Meeting Joan Didion in San Francisco right after 9/11: One grad student’s tale
How do you go from humble grad school student to being on stage with one of America’s literary icons, all in a matter of daysâ€”especially when those days are ones following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001? This is exactly what happened to one San Franciscan, who met his intellectual idol, Joan Didion, who was speaking atÂ City Arts and LecturesÂ soon after the towers fell.
Our storyteller, Judson True, was a journalism grad student at the time. After a series of nerve-wrecking events, he ended up interviewing Didion on stage at the Herbst Theater. For this podcast episode, he unearthed an ancient email thread from his Yahoo inbox, taking us back to how he got plucked from his classroom and placed onstage with his favorite writer.
Having moved from the midwest to San Francisco, Judson says that “everyone has their own San Francisco. Thatâ€™s one of the great things about a real city.” Meeting Didion that day marked a significant moment in his time here that defined what San Francisco was, and is, to him.
You might remember Judson from one of our early Muni Diaries Live shows, which took place right after he left his post as the SFMTA spokesperson (perhaps one of the most stressful city jobs ever?). He’s currently the chief of staff for California State Assemblyman David Chiu.
This story is an installment of San Francisco Diaries, our spinoff series, which just celebrated its first birthday! Thanks to your support on Patreon, we’ve been able to record lots of new stories in our podcast studio. If you like these stories and can spare your coffee money for a day or two, we’d appreciate your help. You can find us at Patreon.com/munidiaries.
Know someone with a great story about San Francisco? We are all earsâ€”submit your own story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by @goincase
=== Transcript ===
I found out about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, from my wonderful but soon to be ex-girlfriend who had just moved to Taiwan on a Fulbright. She lived in the future, so she saw the attacks on TV while I was sleeping. She called and told me what was happening and I turned on the news in my rented San Francisco apartment. I spent those devastating hours in shock with the rest of the world.
Just before 9/11, I had started a graduate program in journalism at UC Berkeley.
At some point early on the afternoon of that day it became clear that I wouldnâ€™t be driving or taking BART over to Berkeley for class. In my recollection the Bay Bridge and BART were shut down as a precaution against further terrorist attacks.
My J-School teacher told me to find a San Francisco story to cover. There was an afternoon gathering, a memorial for the then-unknown number of dead, at Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. I went with my mp3 recorder and listened to the reverend comfort all of us. If there was an explicitly religious message, I donâ€™t remember it. I remember being moved to tears when he quoted Samuel Beckett – â€œI canâ€™t go on. Iâ€™ll go on.â€
But the unexpected impact of 9/11 on my life was a little more than week away.
On September 18, I got an email from Mitch, a new friend of mine. Mitch worked as a program assistant at City Arts & Lectures, the San Francisco institution that hosted on-stage conversations with amazing writers and then broadcast them on public radio. Iâ€™d been to a few their events.
Luckily I have the email exchange with Mitch – I found them in my inactive but still functioning Yahoo mail account, which I abandoned for gmail sometime in the mid-aughts like everyone else.
September 18, 2001
We have a potential Joan Didion ‘situation’ that I wanted to check in with you about. It seems that Scott Shafer has a NPR TV gig that night, and he’ll probably be a bit late to the theatre. It sounds like he’ll make it in time, but in case we decide not to run the risk of his being late, I’m wondering if you’d be interested in being on standby to do the interview.
I thought I remembered you saying that you’re a big Joan Didion fan and that you’ve read most of her stuff. That’s an obvious criteria. Beyond that, we’re looking for someone who is ‘gentle’ (Sydney’s word) and would give Joan space to talk, without challenging her.
I’ll let you know how this plays out. As of now, Scott will do the interview. But it seems wise to have a backup.
Talk to you soon,
It didnâ€™t take me long to respond:
I’m in the middle of a class and I’m supposed to be listening to the teacher but I wanted to get back to you right away. I’m honored to be considered for backup status for Didion.
I am a huge fan, and I’ve been reading up on her in hopes of an interview for j-school (I have 4 library books of interviews and criticisms that are overdue). I have read almost all of her stuff, including the new book. I think her take on the terrorist attacks and US foreign policy will be particularly apt.
As to my gentleness, I understand a bit about her personality from watching the 3 hours she spent on c-span last year (I have the videotape). She brilliant but idiosyncratic.
I’ll be done with class just after 3pm so I’ll give you a call then.
Good luck with the “situation.” Scott is certainly a great interviewer.
Mitch got more specific in his next email:
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I’ve talked to Sydney about
our game plan, and our ideal situation would have you hanging around
backstage, beginning at about 7:50. At the very least, you’d get to chat
with Joan in a pretty relaxed setting. And if Scott doesn’t show up by
8:10, we’d send you out there. You shouldn’t bother to prepare anything,
since Scott assures us that he’ll come through, but if it’s not too much
trouble, we’d like to have you there just in case. Hope that’s not too
vague. Call us when you can, and I’ll go into more detail.
