were not going to have any part of a national tragedy — even as, on the hotel’s television, Robert Kennedy’s casket was transported by rail to Washington and along the tracks nearly two million people lined up to pay their respects. To Ms. Didion, the contrast between these scenes and the Royal Hawaiian’s conspicuously deserted veranda felt appalling. With Kennedy’s assassination, she said, “it was as if all the disturbances of the whole past couple of years came to a head that night. And here was a whole part of America that wasn’t having it.” As she and Mr. Dunne watched the news coverage, she told Ms. Stein, “it was like something snapping.”

In the past, moments of national trauma provided an opportunity for unity and cohesion. But Ms. Didion found herself confronted with a fractured version of America that’s not too different from the one we’ve come to recognize today. Millions of people are dead from the Covid pandemic. Thousands take to the streets in protest while thousands more gather in the national capital to storm the seat of government. We are at a continual deficit of unity or cohesion. And in the wake of each new cataclysm, we’ve found ourselves farther apart.

“No matter what your political feelings are, if you’re attached to the idea of the nation as a community — if you feel yourself to be part of that community — then obviously something has happened to that community,” Ms. Didion told Ms. Stein. “It seemed as if these people did not count themselves as part of the community. That they came from another America.” They could heckle a praying singer. They could watch “The Lawrence Welk Show” but ignore a political assassination. The same economic system that put these specific Americans in the position to take this vacation — the white-collar stability, the inequality sustaining it — was what allowed them, now, to turn their backs. They didn’t really care about any of it; the broader narrative of patriotism and pride was just an excuse for doing what they wanted — for their self-interest — a narrative they could apply and discard from one situation to the next as they saw fit.

The implications weighed heavily on Ms. Didion: How could this country continue to exist if the people who’d gained the most from it refused to contribute? How long until the dark pattern she and Mr. Dunne saw in Kennedy’s murder reached its natural conclusion? It’s a sense of catastrophe — of that rough beast in the distance slouching closer — that, to many current Americans, feels strikingly familiar.

Watching all of this made her feel the same way she felt during a Hawaii visit a year earlier, when she was rereading George Orwell on the beach: sick. “I’d order a sandwich from room service and couldn’t eat it,” she told Ms. Stein, “and I’d sit there, and I’d have to go in the bathroom and throw up. And this was very much like that in some way.” On June 8, 1968, sitting with her husband on the abandoned veranda, she was likely experiencing the “attack of vertigo and nausea” she referred to in “The White Album.”

“The startling fact was this,” she wrote at the essay’s conclusion. “My body was offering a precise physiological equivalent to what had been going on in my mind.”

“The White Album” was stitched together at different moments over a decade: parts were taken verbatim from her 1967 and ’68 “Points West” columns; other passages, including the brief mention of Kennedy’s funeral, were composed from the vantage point of the 1970s. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she wrote — and, later in the essay, “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it,” recounting “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling.”

While firmly rooted in the turmoil of the ’60s, “The White Album” clarifies something essential to our current experience: what it’s like to navigate our fractured cultural landscape when it can feel so difficult to talk to one another, because we lack the sense of a shared reality on which such a conversation depends. That sense of “the final unraveling,” as Mr. Dunne described it, often feels as though it’s underway.

For Ms. Didion, there was no overarching narrative we could rely on either to magically put things back together or to predict how it all might fall apart. “Writing has not yet helped me to see what it means,” she wrote in the essay’s final line.

In such a light, an attack of vertigo and nausea doesn’t seem an inappropriate response to the 1960s — or the 2020s. This is a country that’s continually breaking apart. But there’s solace in that realization, too. As long as America exists, we’ll be telling ourselves stories in order to live. And we’ll also be doubting the stories we tell ourselves and feeling as if we’ve mislaid the script.