All these years later I still feel the excitement of this email exchange – I get to meet Joan Didion! And maybe, just maybe, interview her! The event was September 20, just two days away.
For me Didion was simply one of the best writers Iâ€™d read. Her first two books of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, told stories of the unraveling of America in the 60s and 70s through Didionâ€™s singular sensibility, which somehow managed to be both intimate and distant. She wrote about the desperate kids living on Haight Street with compassion and horror. She wrote about Nancy Reagan, then the first lady of California, picking flowers for a TV reporter, and somehow we understood how fake the Reagans – and most TV news – were.
Now I would get to meet her because Scott Shafer, who remains a respected KQED journalist, had to do a public television special about 9/11.
But I had very little expectation that I would do the interview in two days. I quickly learned that Sydney Goldstein does not like uncertainty.
Sydney founded City Arts & Lectures in 1980 after false starts on a number of jobs ranging from flight attendant to bartender. Before she stepped away from day to day responsibilities in 2017, she was the driving force behind the groundbreaking series that adds so much to the cultural life of San Francisco. Before City Arts, such public interview programs were much less common than they are today.
I am lucky to have gotten to know Sydney – and to count her as a friend – over the years. She doesnâ€™t suffer fools, and Iâ€™m glad that she doesnâ€™t seem to think that I am one. Sheâ€™s one of the smartest people Iâ€™ve met. And she and another friend both recommended that I go to the same jeweler when I decided to have an engagement ring made for the woman who is now my wife. So I really owe Sydney.
But back in 2001, as Sydney thought through the idea of having a backup interviewer in case Scott Shafer was late, she got increasingly uncomfortable with it. It didnâ€™t seem like a great plan. She didnâ€™t want to do that to her audience. Some time after Mitch and I exchanged emails, she made the call. I was in
Iâ€™m still not sure why she trusted me to do the interview. Especially after the lunch we had the day before it happened.
I met her and Mitch at Hayes Street Grill. I hadnâ€™t shaved and I was dressed sloppily. Full of nervous energy, I spoke a mile a minute about all my ideas and thoughts about Joan Didion. Mitch and Sydney were scared. Maybe Joan should just do a readingâ€¦.
But I must have pulled it together just enough for them to give me a chance. They didnâ€™t fire me. I skipped classes and read and read and read and re-watched Didion on C-Span. Scott Shafer kindly shared the questions heâ€™d prepared, which were a terrific starting point.
I met Joan Didion briefly before the interview. She was so small and thin, I felt her spine when we exchanged a polite hug. She was really nice, if not effusive.
Then I was backstage at the stunningly elegant Herbst Theater in the War Memorial Building across from City Hall. I was looking at the room, the very stage, where the UN Charter was signed in 1945. Almost 1000 people in the audience, including a bunch of my friends. I was about to interview one of my intellectual idols.
I was nervous until right before I walked onstage, and then a calmness took over.
I have a burned CD of the interview and listened to it recently for the first time in years. I asked her questions slowly and softly – probably too softly – as I tried to match her demeanor.
We started off talking about 9/11. She was in her kitchen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when she heard about the attacks. No one knew what was happening. It was so close.
I asked her to read a passage from an essay called Goodbye to All That. Itâ€™s about her leaving New York for California in 1967 (though of course she would later return).
I made Joan Didion cry. I donâ€™t know if this was an accomplishment or a transgression. Maybe both.
The rest of the interview flew by. We talked about her political reporting, her novels, and her next book which would be about the idea of California. The audience asked some questions and it was over.
Sydney and Mitch said nice things. I went out to the lobby to see my friends. I was still full of adrenaline. I loved doing it.
I did a bad job of staying in touch with Joan Didion, though I did get to have dinner with her and others some years later when she made another appearance at City Arts.
Since 2001 Iâ€™ve done 1-2 interviews a year for City Arts, and also Iâ€™ve had the opportunity to do them for the Jewish Community Center. I got to interview Gene Wilder, Maureen Dowd, and Viet Thanh Nguyen who won the Pulitzer for his amazing novel The Sympathizer. I am always really happy when I get asked to do one – it means I have a new intellectual challenge.
I grew up in a Midwestern suburb. I was bored. I read a lot. I needed to live somewhere else.
Everyone has their own San Francisco. Thatâ€™s one of the great things about a real city. We experience a city differently based on our own interests and circumstances. Of course, San Francisco is not a cultural wonderland for everyone who lives here. Hardly. In my day job for the last 15 years in local and state government, Iâ€™ve tried to help make the city better for everyone.
But I need to think about something other than policy and politics. That first interview with Joan Didion after 9/11 helped me live a fuller life in the city I love.